September 23rd, 2006


Nobody else knows how to do anything

Land of the rising fun is a travel article in The Guardian this morning in which writer Ben Anderson raves about his first visit to Tokyo. He's impressed by the city's chic fashion stores, luxurious hotels and delicious restaurants. But, more than that, he likes its relative equality, and its sheer good nature:

"Most of Tokyo looks like the posh part of any other city. I didn't see an area that looked like it needed a good clean, let alone a slum, which is some achievement for one of the most populated cities on the planet... I experienced so much goodwill in Japan I'm sure it was genuine. Porters refused tips and a taxi driver turned the meter off when roadworks slowed us down."

To a London resident, these are indeed shocking things to discover. And, being British, Ben doesn't take long to turn his enthusiasm about Tokyo into reproaches against his motherland: "I came to see Tokyo in the same way as I saw the b Akasaka: a huge playground of such bright ideas and fantastic design that I barely noticed how cramped it could be. I was too busy being amazed and thinking "why haven't we got these? Why haven't we thought of this?!"

"The trip made such an impression on me," Ben concludes, "that I've developed a prejudice in favour of anything that comes from Japan. I've even had the urge to go up to Japanese people on the streets of London and say, "I know, I've been there. No one else knows how to do anything."

I must say that this was exactly my feeling after my first couple of trips to Tokyo. I could no longer stand London's brown buildings and grey sky, its hostile, arrogant, competitive, snottily class-obsessed citizens.

It's interesting, though, to wonder whether approval of one country has to be disapproval of another. And which other? It seemed natural for me to compare Tokyo to London, since I've spent more time in London than any other city (13 years, in total). If not London, the obvious comparison for me is New York. I rarely compare Tokyo with Paris, though. And actually, I'm not quite sure I could bring a clear winner out of the comparison. It's apples and oranges. One doesn't stand as a living reproach to the other; they both do what they do.

What about people? Do we implicitly deride "ordinary" people when we approve of, for instance, the eccentrics featured in street fashion magazines like Street, FRUiTS and Tune? (Photos here show some of the latest pages in all three of these magazines.)

I think there is an element of that going on, even if it's only a self-reproach directed against our own lack of daring. If these magazines are utopian, representing a world of peer-endorsed individuality ("I don't know what it means to you," the snapped snappy dressers seem to say, "but the other stall-holders at Camden Market seem to understand where I'm coming from"), they're also satirical. They mock the dull, if only by unspoken extension. But which dull? Certainly not the homeless, because several bums and down-and-outs feature in these shots. And not the old, either, because there are some oldies here too (I'm one!). People who buy clothes at The Gap? Office workers? The readers of more authoritarian, blingy, top-down, mainstream fashion mags?

Like Ben Anderson, I'm inclined, flipping through Street, to ask "Why don't we have this?" Why do I have to look at a Japanese magazine to see how the most interesting-looking people in London are dressing? Then, of course, I remember that Shoichi Aoki's template for these three magazines is a British one: Terry Jones's original idea for i-D magazine, based on the punk grassroots, DIY ethic, another London invention.

And I suppose that's why we choose certain cities, and not others, to be specifically reproached by the cities we love. It's as if we're saying: "Look, London, you claim to have invented this, so how come Tokyo does it better now? You're looking bad by your own standards."