Where cartoon characters decorate construction sites

April 14, 2010.

It was silent as I waited in the Softbank store to pick up my cell phone.  A woman with a tray came over to me and offered me a selection of juices.  I only recognized the orange juice, so I grabbed it, smiled and bowed my head in thanks.  “Many people register phones now.  I am sorry this takes much time,”  the salesman apologized to me in English.  As I sipped my orange juice, he deferentially asked where I was from.  I told him I was from Washington D.C.  and asked if he had ever been to the US.   “No,” he said bowing his head, “ but I have always wanted to go to California.”  “Why?” I asked.  He replied with an answer that I will not forget: “I love Mickey Mouse.”  Smiling, I told him that is surely the best reason to go.

Tokyo is filled with contradictions: businessmen playing Nintendo DS as they commute to work on the metro; women in traditional kimonos talking on cell phones as they walk down city streets; lights flashing and and neon advertisements streaming above ancient shrines and cherry blossoms; cartoon characters adorning construction sites, banks, and public safety signs.  When I went to apply for a foreigner card at the Shinjuku Ward office – the equivalent of our DMV- I was amused to be greeted by a Pikachu bobble head sitting on the clerk’s desk.   In Tokyo, an orderly, neat, homogeneous society collides with the creative, cute, and chaotic to generate unlimited surprises.

Technology abounds in shops and malls, with lights, music, and commercials playing on walls; robots, computers and phone paraphernalia appear everywhere. Yet the chance that a store or restaurant will accept credit cards is less than 40%.  The city if filled with fast food and take-out counters, but eating on the street or in the metro is taboo. Neatness and cleanliness is an obsession, yet trashcans are nowhere to be found.

I just opened mail from the company that manages the apartment I am renting to find  a receipt for my May rent payment.  It was hand decorated with drawings of flowers and teddy bears.

About Justine Underhill

A native of DC, Justine attended Sophia University in Tokyo, where the spring semester starts in April and ends in August. As an Economics and Theater & Performing Arts major she took econ classes by day and went to shows by night. Playing with origami, sushi making, kabuki, puppetry, calligraphy, comics and robots all indulge her own uncommonly divergent passions for theater, design, economics and mathematics. Justine’s prior experience as an exchange student in HS took her to Bavois, Switzerland, where cows outnumbered people and there was no internet access in the home. In Tokyo, she faced life at the other extreme, in a dense urban center bustling with technology.
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