In Japan, Why Ask Why?

Just get used to what seems weird, and sing along with the pink elephant head.

By Steve Burgess 14 Jan 2011 |

Steve Burgess slipped from our clutches again and apparently is now in Japan.

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Annual baby crying contest in Tokyo.

The fruit has been eaten. It's time to get dressed.

Think about that. I certainly had to as I stood on Tokyo's Meiji-Dori, reading it on a clothing store window. Tokyo wisdom -- it is there to be pondered. More examples are all over town.

"Weird Japan" is a cliché by now. But it's there, and must be dealt with. Sometimes people have an unfortunate tendency to talk about Japan like it's some sort of strange ant farm. My friend Yoko grew up in Japan and later studied at UBC. She's no romantic about her homeland. Still, she sometimes found the big Western magnifying glass annoying. "I used to spend the entire social anthropology class arguing with my professor," she says.

I've been guilty of it. Nowadays I try to enjoy the things I love about this country and not get all goofy about the little oddities. But sometimes you can't help but get caught up in those oddities. They're so odd, and so ubiquitous.

Odd HQ is Yoyogi Park, especially on Sundays. Today there's a guy wearing a big pink stuffed elephant head and a cape, carrying multi-coloured fans. His sign explains that he wants to sing your national anthem. Now, the very Japanese part: he does not want money. There is not even a hat for coins. He simply wants to sing your national anthem while wearing a pink elephant head. That's Japan.

The guy standing beside me turns out to be from New Westminster. It seems this was meant to be. "Sing it!" I demand. "Sing our anthem."

The Elephant Man fetches a lyric sheet while his partner (somewhat more subtly attired in a frog head balaclava) stands by with hand over heart. Then he launches into "Oh Canada." Almost perfect, with only one little slurred bit. We cheer. We pay nothing. Everybody is happy.

If pigs could orbit

Some of the weirdness is aimed at the international crowd, as the anthems suggest. But a lot is purely domestic, such as the mascot of the Mylord department store. It's a pig in a space suit. I ask another Japanese friend: Why? Why a space pig?

She has no idea. Of course she doesn't. The average person on the street doesn't understand the space pig anymore than you do.

There is a plastic cow across from my hotel. It moos at passers-by. That one is hardly even a mystery. Japanese objects are always talking, or mooing, or communicating somehow. Japan has the world's most talkative stuff. Doorways are always shouting "Irashimase!" (Welcome!) Moving sidewalks are always telling you that the end is near. In crowded places the machines are usually the only ones who'll speak to you.

Japanese technology can manage to be simultaneously amazing and stupid. In Shinagawa train station there's a new state-of-the-art vending machine. Japanese vending machines have long been a favourite topic of weird lovers -- everything from farm fresh eggs to used panties have been available at one time or another. This machine simply sells hot and cold beverages. But it tells you what you want. The machine contains a camera, and analyzes your photo to categorize you according to age and gender. Then little red messages pop up on the video display menu suggesting the drink you are most likely to want. For me it recommended hot coffee or energy drinks. Not bad -- it could have recommended a hot water bottle. To be insulted by a vending machine is, for now, a uniquely Japanese social situation.

Train music

Another Japanese mystery: Why is every train that pulls into Ebisu station on the Yamanote train line greeted by a snippet of the theme song from the movie The Third Man? I know the answer to this one: Just because.

Years ago someone simply decided that stations on the Yamanote line should have their own theme songs. No reason -- just to add a light note to the daily commute. Some of the chosen songs are somehow connected to their neighbourhoods, but not at Ebisu. The Third Man theme was chosen because somebody liked it. I love The Third Man, and so I love Ebisu station. Every time the train pulls in I wait for to hear the electronic version of that lilting melody. But on this visit I made a charming discovery. I had always assumed that the song was triggered automatically as the train pulled in -- this is Japan after all, where taxi doors open automatically and even vending machines peer into your very soul. But no. When the train pulled in, I saw the driver get out of the car, walk to a pole on the platform and press a button to play the melody. The only thing better would be if she had pulled out a little zither and plucked the tune herself.

Mysteries make Japan more fascinating for the visitor than the local. And yet sometimes there is a tendency to see mysteries where there may be none. When I posted that bit of Japanese wisdom on Facebook -- "The fruit has been eaten. It's time to get dressed”"-- CBC Radio's Theresa Lalonde got it immediately. "Love the 'out of Eden' quote," she wrote.

The Garden of Eden -- of course. That's the danger of hunting for weirdness. Sometimes the obvious can sneak up and bite you on the ass.  [Tyee]

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