Tokyo, the city that’s not as crazy as everyone thinks

Zany capital depicted on the big screen is barely recognizable to metropolitan resident


With her 2003 film “Lost in Translation,” Sofia Coppola won plaudits from critics and audiences alike for telling an emotionally nuanced, contemplative story set in Tokyo. But even in a movie where quiet moments are more important than action spectacles, the director couldn’t resist the urge to zoom in on the wild side of Japan.

Watching it again recently, I found myself getting slightly irritated with a scene that seemed inoffensive in my pre-gaijin days. In the sequence, Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson are chased down the street by a man with a BB gun — the implication being that when traveling in Tokyo, crazy things will happen.

In my mind, this random broad, wacky humor was unnecessary. Yet this is the image of Tokyo many have and feel comfortable with. We like cities to have identities as it helps us understand the world and create an image that makes us want to visit. Tokyo is storied as a land of gaudy lights, gonzo humor and unpredictability on every corner.

But this isn’t the Tokyo I live in. Sure, the Robot Restaurant exists, but I’m not sure who would go there, other than the once to satisfy their curiosity.

Once you get away from the rat races of Shinjuku or Shibuya, it’s been a surprise to learn what a chilled place Tokyo is. Sure, there are masses of people, but many avoid social interactions with strangers in day-to-day life. As a Japanese friend of mine who has lived all over Japan once said, “People from the Kansai area are like Latin people, but in Tokyo they’re more like Germans.”

People value their privacy a little too much, and avoiding encroachment into private space whenever possible is an unwritten rule that almost everyone follows. This makes the city perfect if you love anonymity and having your own head space. But if you come expecting a nonstop wacky adventure, you’re likely to be disappointed. The lives of many Tokyoites are repetitive: People go to work, go home, maybe have a beer and then sleep.

Bars are one way to break the ice, but here there are often regular customers who treat it as an extension of their home. People will talk to strangers in these environments, but the enjoyment comes from the lack of desire on both parties to form deep connections. The girls drink alone but not with any desire to hook up. In a strange reversal of the common image of the bar scene, it’s seen as a safe environment from male predations for women, where they can have a chat with the bartender or some familiar faces in peace and comfort.

A night out feels less like a mystery in a foreign land and instead the more common feeling is familiarity, the same faces appearing on the same nights in the same places over and over. Many people have fixed routines and choose not to venture off the beaten path unless it is necessary. After inviting a Japanese friend to hang out around my house in Koenji on the Chuo Line, he reacted with amazement at the fresh sights as if he was traveling in a strange new land himself.

It’s true that some things produced by the Japanese are “out there” — from television shows to anime and gizmos — but rather than being representative of a wild and crazy country, these things serve more as a means to escape a numbing working life for most. Lots of people just don’t have time for insanity in their actual lives.

Before I came, I was expecting Tokyo to be not just a city but a kind of nerdy nirvana. But I found myself surprised to be teaching some of my own students the basics of “Pokémon.” The nerds are out there, but just like anywhere else, they’re living in the virtual world, which could be any country.

It makes sense for commentators to zone in on the absurdity of Japan and the scale of Tokyo. But it’d be a refreshing change to see more of a focus on the things I enjoy about living here: the small cafés and coffee shops, the grimy izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) run not by a zany master but a quiet, mysterious one, where I’m left to wonder what their story is.

Many movies made in this city focus on out-there jobs — celebrities of some kind (“Mr. Baseball,” “Lost in Translation”), people working in hostess bars (“Stratosphere Girl”), foreigners mixed up with the yakuza and drug dealers (“Enter The Void”) — and a high percentage of the Tokyo shots are of Shinjuku, a place many residents avoid.

Maybe not many are desperate to see a movie about an English teacher living in the relative peace and greenery of an area such as Mitaka (apart from other English teachers) and that’s OK, but I think the world is ready to see a grimier, earthier day-to-day take on the city.

On my first day in Tokyo, I was with a Japanese friend and I remember a request I made: “I’m in Tokyo. I want to see something crazy.”

Three years later, I don’t think I’d still be living here if that was all there was.

William Bradbury is a freelance writer and musician living in Tokyo. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion on Thursdays. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • laughing

    depends what your social circle is. If you hangout in the creative industry, plenty of crazy and colorful things happen all the time. If you are an English teacher, maybe not. The mundane is prolific, but so is the wonderful in Japan, open your eyes.

    • Jeffrey

      Agreed. Tokyo offers pretty much all things to all people. Long-time foreign residents may no longer find parts of the city’s culture strange, off-putting or even remarkable. But as someone who lived in NYC for three years, Tokyo still dazzles with all that it has to offer and, yes, Kabukicho and Akihabara are still weird and fascinating at the same time. Plop someone down there for the first time and he will be amazed and probably overwhelmed. If not, check for a pulse.

  • Neko Zero

    Thanks so much for this article, it is usually hard thing to put into words to the people who cannot understand why i consider Tokyo my real home. I’ve been to Tokyo about seven times now and hopefully will eventually reside there ( no degree yet so no hope to that). The reasons i love it there so much are for the exact opposite to the reasons people like to assume about Japan, that everything there is wacky. It’s the small cafes and bakeries, the street musicians and the fact that you can turn a corner and find a small park or temple nestled amongst the metropolis that keep me coming back. However its also the fact that you can find something unusual and fascinating around every corner if you wish to. Every street offers some kind of hidden magic down its alleyway, as an artist in the creative industry, its a huge inspiration, a hint of electricity and a creative spirituality hidden below the surface of the mundane.

  • Chris Broad

    Tokyo is great.
    But Osaka is awesome. Friendlier people, better food, surrounded by Kyoto, Nara and Kobe and it feels a lot more centralised than Tokyo.

  • One of the nice parts about Tokyo having such a large population is that it offers something for everyone. In Tokyo, you can find the crazy, strange bars and clubs or you can enjoy the mellow cafe culture and everything in between. When I lived in Tokyo I was impressed by the city’s parks and gardens and easy it was to slow down and relax while still in the middle of the city.