March 6th, 2009


A secret Japanese Person's Guide to Berlin... and the British

Tabi means "traveling" in Japan. It's also the name of an interesting lifestyle magazine. Last week, returning by train from Holland to Berlin, I stopped off in Dusseldorf and ransacked the Japanese district near the station for bottles of cold green tea and magazines, stuff we can't get in Berlin because there isn't a community of Japanese office workers here. I bought a copy of Tabi, which happened to be a Berlin special. And so, for much of the five hour journey from Dusseldorf to Berlin, I leafed through dozens of pages packed with what I recognised to be the best information about the best-kept Berlin secrets -- tips, addresses, shops, markets, galleries. As usual, the information the Japanese had assembled was far better than anything anyone else -- including local foreign-language magazines like Ex-Berliner -- had even come close to. The photography was beautiful, the maps and addresses painstakingly assembled, and the sensibility irreproachable; the city was portrayed in soft autumnal colours, with a focus on the kind of ostalgie goods with their wabi sabi patina that most excited me when I first arrived here and had a big empty apartment to fill. It made me feel excited about getting home, and it made me feel that Berlin really is the best place I could be living, outside of Japan.

Japanese guides to foreign places, written exclusively and almost secretly for other Japanese people, are fascinating. Not only because they're so excellently researched and presented, with such a good grasp of esoteric consumer information. For every magazine stocked with shopping tips there's a book filled with cultural warnings and sweeping judgments. We happened to mention Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner yesterday, but did you know that Ridley Scott employed a Japanese housekeeper in the 80s called Keiko Takao, who wrote a funny but trenchant book about life in London between 1970 and 1990 which became a best-seller in Japan? For many young Japanese bound for the capital Takao's essays remain essential texts to this day -- a Secret Japanese Person's Guide to the British. Needless to say, the book has never been translated into English.

Takao's first impressions, on arriving in London in 1972, were that London was amazingly old-fashioned and poor. The city was full of working class people signing on the dole and playing music. These people (I was one myself in London for several years!) were full of contempt for City workers and the army. However, they talked in a more intelligent and polite way than British people do today. Takao blames Margaret Thatcher for making British people more American, and reducing levels of intelligence and decency amongst ordinary working people.

Takao notes that London's technology was poor, in the early 1970s, because of low levels of education amongst the population. For instance, she decribes how London Underground installed new ticket machines in tube stations, only to remove them again after three days because the public were so foxed by the new machines that they took ages to buy a ticket, and queues grew longer and longer. Even when simpler machines were installed, they broke frequently.

But, according to Takao, the British don't mind queuing. This is partly because they're idle, compared with other Europeans. But it's also a sort of philosophy the British have evolved, a weary philosophy of patience, a sense of the inevitability of disappointment. "There's more pleasure in looking forward to things than getting them," one British person once told Takao (in a queue, naturally). She concluded that the British have a philosophy of life, and the philosophy is resignation.

The British, say Takao, speak gently towards foreigners, but their outlook is quite arrogant. They'll employ sophistry rather than admit mistakes (guilty as charged!) and don't want to learn from others; that seems humiliating to them.

Googling Keiko Takao, I found this blog written in English by a Japanese person who'd discovered her book. "I found a book about Britain in my flat's bookshell. There are some Japanese books which was left by someone who used to live here. The book was written by Keiko Takao who's lived in London for more than 30 years. This is the truth of Britain and British people. I love it! I want to read some other her books as well!"

At this point the description takes a Morrissey-esque turn: "I found that Japan will accept immigrants from 2015 in this it true?? I completely disagree with it! If Japan would do this, Beautiful Japanese culture would be lost... I see the tragety of UK. They accepted many immigrants in 80S then they lost their landscape as the result. A lot of black people are living in my place. I don't believe this is London maybe Jamaica or something. Many places had been occupied by black people and Muslim. I can't find original UK here now...this is awful!! I swear Japan is the most beautiful country in all over the world. We must keep our cultures even though population is reducing."

Now, I clearly disagree with this person; black and Muslim people were about the only thing that redeemed life in London, for me. (Reader, I married one.) What's more, I don't think this is the opinion of most Japanese people in London, either -- why, otherwise, would they tend to live so frequently in black and Muslim areas like Whitechapel and Hackney? But I can't deny that the Morrissey element in this critique -- the idea that a culture's specificity is diluted by immigrants, and that Japan should regard Britain as a cautionary tale -- is quite widespread in Japan, and part of what gives the nation such a unique flavour. This is an irreducible conundrum for me, and I can only answer it by saying that true diversity requires that there be some nations which are not internally diverse, as well as some which are.

In another essay, Takao looks at life in Southwark. Without sentimentality, she describes the situation as "terrible": in real life, rather than politically correct advertising images, she says the white and black working class people on estates avoid each other. White people living far from black people, on the other hand, are quick to declare (hypocritically) that segregation is evil.

The final piece of kiss-and-tell in Keiko Takao's book involves a visit to Ridley Scott's ancient mother, an antediluvian Victorian lady who still believes the British Empire rules the seven seas. Old Mrs Scott is a rich bourgeois who has never known working class people, and insists there are no poor white people, only poor immigrants. Keiko adds that the old lady is "innocent, lovely and interesting". The Scott family's reaction to the book is unknown.