The Promise of a New Season

Election Season 2015, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo

Election season. Female voices drift in through my morning windows, from loudspeakers attached to vans, crawling the city night and day, gently imploring its citizens to lend their votes. Sometimes not so subtly: in Kanda, they’ve been frantic, competing voices trying to match or raise each other’s intensity.

I can’t understand what they’re saying, but it sounds desperate: “Please! Please choose me! I’ll do a good job! I swear! I’ll keep all my promises! I’ll do my best! Listen to me! Pick me!”

And the neighborhood scorecards fill up with faces, though I don’t know if they’re winners or just candidates.

*       *       *

Much of Japan remains a mystery to me. At times I feel possessive, territorial, hissing and arching my back at the gaijin tourists in Shibuya. “What are you doing here?” I wonder, eyes narrowed. “Go home. This is my place.”

But I feel equally ever the outsider, socially isolated, searching in vain for my tribe, longing for a place called “home” that I know I’ll never return to. I’ve spent too much time sitting in bed, eyes fixed on the screen in my lap.

*       *       *

Friends and visitors come from the States, and they marvel at this city, ask unanswerable questions for a malcontent navel-gazer like me. I try to understand my adoptive home, but it often feels impenetrable, and I’m still wary of diving in completely, not yet certain I want drink the Kool-Aid.

Tokyo, as Seen from the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, April 2015

The best explanation I can offer is that for everything that’s true of Tokyo, its opposite is also true. People are charmingly polite and will go out of their way to help, and you might be refused service flat-out for being a foreigner. Someone on the train will move over seats without hesitation, wordlessly, so you and your friend can sit together, and someone else will push past you, damned if they’re going to miss their train to work.

The food is healthy and light and fresh, and it is more fried meat and greasy noodles than you could ever imagine. School girls titter like little birds, hands cupped to their mouths, and they lug lacrosse bags slung over tanned, toned arms. People are very friendly and welcoming, and you will feel that you can never belong. People are shy and reserved, and strangers will introduce themselves to you, ask you where you’re from, tell you their stories.

Nobody speaks English, but also everybody speaks English. People visit temples and shrines daily, and they frequent girls bars and love hotels. Highways weave in and out of skyscrapers, every inch of your vision filled with signs and shops and throngs of people, more than a million passing through Shinjuku station each day, and on weekend nights the streets are slick with vomit, teeming with boisterous drunkards, over-served salary men teetering precariously on the subway platforms.

Tokyo Dome City, April 2015

And yet, I have never lived anywhere so clean and quiet and safe, with parks in every single neighborhood where old men gather to talk and women bring their children to laugh and play in the sunshine. Business people take mid-day strolls, stretching and doing calisthenics in their uniform suits. Kind citizens feed stray cats. Strangers exchange smiles and nods.

*       *       *

And now the elections. Candidates cruising for constituents, barking promises through megaphones, up and down residential streets for weeks. Equal parts foreign and familiar, for me. This morning the amplified voice is serene, a woman’s voice, in a language I still don’t understand. She calls to me, in bed my bed, I wake, clear morning sunlight kissing my legs. An invitation, welcoming me back to the world, enticing me to join.

“Come outside,” she seems to say. “Come out and be a part of this.”

Trees in Bloom, Nagano, April 2015

Today, I believe all the promises.