Notes from Japan: From Country Zen to Urban Tokyo – Help!

Tokyo, Japan. It wasn’t America; it wasn’t France or Germany, either.   And although its most famous city, it just wasn’t Japan.   In retrospect, I’m not exactly sure what Tokyo was except different.   Of course, living in remote Japan one hears of Tokyo continuously, yet a clear picture of this all encompassing word fails to emerge.   After spending a week there last month, l must admit I’m more confused than ever.

I’ve studied the historical Tokyo; memorized the date of its founding and learned its original name.   I know that Tokyo’s population today is almost identical to that of the state of Ohio and this figure increases to almost thirty million each day as thousands of commuters arrive in lemming-like fashion.   l can even understand that Tokyo serves as the political, cultural economic and communications center of Nippon; in short, to Japan what Washington, D.C., New York, and Hollywood are to Americans or Bonn, Frankfurt, and Munich to West Germany.


But unfortunately such intellectualizations barely scratch the surface.   Frank Gibney, writing in Japan: The Fragile Superpower, describes this megacity as “Hopelessly crowded, polluted; land ugly.   No less unkind, the Japan National Tourist Organization maintains that “For pure sightseeing pleasure there are many, many places which far excel Tokyo in their beauty.

Tokyo tower from the Tokyo World Trade Center.

Yet such comments could apply to any urban sprawl, from Berlin to Bogota.   What separates Tokyo from the likes of London is its amazing vitality, its buoyancy of spirit that raises it above the rush and roar of big city life.

Tokyo’s uniqueness and confusing character, however, have more to do with Kipling than kinetics, for although East is East and West is West, the twain do meet somewhere around Shinjuku.   Tokyo could very well be described as the center of the world, as it belongs neither solely to the Orient nor to the Occident.   Thus it is much easier to understand Tokyo by itself than to understand Tokyo’s nature in relation to Japan.


Japan, we all know, is a beautiful land of rice paddies, forests and festivals; of tea ceremonies, cherry blossoms and housing/complexes that just don’t fit the stereotype.   But such modern vestiges are the stuff of which Tokyo is made.   A dichotomy thus occurs in Nippon between new and old, a yin and yang of tradition and progress.   Perhaps Tokyo is only a shadow of what is to come for Japan as well as every other ”˜developed nation.’   For all its wonders, Tokyo could well have been George Orwell’s model city. · Jules Verne’s, too, perhaps.

Regardless of the confusion it brought, however, Tokyo was without a doubt worth seeing.   It was fascinating to watch the thousands of gaijin (foreigners) milling about, each not speaking to the other.   Foreigners in Japan, after all, want to maintain their unique status.   It was likewise an experience to be loaded into trains not unlike the way cows are to discover that one of the professional people pushers was a past student of the College of Truly, from old women in kimonos to teenyboppers with electric watches and portable earphones; Tokyo was nothing short of amazing.

A cultural island in itself, Tokyo seemed to me to personify the clash of new and old, of East and West, in this ever-changing yet never changing Tradition known as Japan.

Originally published in The Voice, College of Wooster, November 7, 1980.   Jim Luce lived in the rural Morioka, Iwate in the north of Honshu, Japan during the fall of 1979.   His trip to that nations’ capital gave him the same culture shock as moving to New York City in 1983.

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce ( writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (, he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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