Upstream Colors

In Japan I wished I was 19 instead of 19 + 10. At 19 I would've carved down the streets of Tokyo with a thin volume of Hitomi Kanehara's Snakes and Earrings in my pocket, Shiina Ringo would be singing in my head, and Osaka's Denny's my destination (this was a favorite hangout spot of my favorite band, L'Arc-en-Ciel). Instead, at age 29 I'm happy bumming along with my parents on the JR Train, running from one tour spot to another, not connecting any dots other than this place must have been ripened for so much weird art only because the rest of it is so perfect. Our Airbnb hosts gave perfect 20-paged instructions on way-finding, unlocking the door, using the washing machine, taking out the garbage. We never saw any of them and have a feeling that the perfunctory handshaking, key-handing, face checking your guests to make sure they aren't serial killers or orgy organizers just didn't exist in this country. Instead, an invisible hand of order pushes things in a web of efficacy. Everything seems designed to perfection in Japan. My morning jog saw houses, rivers, parks, temples, and towers, all in the quiet cacophony of Tokyo. A walk in Shizuoka with dad saw kids walking with plastic bags of recycling, kindergartens with bright colors in one corner, and after rows of uniquely designed houses, a cemetery sits quietly and with dignity. Life, death, and recycling in one neighborhood. Beautiful crows included. It's exactly like all those Japanese RPG games.

Yet beneath the surface of perfection and order, a touch of rebellion stirs in myself. At all the temple sites of Kyoto were signs of "touring route this way," and the tourist is guided into a sightseeing route that offers both the best experience and maintains order of the crowds. The offending tourist who ventures upstream is admonished by the site guardians, whose other job includes sweeping any rocks disturbed to the paths back to the bed of rocks. The loud, uncouth, social Chinese tourists must be a nightmare for the Japanese, but even the American in me wanted to go the other way just for the hell of it.

Suddenly I understood the conditions that breed all the weird people in Japan. At the end of a full day of bowing and "hai"s and "domo arigatou arimasu"s I too was ready for beers after work or submerge myself in a subculture that let me live a little harder. Suddenly I missed the uncouth and unruly that was China.

No culture is perfect. Between the pros, cons, and in between are very real heritages shaped by time. There was something so serene and tough spirited about Japan that it made me exasperated that such a place isn't "succeeding" right now, but what is success, really? If it's long life and health, they've got it. If it's beautiful design, they've got it. If it's order and efficiency, absolutely. If it's dynamic leaders and innovation, difficult to say.

Living China, and having a father as an intellectual has inevitably meant many conversations about government, culture, and systems, and moreover, what is the "perfect system." As Ken said, sometimes the thinking gets too macro, and it might be better to simply live for the immediate. So I'm becoming that "irksome brand of American liberalism: an activist mindset that contemplates, criticizes and mourns but does little to alter the conditions that permit both apathy and atrocity."