The latest Shibuya trend: The neighborhood smells like an open sewer. I live relatively close so it’s a convenient place to meet friends, but every time I exit the subway, I can’t help feeling that it looks dirtier, has more foreigners, and smells worse than the last time I left it. Whether there’s really a correlation between the increasing odor and the massing of non-East Asians, I don’t know, but Shibuya — the most ultra-Japanese of all Tokyo neighborhoods — has been transformed into a mini-Roppongi.
Shibuya’s always been about shopping and sex, and it dropped on the youth culture radar in the late ’80s/early ’90s when rich kids went there to rove in chiimaa (teamer) gangs and pick up trashy girls from good families. A bit later, the ko-gyaru boomed, and their much-ballyhooed enjokousai prostitution made the neighborhood a symbol of illicit sex and vapid hyper-consumerism. Shibuya’s always had a nasty edge — the love hotels, head shops, Middle Easterners (both Jewish and Arab) selling jewelry and crank — but the ko-gyaru nation was oddly anti-foreigner and pro-Japanese. If Aoyama/Harajuku were internationalist in perspective, Shibuya was their dark nationalistic pop cultural cousin.
Roppongi has a much longer history as a nightlife destination, and it is the shadowy business ground for Tokyo’s underworld of drugs, sex, and politics. While foreigners have always been a colonial presence, the Japanese used to actually think Anglos were cool, and at least until the ’70s, Roppongi was the symbol of “goin’ Downtown” for young, swinging Japanese. Once Japanese tastes vastly exceeded Tokyo’s perennial loser ex-pats, they got the hell out, and in the ’90s, Roppongi became solely the home to a modern Gas Panic version of the WWII private-meets-local tale of romance. Now with Roppongi Hills, Mr. Mori and his cult of wealth are using the area to revive Bubble era values.
Even though Roppongi’s getting this new fancy face-lift, every foreigner I meet will automatically expresses his disdain for Roppongi in the first five minutes of conversation, and the old Colonialists seem to have made an exodus towards Shibuya. This goes hand in hand with the perceived “coolness” of Japanese culture itself. Roppongi and Hiroo were places for foreigners to “escape” Japan; Shibuya is a place to be enveloped in it. The soldiers and working holiday’ers now eschew the foreigner-friendly women for a chance to stare at the crazy girls in too much make-up.
At the same time, however, I can’t seem to go anywhere in the hipster quarters of Nakameguro or Daikanyama without running into a half-dozen other super-skinny, intentionally dirty-looking indie-boys who’ve evidently all moved to Tokyo to get a bit of “Gross National Cool.” If you went to a small gig or club event five years ago, you’d be guaranteed to be the only foreigner there, but now I can’t even be taken to a hidden kayoukyoku (歌謡曲） bar without being the second foreigner to enter the premises that night.
I do welcome this influx of like-minded foreigners, and I’ve met a ton of super interesting non-Japanese lately, but there’s a fundamental problem, which will be no secret to those who’ve lived in Japan: All foreigners with interest in Japan hate all the other foreigners with interest in Japan. The Colonialists all like their ex-pat buddies and pubs, but the Japanese-speaking foreigner contingent is in constant battle with themselves, vying to prove linguistic abilities, obscure knowledge, and depth of societal penetration. I call this the “gaijin complex,” and I’m only finally finding my way out of it now after a long period of affliction and convalescence. But it’s time we all get over it, because Japan is no longer a place where Western misanthropes can go to escape humanity, but a growing international hub where speaking Japanese fluently will no longer be such a rarity. Right now, Shibuya may be the odorous hot spot, but wherever we venture, there will soon be the stink of the West.
(I call Nezu 1-chome!)