The Floating World

The language of Brotherly Love in the heart of Japan.

By G.W. Miller III
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 13, 2008

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Turning Japanese: The King may be from Memphis, but he's found a new national identity in Eastern Asia. (photograph by G.W. Miller III)

The lanky teenager struts past the stalls of cheap kimonos, screeching toys, rice-paper lanterns and plastic geisha wigs on Nakamise Street in Tokyo. His hair is purposely tussled. His expression reveals none of the joy you'd expect from someone sporting a T-shirt that reads, "I GOT JIGGY WITH IT."

The letters are bold and black, set against the white tee, looking like something from an old Wham! video.

I see this kid again and again over the next hour: praying in front of the vermilion shrine, stoically posing for pictures near the five-story pagoda, basking in the smoke from the giant incense burner that's supposed to ward off illness, and walking past the souvenir stalls again.

It's like he's mocking me, an apparition in modern, Philly-centric clothes, here in the Asakusa neighborhood, the historic heart of old Tokyo.

He's subtly telling me that everything I thought I knew about Japan is wrong: This is not the land of conformity and homogeneity, a world stubbornly set in its ways.

It's a land of contradiction.

Japan suffered from devastating civil wars during the 16th century with warlords battling constantly for land and power. One warrior, Ieyasu Tokugawa, finally subdued his rivals, and at the dawn of the 17th century Japan was at peace.

With the violence over, the country began to flourish.

People streamed into Tokyo, the nation's center of commerce. Money flowed into the city and the middle class was born.

To entertain the residents, kabuki theaters and sumo arenas opened, mostly here in the Asakusa district. Bawdy geisha houses roared with laughter and excitement. Samurai warriors painted pictures and wrote poems rather than slay enemies.

The city experienced more than 250 years of relative peace and prosperity and the arts and culture that grew out of that era was given a name: the floating world. It represents the surreal nature of existence, the ebullience of that enchanted era.

It seemed appropriate to use that name for the column I write for PW. Philadelphia is trying to end years of futile violence, and we have a burgeoning sense of civic pride that could be realized if only we eliminate our penchant for gratuitous crime.

Asakusa teems with people despite the 90-degree weather and stifling humidity that makes you feel like you're swimming in tepid water.

I look for traces of the old days, the archaic noodle houses and rustic sake shops where working-class stiffs drank away their nights 200 years ago. But all that was completely destroyed during American bombing in 1945.

The shrine that now stands is a sanitized exact replica of the one built 350 years ago. The neighborhood surrounding it is modern, and most buildings are austere concrete.

"If you came to Tokyo for the ancient stuff, you came to the wrong town," says Matt Hein, a 29-year old communications student at Temple University's Tokyo campus.

This city constantly reinvents itself, razing inefficient structures to erect high-rise towers and adding landfill to swampy areas in order to further expand.

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