August 13th, 2009


The Paris of our dreams

VenusFort is a synthetic European city laid out inside a warehouse in Odaiba -- itself an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. "Inside the enclosed building," boasts the theme park-cum-shopping mall's blurb, "the 17th-18th century European-style streets come to life. The open ceiling manifests the ever-changing sky from the clear blue sky to the evening sunset, and to the darkness of night. There are about 170 shops and restaurants lining the streets, just like true European street scenery. It is unbelievable that the whole scene has been reproduced inside a building."

Unbelievable indeed. A spectre haunts Tokyo -- the spectre of Europe, and particularly Paris. The Japanese capital boasts chef schools, boulangerie-style bakeries, pavement cafes with white-shirted, black-apronned waiters, French luxury goods stores on Champs-Elysees-like avenue Omote Sando, and even its own reproduction of the Tour Eiffel.

You'll see similar visions in the animations of Japan's most popular film director, Hayao Miyazaki. Here's Helen McCarthy on his early film, The Castle of Cagliostro: "The story takes place in the never-never land that is the Japanese dream of Europe, a rustic paradise of crumbling yet infinitely sophisticated cities and castles; ancient titles and even older secrets; lakes, mountains, and high flower-strewn meadows; and mystery and romance. There is a Japanese phrase that sums up this yearning for the beautiful, mysterious fantasy otherwhere -- akogare no Paris, the Paris of our dreams."

According to Dani Cavallaro, the anime Rose of Versallies "exemplifies an attraction to old Europe, steadily evinced by both anime and manga, as a synthesis of majestic yugen [subtle, profound grace] and unpretentious sabi. This fascination is related to what the Japanese designate as akogare no Paris ("the Paris of our dreams") -- namely, a speculative version of that world envisioned through Eastern eyes, akin to the West's imaginary configurations of the East founded upon the figment of the exotic."

This, then, is a sort of romantic projection, a reverse orientalism -- "occidentalism", if you will. Being exoticised in this way helps the French -- Paris is the number one European destination for Japanese tourists, with 700,000 visits every year. But it makes the Japanese suffer; Paris Syndrome is the name not just for a very particular form of culture shock, but for a nervous disorder that -- as Libération reported in 2004 -- sees over a hundred Japanese hospitalised each year. There's even a special unit for it at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris, with a Japanese doctor -- Dr Ota, the inventor of the term -- in charge.

A couple of video reports on French TV give us glimpses into why Japanese in Paris fall sick. In the first, a trainee with Hermes called Akiko says: "My first visits to Europe were to little German villages where everything was very pretty and picturesque. When I came to Paris first it was with a group tour, and we stayed in a hotel at Place Clichy, the working class district. It wasn't what I'd dreamed of."

"Administrative queues take forever and you have to start all over again. The quality of service is not what we'd expect in Japan. Standing up in front of people and giving your opinion is difficult for us Japanese. We're used to holding back, staying in the background, listening to others. But if we are able to change this behaviour and be more forthright, here in France nobody listens to us." The sarcastic French sense of humour also proved difficult.

"When you see articles about Paris in magazines elsewhere in the world, you see nice districts, restaurants and boutiques. But when you see those articles after having lived here, you ask yourself "Where are these places?" It doesn't correspond with reality. It's a constructed image."

In the second video report a writer called Kenzo explains how, after a few months in Paris, he developed depression and a psychosomatic back problem which stopped him leaving the house.

His disillusionment began, Kenzo says, with cafe waiters. "In Japan, even if they're busy, they'll say, sorry, please wait a bit, i'll be over. Here, they don't give a fuck. They pretend not to see you. It's not the waiting I mind, it's this reaction, when you're not used to it, that can be a bit humiliating. If you're a bit paranoid, you think "It's me, isn't it?" Or queuing for a taxi here, it's a queue, but it isn't a queue. If someone at the back of the queue sees a taxi passing, he runs after it, and the others shout "What's he doing, that bastard!"

"It can destabilize you, that sort of thing. For Japanese it's shocking, shocking, incredible. In Japan, the taxi driver would categorically refuse to take such a person. We're used to order." Soon Kenzo was walking with a stick, and cut all social contacts, especially with French people.

Could it be that Kenzo was a victim, not of French rudeness, but of the unrealistic expectations whipped up by the spectral Paris conjured by Tokyo? A victim not of Paris, but of "our dreams"?