There’s an urban legend about the 1932 fire that broke out at Tokyo’s Shirokiya department store. As they did not at that time wear underwear beneath their traditional outfits, having made their way to the roof the kimono-wearing saleswomen are said to have preferred being burnt alive to jumping to the safety nets below, which would have humiliated them by revealing their nudity. Since then Tokyo has grown, attitudes have changed, and women also wear western-style underwear.
But deep below the earth the metro is more or less the same, even if it is constantly changing. For as agglomerated, ultra-technological, and almost schizophrenically futuristic as the city may be (take a look around the International Forum, drink a coffee at the National Art Center, take a walk down Takeshita Street or beneath the rain at the famous intersection of Shibuya), Tokyo conserves a somewhat reserved and traditional spirit, often refined, at times demure and innocent.
The second you scratch the surface of modernity and its tendencies, you uncover centuries of strict instruction in harmony and respect for social position. Travelling throughout Tokyo you notice it in the small things: from the extreme care of the parks and small Shinto shrines scattered throughout the city to the silent composure of people on public transit; from the fleeting and innocent glances in the ryokan of Chiyoda to the rigid respect for uniforms and labels. And it reminds you of a classic Japanese proverb: “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”.
( 2018 )