Here is something i submitted to a new magazine, but it wasn’t selected… reading it now, I can see why. But I didn’t want to waste it so…
It has been weeks since I arrived here, and I should know better by now, but I am still looking for the Jetsonian world promised to me by movies and years of casual stereotypes repeated by friends and family. I keep looking, but I can’t find it. When I didn’t see it right away, I thought, surely I will turn a corner one day, bump into a hologram and finally find myself in the Japan of my imagination. I really thought the people here were living in the future and I’m still struggling with the reality that they’re not, but it might be a good thing.
When I ride the train in the morning, I look around for passengers wearing virtual reality helmets. Instead, most read paperback books or sleep, some play with their phones. In traffic, I hope to see flying cars or moped hovercrafts. Instead, it’s a lot of hondas and crappy scooters. At restaurants, I scan the menu for chemicals Willy Wonka could have dreamed up. Instead, it’s a lot of ramen and curry.
Let me point out at the onset of this critique that I don’t live in Tokyo. Maybe they have Japan 2.0 up there and I just don’t know it yet. I live on the Miura Peninsula where the lifestyle and people bear a lot of similarities to an American suburban neighborhood. It’s just a little more crowded and a little more urban.
And I should also point out that I haven’t been completely let down. The vending machine situation here is very advanced. They’re everywhere. Hot coffee, dispensed in a can so it stays hot for an hour? That’s pretty brilliant. Then there is the technology at home, from the comfort of my kitchen, I can press a button to fill or heat up the bathtub in the next room. Every light and air conditioner is operated by remote control. And my toilet has a heated seat. The last item I hope, one day, no good American will go without.
These neat-o household technologies sometimes trick me into thinking I’ve arrived in the Japan of my dreams. Sometimes, when I am frustrated at how some gadget works, I even shout at the top of my lungs, “The Japanese manufactures think of everything! They would not leave me hanging this way!” And usually, they haven’t. I just haven’t Google translated enough of the directions (I’m looking at you, ice maker).
But why is there so much traffic? And why is my bus driver not a robot? Why do I have to hang my clothes to dry outside? Why is it so hard to keep my house cool? Why is 10% of my time spent cleaning my garbage before I throw it away. People still smoke here? And why do I always have to pay with cash?
The longer I am in Japan, a place I envisioned was way ahead of America, (not quite at Logan’s Run, but at least at Back to the Future 2) I’m seeing that the Japanese culture embraces efficient technologies that don’t clash too much with the way they want to live. They take what they want from Western traditions and trends, mix them up, and don’t take the rest. Their future might look a lot more like their past than America’s will.
People everywhere tend to romanticize the past and place too much hope in technologies of the future. Then, we assume that we can’t have both. “Wouldn’t tomorrow be better”, someone probably once said, “if we valued the traditions of our people, but were more comfortable than we are now”? “Yes, maybe”, someone else probably replied, “I especially wish I could easily buy cheap food produced locally and still have a heated toilet seat.”
Maybe it isn’t high tech to pay with cash, but why buy a latte at Starbucks with a credit card when personal debt can do so much damage? There are Costco stores here, but a lot of people shop instead at individual vegetable stores, fish stores and bakeries, making several stops instead of doing it all at once. And as much as Americans like convenience, don’t we also like fresh, healthy local food? It makes sense to me to dry my clothes outside to save a little energy and keep the humidity down in my house. Some ideals are more important than a shiny new technology.
I like sleeping in a room with tatami mats, and using my iPhone as an alarm. The future can be shaped by the past, but it can also be much better.