Sightseeing and being seen in Japan

TOKYO — I sit among the nighttime whispers of lovers in the granite plaza of the Tokyo City Hall in the heart of Shinjuku. I’m smoking a cigarette I bought from a machine and thinking thoughts about people that I will never get to tell them.
I’ve been here for six days, and every night I’ve returned to this plaza. Of all the temples and museums and bustling downtown shopping districts, this building has become the most revealing facet of Japanese culture. It’s become for me a place to meditate on the differences between American and Japanese culture, and in turn recognize the constants as well.
The building all around me is a maze of granite and polished steel straight out of Ridley Scott’s imagination. The mammoth structure cost more than $150 billion, and journalists say the people are upset about the price.
Apparently, the designer penciled in rather spacious quarters for his own office — about the same size as the homes many Japanese return to each night. On a piece of land the size of California, Japan’s population is roughly half that of the United States.
At the foot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, the designers used voluptuous lines for the central plaza as well. The plaza is a huge semi-circle plane of granite about 200 feet in diameter with a raised stage at its center and tall walls of stone and glass around the perimeter. The blacks, whites and grays echo the colors of the city sprawling outside its safe confines.
The plaza is so large that two people sitting within eyesight are outside ear shot. It’s a convenient spot for couples who want to be in the pinnacle of privacy in downtown Tokyo. It’s a lover’s leap of sorts — the atmosphere harkens back to empty parks after nightfall where teenagers went to be alone. It’s a great place to go to get away from the throng that covers the streets here night and day.
The plaza of stone shows me a side of Japanese culture usually obscured by time clocks and traffic and black shoes of expensive leather. The existence of places like this has always been implied, the gridwork of iron supporting a strong work ethic like the I-beam skeletons of buildings. I figure everyone has to have places in which to fall in love.
I begin to remember places I went at night in high school, not to be alone, but to be alone with someone else in the isolating night. The realization of common grounds reminds me of the uncommon ground outside the walls of the plaza lit by Japanese electricity.
I navigate streets easily during the day because I can see for blocks above the rhythmically bouncing, black-haired heads in front of me. My head is a blonde fishing bobber in a foreign river. Thoughts are translated into symbols I can’t read in the minds of those who stare as I cross their line of sight; their heads don’t move, but their eyes do. Women rarely look me in the eye, never more than once, but men gaze long at my jeans and tennis shoes, sizing me up.
I’m a slob by downtown standards, seemingly spitting in the face of a protocol accepted by millions of Japanese men and women striving to look perfect, yet anonymous. Armies of men and women dressed in fabulously formal and expensive clothes march in and out of the sterile office buildings downtown.
The unwritten dress code makes fashion-magazine standards of dress the norm. Thus, the more distinguished a young businessman or woman strives to look, the more she fades into the crowd. Once I saw a man at the zoo who was wearing a three-piece suit struggling to escort his high-heeled date across rocky pavement.
Naturally, I stick out like a romance novel in the science fiction section wherever I go. Sideways glances abound as I pass people on the street, and they don’t really bother me because I know I look different. Its actually a bit enlightening to have the tables turned on me — as a Swedish male in Minnesota, I don’t exactly break any molds back home.
However, the assumptions about my character that go with the glances do bother me. Wherever I go, I’m perceived as a miscreant rather than just an outsider. That attitude shows through most clearly in the faces of most merchants.
Whenever I walk into a store, its tiny walls of shelves jammed with clearly priced, expensive merchandise, I fall under the intense gaze of the store owner. The merchants’ heads will follow my movements throughout their shops, the reflection of my blonde goatee constantly warped to the round shape of their eyes. I enter with my hands in my pockets or at my sides or folded in front of me or clasped behind my back and it makes no difference — they still watch me like hawks.
People here treat me how they perceive me, and since they see me as a thief they treat me thus. But it’s a vicious circle: Now I have an expectation — that everyone thinks I am a thief — and in turn, I perceive them with that expectation. Even if a shopkeeper wasn’t stereotyping me, I wouldn’t be able to tell because I’ve turned close-minded in response.
I think I understand a little better what it’s like to be black in America.
Strange part is, I can understand their mistrust. If a store owner has been ripped off in the past by a young American male, why should he trust the next one who walks in? His children’s dinners are on the line.
The buildings we live in and the subways we ride on were built on prudence and mistrust. Society seems to tell us not to trust anyone except friends, yet we can never become friends if we don’t ever let our guards down. Sadly, for many people, the risk isn’t worth the payoff.

Joe Carlson is a staff reporter at the Daily. He can by reached by e-mail at [email protected]