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Tokyo Dreaming

By       Message Linh Dinh       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink

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Tokyo, 2018
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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We landed in darkness. The last time I was in Narita was 18 years earlier. With a six-hour layover, I inexplicably didn't leave the airport. "Can I possibly die without at least a glimpse of Japan?" I'd ask myself, cringing.

Finally, I was there. My first impressions were the generous legroom on the train to Tokyo, sterile apartment buildings somewhat reminiscent of Singapore, subway cars packed with standing, black-suited salarymen then, at Nippori Station, a commanding middle-aged executive, sheathed in an expensive suit, staggering drunk. Everyone else on the platform stood so straight and rigid, I also noticed, as if contrapposto was banned. In Vietnam, few can stand for more than a few seconds without leaning on something or collapsing into a squat.

My maternal great-grandfather, Ngo Thuc Dinh, was one of the top officials in the pro-Japanese Vietnamese government of World War II, and for this collaboration, he was targeted for assassination by the Communists. Unable to do this, they killed my grandfather instead. This incident didn't just change how my mother was raised, but my emotional makeup.

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As a motherless 12-year-old in Tacoma, Washington, I had a Japanese-American teacher, Miss Dogen, who treated me like a son. If you can read this, I thank you and am truly sorry I never said a proper goodbye. Learning to write, I read Mishima, Kawabata, Akutagawa, Dazai, all suicides, and the Japanese-American David Mura, whose Turning Japanese gave me enduring insights into Japan, America and myself.

My father owned a Japanese restaurant in Santa Clara, CA. Its cooks were Mexicans and Vietnamese, however, with only one Japanese ever employed, right at the beginning, to teach the rest the basics, then he was, ah, fired. Among Kobe's decorations was a Turkish serving plate, bought at a flea market.

"This is clearly not Japanese, dad."

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"It's close enough. No one will know." To be so slapdash and careless is typically Vietnamese, I'm sorry to say.

Young, I saw The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Fronted by Kembra Pfahler, it's a cathartic band of half-naked, weirdly-painted women, with a Japanese drummer who walked around, even before the show, in a bottomless leather pants. Even at my most rebellious, I never had such balls.

My wife and I booked a small yet very efficient apartment in Nihonbashi, the financial district. For the first time, I experienced a heated toilet seat and a jet of water aimed at my exit. What impressed me most, though, was a mini-sink built into the water tank, so as it was being refilled, I could wash my hands.

Some people aren't meant to travel, for the unexpected will alarm or infuriate them. They simply can't stomach the fact that the aim of traveling is to be refuted, disorientated or, if one's very lucky, deranged. For an entire day, my wife stayed inside to watch a Vietnamese TV movie on YouTube.

As Europeans roamed and conquered, East Asians turned hermetic. From 1405 to 1433, the Chinese arrayed an unprecedented armada to explore the world, then they stopped voyaging, banned the building of large ships and outlawed seafaring. There was nothing beyond the waves but trifles and Japanese dwarf pirates, wokou. Smug, the Chinese sank themselves.

Initially open to whites, Japan's rulers then saw the Christian missionaries as deforming and dividing their society, thus began 220 years of isolation. With his suck-on-this black ships and two white flags as gifts, Admiral Perry changed all that, and once Japan decided it had no choice but to compete with whites, it systematically and energetically proceeded to deform itself, a process that hasn't stopped.

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Genpei Akasegawa (1937-2014) was an artist who documented Tokyo architectural components that had become useless. Not demolished, they're often even maintained or fixed, as in the railing of a wooden staircase leading nowhere. These instances of found art, Akasegawa dubbed Thomasson, after the American baseball player. Though signed to the biggest Nippon League contract ever, Gary Thomasson was a strikeout machine as the cleanup hitter for the Yomiuri Giants. Serving no purpose, Thomasson became art, as it were. A recurrent Dada nightmare, Thomasson was nicknamed the "Giant Human Fan."

The beauty (and sadness) of Thomassons is that they represent the nearly obliterated past, and walking around Tokyo, I couldn't help but feel, constantly, that the entire city was a gorgeous and glittering tomb over a scorched and pulverized Japan.

41 km2 of Tokyo were obliterated by American bombs, as compared to 6.5 km2 of Dresden, by British and US planes. Killing 100,000 mostly civilian Tokyoites over two days, Operation Meeting House is still the most destructive bombing raid in history.

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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Derryl Hermanutz

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(Member since Apr 27, 2011), 47 fans, 24 articles, 1 quicklinks, 1359 comments


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Melancholy, vague yearning for a living world that slipped away, displaced by a consuming world that rattled and clamored and insinuated its way into being.

Submitted on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 at 7:08:46 PM

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Janet Supriano

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What an exquisite piece of writing! So much history; so much pathos. Thank you for sharing your journeys and your insights.

Submitted on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 1:18:24 AM

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Mohammad Ala

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The effect of Western culture on West Asia has been negative. Quality of life has been lost.

When one travels to East Asia, the negative effect of Western culture can easily be seen. For example, in China, the children of elite dress Western style clothes and carry Starbucks coffee cub all day. One told me sometimes these cups are empty to show off.

Hollywood has spread false images and ideal societies based on lies. Movies have been made to brainwash people.

The joke in West Asia was if a country was not nice to western countries, especially UK/USA, they will get introduction to democracy. Iraq is a good example. However, western countries have been inconsistent in introduction of democracy. For example, there is no sign of democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Western countries have taken advantage of East and West Asia. This practice has continued until countries become strong, then they are labeled enemies.

Submitted on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 2:35:03 AM

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Carol R Campbell

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Western culture? That is a total contradiction in terms - and points directly to the heart of the problem.

The lack of any cultural development not based on War, Rape, and Pillage is obvious in the Histories of Greece, Rome, and later the Christian Invasions and Demolitions conducted in the name of a poor Jewish Rabbi.

Even the Enlightenment of the West after Centuries of ignorance was crushed under the combined weight of Capitalism, Christianity, and Militarism. What could not be stolen was destroyed. Today's assaults are so blatant they are not even disguised with trite platitudes any longer:

Saint Ronnie declared "Greed is Good".

That became the Mantra of the 21st Century!

Submitted on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 6:04:13 AM

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Mohammad Ala

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Thanks for your reply Carol.

Submitted on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 2:42:45 PM

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Janet Supriano

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"What could not be stolen was destroyed."
This sentence is absolutely gut wrenching in its truth.

Submitted on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 7:42:19 PM

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gunnar kullenberg

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...fabulous essay -- thank you...

Submitted on Thursday, May 3, 2018 at 4:43:04 PM

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