Alamon: Where the old meets the new

EVEN as the power of the collective good in Japanese society is still apparent in their everyday life, it does not mean, however, that they are social automatons bereft of uniqueness and spunk. Anyone who has had some cursory encounter with Japanese pop subculture will attest to the inherent quirkiness and even unbelievable flights of the imagination in their manga - their version of the graphic novel, anime or cartoons, their film culture, and even in their hentai or pornography.

The radical nature of elements in their pop subculture is the complete mirror image of the strict order of Japanese society. The staidness in the way the Japanese comport themselves in their public spaces and subways and perhaps even inside their homes, find release and catharsis in elements of their pop culture.

They have been thoroughly successful in this regard, so much so that people from other cultures have also taken to visit Japan and consume their cultural products as avenues for personal release. Some spaces in the greater Tokyo metropolis have assumed the function as purveyors of a futuristic taste that it has become a mecca for international travellers.

The Akihabara district is one such space whose ethos belong to the future. The place assumes this futuristic sheen that it seems straight out of the set of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Under the neon lights that adorn the tall buildings of the district is a sea of humanity, each human soul on the quest for their own type of entertainment. There is corner stairway or door that beckons for every type of thrill-seeker.

Here, there are ladies on the streets who wear cosplay costumes who will invite you to a round of drinks upstairs. There are also theatrical presentations of manga or anime characters done by another set of costumed entertainers bridging the fantasy from the two dimensional world of comics and cartoons to reality. I have been told there necessarily is no hanky panky involved in these places that have come to be called maid cafes.

To a certain extent, the maids in these cafes can be considered as a contemporary adaptation of the old Japanese practice of the geisha - the female hostess serving the needs of the male masters but this time filtered through the hyperreality of Japanese contemporary pop culture. These places are all over Japan actually and are also present in the Shinjuku area and they are said to attract legions of male followers who have been sexualized through the anime, manga, and hentai “kawai” culture.

That is another aspect of Japanese culture that is perplexing for many. “Kawai” refers to the penchant of the Japanese for everything that is cute and adorable. It won’t be surprising for instance to see trains adorned with images of adorable cartoon characters reminding the commuters safety tips and other information. What is befuddling is how this adoration of cuteness is hypersexualized among the Japanese, a mystery that Freud will be able to unpack for sure.

Needless to say, Japan has become the mecca for futuristic and subversive practices that have yet to be accepted as normal in the distant future and have welcomed the misfits, the geeks, and the weird, into its embrace through Japanese pop culture - its number one export more than its electronic products at present.

Even if such is the case, it is also the place to visit for those who wish to rediscover the structured ways of the old world. In general, despite the presence of misfits and anarchists among their ranks, the Japanese are still at home with the ways of the old. Right at the heart of the Shinjuku area near the central bus station is a beautiful park with a mini forest where there still are century-old cherry blossom and maple trees. The fact that they have preserved this space amid the urban encroachment all around speaks about their reverence for the ways of the old.

The food culture is also one that derives its character and taste by being faithful to the ways and ingredients of bygone eras. Although one would have to take exception from the fusion of the old and the new in the exquisite taste of their Kentucky Fried Chicken, which must be a required eating for anyone who visits.

The Japanese are self-aware of this schizophrenic reality they occupy and recognize this as their strength. The tourism slogan for Tokyo, the capital of Japan, captures the weird and fascinating place of Japan in the world’s imaginary as a destination straddling both the past and the present. It is indeed where the “old meets the new”.
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