Archive for November, 1999

Tokyo Diary

Monday, November 8th, 1999

Nov o8, 1999

Blade Runner City

TOKYO’s an overpowering city for the first-time visitor. As our Kodama Bullet Train zoomed into a twilit Tokyo, a friend sitting next to me said: “This is straight out of Blade Runner!” Massive buildings towered over us in a melee of every modern (and post-modern too, possibly) architectural style known to man, the world’s largest neon billboards winked and simpered, a gazillion cars choked the roads, crowds rushed in every which direction, each person in his invisible teflon cocoon (even non-Tokyoite Japanese regard the city with suspicion mixed with awe). “Yeah, Blade Runner without the rain,” I said. But as we walked out of the station, a drizzle began. With wet sidewalks reflecting the neon lights and darkness gathering, Tokyo ’99 became Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles 2021. At that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if I saw tiny police aircraft hovering, or bumped into blade runner Harrison Ford or replicant Rutger Hauer in their trenchcoats. Did Scott have Tokyo in mind when he made the film? I don’t know, but his next film, Black Rain, was set in this city.

Hi And Low

AS I was saying, the rituals of Japanese social interaction. The simplest example is the word Hi (pronounced like the Hi we use in greeting), roughly the equivalent of “Haan ji” in Hindi, an indication to the speaker that you’re listening to him. You can figure out the relationship between any two Japanese by the way they say “Hi”. When it’s a subordinate speaking to a superior, the ‘Hi’ comes out fast and breathless, denoting total servility. The ‘Hi’ that comes from the other side is matter-of-fact, even gruff.

Similarly, all salesgirls are supposed to speak in a singsong tone. On trains, when the girl selling soft drinks and snacks enters a compartment, she bows to the people inside and then starts her round. Before she leaves the compartment, she bows again. In between she is a cheerful robot, every movement, every lilting word a result of precise training. Her smile is charming. The fact that it does not ever quiver even by a micron is, however, scary.

Shanghai Surprise

ON the way to Tokyo, in the middle of the night, I looked out of the plane window and saw an astonishing city. A splendid megalopolis, it stretched as far as eye could see, avenue after avenue lit up bright, skyscrapers jostling for space, huge public spaces, stadium after enormous stadium, a majestic and breathtaking sight. I woke up the others, and we watched stunned as Shanghai slid beneath us and finally faded from view.

The Indian microwave oven market is roughly 20,000 a year. In China, it’s a million. About a million mobile phones have been sold in India till date. The Chinese buy these many every month.


IN an obsessively electronic environment, the most hi-tech things in Japan are luxury hotel toilets. In my Tokyo hotel, after you have done your deed, you press a button on an electronic panel by the commode, and a jet of water, whose pressure, temperature and direction you can control through other buttons and knobs, cleans your bottom. I was suitably impressed till I reached Osaka. The hotel commode here not only cleaned your bottom, it also offered the lazy defecator a warm gust of air to dry it. Believe me, it’s all very pleasurable.

The Spirit Of Dhaka

IN a restaurant called Furaibo, the waiter’s face is definitely not Japanese. Indian? I ask. No, Bangladeshi. Akm Minhazul Haque, formerly of Dhaka, who goes by the name Edwin in Nippon. He won a three-month trip to Japan in a contest six years ago and has managed to stay on. He’s no longer a waiter, but has been asked to come in today because of the Indian party. His card says Director, Hock Japan Corporation Ltd. What does his company do? Oh, export-import, he says vaguely, and then admits that this is an “all-purpose company, it does anything that a client might want”. Edwin’s Japanese is perfect, which is no mean achievement. But he’s even got the body language absolutely correct. This is very important, since Japanese social interactions are highly ritualistic, every transaction having its elaborate and precise rules that must be followed. Apart from the right words, tone of voice and body language, from the way you stand to your facial expression, play a big role here, especially in interactions like waiter-guest or seller-buyer. Edwin’s got all the nuances down pat, as I could see and as my hosts confirmed. He has no intentions of going back to his country of birth. He wants to be a big businessman in Japan. Being a Bengali myself, a breed notorious for its lack of enterprise and can-do spirit, I left the restaurant an admirer of this young man. May the force be with people like him.

Anything That Swims…

THE Japanese have found some way to eat almost everything they see around them. Even leaves. What is fascinating is that after they’ve gone through some subtle cooking process, the leaves continue to look like leaves but are edible (though I must confess, since I’ve never tried eating leaves before, I cannot say with authority that the leaves tasted different before they were cooked. Maybe leaves do taste well, but it’s only the Japanese who acknowledge it). And as for the seafood… In eight days, in addition to many varieties of fish, I ate shrimp, prawn, eel, clam, lobster, crab, snail, squid, octopus. In a variety of cuisine styles: sushi, tempura, teppanyaki, robotyaki, and other yakis that I can’t recall now. By the eighth day, I was beginning to feel like an aquarium that can belch.
As I worked my way through this marine biology course, consisting of many 12-course dinners (usually, after six courses, as I was folding my napkin, feeling like a beached whale, my hosts would inform me that those were merely the appetisers), I began noticing that for all their eating and drinking, very few Japanese are overweight. This is because like everything else about them, the Japanese have made their food extremely logical and efficient: low-fat, no-oil, high-protein, high fibre content, easily digestible. Also, the Japanese drink along with their food at dinner time and get down to serious guzzling only after dinner, when their stomachs have enough food inside to absorb the alcohol. They’ve got it all worked out.