My first time was in 1999. Japan was in its heyday, blazing from its success of exports and the poster child for all things booming post-war. It was the go-to third language to master because this was the market to cater to, the tourist dollar that we hankered after.
My first glimpse of the famous Shibuya crossing was everything that a eleven year old hoped it would be. So. Many. People. Zipping across like a million ants scurrying about in their nest. And all with purpose, with some destination they all just had to hurry to. It felt like I was bearing witness to the Big Picture, a greater ecosystem that my young self was not quite ready to enter into yet. My dad still recalls fondly how my brother (then five years old), tugged eagerly at his sleeve while gesturing excitedly out the windows of our hotel room at the “Giant TVs!” It was a blitz of lights, products, and buzz. It didn’t matter that none of us could actually read the strokes and scratches that the Japanese language looked to the undiscerning foreign eye. Here we were, in the thick of things – the excitement was palpable.
Fast forward 15 years later, and there I was back in Tokyo, looking at the same famed crossing with older eyes. Tokyo was by now, a slowed giant, but by no means weak. People still hustled and bustled. Things still worked perfectly. Things looked old but there was still a newness to everything. It was a strange dichotomy. So much had changed, but yet many of the same buildings looked exactly like how they were. This was something the Japanese did well. When something broke, they always found a way to fix things instead of throwing it out for something new. You would see the cracks that came with age, but there was a pride in the way something old or broken was carefully put back together, or reinforced to make stronger. A Japanese-American lawyer recounted to me the days that followed after the 2016 Fukushima disaster (during yet another visit to Tokyo in 2018). While the Americans scrambled desperately to book flights out (when they weren’t swarming the embassy daily for Iodine pills), the Japanese simply carried on, as they were. Life just simply doesn’t stop until it does…
In many ways, this city embodies good, healthy, qualities which would do us humans all some good. Punctuality – nowhere else in the world does a train arrive precisely at 10.32am on the dot; Pride in everything – no task is too small to be done with purpose and self-respect; Perfection in all details – every craft, every act of service; everything has been honed and perfected to the minutiae.