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Letters from Tokyo by Roland Kelts

Author Roland Kelts is a Tokyo-based Japanese-American writer, editor and scholar. His first book "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US" is considered the ultimate guide to Japan’s pop culture juggernaut — required reading for many Hollywood producers, artists, academics and fans worldwide. He contributes to The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Nikkei, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications in the US, Europe and Japan, and is a primary source on Japanese culture for CNN, the BBC, the CBC and NHK. He is also a columnist for The Japan Times and a professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. He has interviewed Hayao Miyazaki, Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ono among others, and has given speeches on Japan for think tanks, embassies, universities, pop culture conventions and private events throughout the US, Europe and Asia, including TED Talks and The World Economic Forum. Kelts has taught at The University of Tokyo, New York University, Columbia University, Sophia University, and Harvard University. He has won several awards and fellowships, including a Nieman Fellowship in Journalism at Harvard.

This program is made possible by the support of the Toshiba International Foundation.

  • 29 Jul 2021 3:45 PM | Anonymous

    One hot July day I was invited to give a TED Talk in Tokyo about my book “Japanamerica” and “Cool Japan,” the government’s campaign to capitalize on the international appeal of Japanese popular culture. But I didn't feel cool at all, and I didn't want to speak again about manga and anime, so instead I gave a talk about gaman: the virtue of enduring adversity with patience and dignity, and without whining.

    Every July in Tokyo puts gaman to the test. Almost overnight, the sun reclaims its dominance in the sky, blasting over the city’s concrete sprawl with a vengeance. Tsuyu’s raindrop speckles on your brow turn to smears of sweat. Venturing outside of your air-conditioned cave is a trial. And after only a few 100-degree days, you know you're in trouble when sitting on your veranda at midnight feels nearly as stultifying as your lunch-hour stroll at high noon.

    This July, Tokyo has the added trials of a fourth Covid-19 “state of emergency” extended until September, a belated and halting vaccine rollout, and tens of thousands of visiting athletes, coaches and media reps pitching tent in town for a month. Olympic-sized trials, indeed.

    In the media, a lot has been made of residents protesting the staging of the Olympics mid-pandemic. But where I live, such protests have been thinly attended, and mostly by the usual suspects: older, ANPO-generation retirees bearing the signs and ritual chants of the habitually self-righteous, and younger student-age marchers taking a breather from Twitter rants—or snapping selfies to accompany and enliven those rants.

    Compared to New York or London, two other cities I've lived in, the outrage looks pretty tame. There are even police escorts, dutifully obeyed, and not a single instance of the violent “kettling” crowd-control tactic, used by many urban police departments to divide-and-conquer civilians by cornering and assaulting them.

    Instead, most Tokyoites seem resigned to grin and bear it, or grit their teeth and bear it, to gaman their way through the Games just as they do every July’s heat and humidity, its sudden typhoons, skittering cockroaches and chainsaw cicada buzz.

    Only this year, while the Olympics are on, August has been canceled for the second summer running. Next month’s giddy matsuri festivals and eye-popping fireworks displays and homecoming pilgrimages to O-bon gatherings will all be missing, nixed once again to preserve social distancing and prevent virus infection. The days will pass hot and oppressive as always, but the sweet relief and release of dancing in the streets around bobbing mikoshi shrines and sweating through your creased yukata folds surrounded by friends and family as the skies boom and crackle with color and eating greasy treats from yatai food stalls while you drink yourself silly and sleepy in the thick summer air—none of that will come to pass.

    And that makes gaman feel especially trying this July, worthy of real outrage, even protest. For whatever their outcomes, the Olympic Games will end. The athletes and camera crews will pack up, board flights, go home. But here in Tokyo, August feels over already. The normal of enduring a long hot Japanese summer surging together with your perspiring neighbors in time-honored bursts of celebratory joy is still such a long way away.

  • 30 Jun 2021 1:36 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    My favorite kind of getaway is a stay at an onsen-yado (Japanese hot springs hotel). It used to rotate among my top three, but the pandemic has edged it into the top spot.

    An onsen-yado relieves you of the burden of choice as soon as you step into its entrance. Your shoes and luggage are whisked away. You are quietly ushered to your room. Padding through the halls, you are told when your dinner will be served and shown what you will wear: a robe, a sash, slippers—with two-toed tabi socks optional. No matching of ties to dinner jackets or puzzles over pumps or flats. 

    Then you soak in hot, mineral-rich water that transforms your joints into gentle friends of your body.

    Early June is a good time for hitting onsen. Spring holidays are over but the kids are still in school, and tsuyu’s rainy season grays take the edges off.

    In Tokyo, May’s bright sunny days can make everyone look hurried and feel hyperactive. June reminds you—what’s the point?—but isn’t yet so humid that you couldn’t hurry anyway.

    This May, when it became clear that Tokyo’s “state of emergency” declaration over Covid-19 would be extended yet again into late June, I knew it was time to pack the overnight bags, laptop and books, and take the train down the Izu peninsula, roughly two hours south of Tokyo by rail.

    I realize that sounds counterintuitive, even irresponsible. Doesn’t a state of emergency mean you should stay put and hunker down at home? What kind of emergency sends you on holiday to a hot springs?

    But where I live in central Tokyo, I share each square mile with over 16,000 neighbors. If I don’t immediately see someone strolling below when I look out one of my windows, I will very soon. And the moment I step from my building’s courtyard to the sidewalk, I join the coursing crowds weaving past and dodging one another on sidewalks that can barely accommodate three adjacent modestly-sized bodies.

    Choosing to wear a mask, sanitize, and speak quietly or not at all is possible, and most of us choose to do all three. Social distancing, however, is not.

    Comparatively, there was no one in Izu. And no one on the quaint old Limited-Express Odoriko line to Izu, whose empty lace-doilied seats feel a little like a theme park ride from the 1980s, reassuringly out-of-date. And even in historic Shuzenji, whose fairy-tale Kamakura-age pathways are usually clogged with tourists, local craftspeople and rickshaw-runners, you could pause in the bamboo forest and breathe in the air, letting your mask slip for a moment or two near the naked Katsura river.

    The onsen-yado staff did what they do: serving omakase meals designed to highlight local seafood and vegetable specialties on menus over which you had absolutely zero choice. I soaked for hours, read two short books, wrote in fits and starts and took long walks along the river, taking too many photos of some late-blooming wisteria.

    Near Shuzenji Temple, founded in the 9th century, I saw three old Tokyo 2020 Olympics banners announcing that the torch relay would soon pass through town. The juxtaposition was rich: something about to happen felt more dated than something truly ancient.

  • 06 May 2021 3:21 PM | Anonymous

    This March, Kyoto’s cherry blossoms hit peak bloom on the earliest date recorded in 1200 years. Not 120. 1200.

    Here in Tokyo, the sakura trees below my office began blooming on the earliest date recorded in 60 years—after a winter so mild I never wore a scarf or donned footwear heavier than sneakers.

    Spring this year feels like early summer. Midday temps reach the upper 70s F / 20s C. If you brave the sun without a hat, you sweat.

    Tokyo’s weather is accelerated and overheated. Everything else feels frozen.

    After another week of less-than-golden holidays hunkered at home, we Tokyoites are now watching a ‘fourth wave’ of Covid infections sweep the country. It feels redundant and endless. Vaccination appointments that seem plentiful elsewhere haven’t even started here. And we’re now preparing for two weeks of Olympic Games set to begin in just over a couple months, on July 23rd of 2021—an international extravaganza and potential superspreader event that few in Japan want, and that is still being promoted around town on posters, banners and billboards as: “Tokyo 2020.”


    All of us have had our internal clocks scrambled by the pandemic, especially in cities, where time blares down relentlessly from giant video screens and railway platforms. But in this city, where seasonal change is nearly fetishized, trains and buses depart on the minute, and prerecorded five o’clock chimes ring from loudspeakers in every neighborhood at each day’s end, pandemic time feels completely out of whack. And with its current triple-whammy of resurgent virus, absent vaccines, and postponed and displaced Olympics, Tokyo’s time-warp disorientation may top them all.

    What are Japan’s seasons without their celebrations? With no bonnenkai or shinnenkai parties, no shrine festivals or hanami shindigs, and only sparse, muted and masked-up school graduation and entrance ceremonies?

    I’ve worn paths between my office and local grocery and convenience stores. Most everyone wears masks and keeps conversation minimal (except for one of the male combini clerks, who regularly asks me about my work before issuing updates on his infant son’s first steps). The few who go maskless are out after hours and are very young or very drunk or both, and by that time there’s plenty of space on the sidewalks for social distancing.

    Big department stores are supposed to be closed, but local shops and eateries that have survived are open, the latter with limited hours and takeout menus. This morning the TBS network reported that Golden Week visitors to the major shopping hubs in Ginza, Shibuya and Shinjuku are up twofold over the same period last year. I studiously avoid all three.

    I am fortunate to live within walking distance of uniquely gorgeous parks: Shinjuku Gyoen, Meiji Jingu and Yoyogi Koen. Shinjuku Gyoen is closed until May 11th, but the other two remain open with limited access. Without their greenery, open skies and patches of grass, water and birdsong, I think I’d go insane.

    The other day at Café Mori near the entrance of Meiji Jingu, I whined yet again to a friend about missing travel. I don’t miss airports, I said, or the rest of the scramble from point A to B. But I miss the sensation of landing somewhere different, of seeing a new vista spread out beneath the porthole window as the plane descends.

    “I know,” she said. “It’s like we’re still stuck on the plane. Forever.”

    Shinjuku Gyoen in March. Photo by Roland Kelts.


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