by Henry Scott Stokes

I have just returned from a trip I to England and I must say that the green and pleasant land astonished the hell out of me.

Surprises begin at Heathrow, where they are digging an immense hole in the ground, to make way for a colossal new ter­minal. When this Terminal 5 is added to the existing four facili­ties, we will have what airline people say could be easily the biggest international airport in the world. Last year some 63 mil­lion passengers went through Heathrow. Add on the extra ter­minal, and the number could approach 100 million, according to my layman’s guesstimate.

The driver who picked me up at the airport, David Guy, told me that there are some 50,000 construction workers on the site, going at it on three shifts, 24 hours a day.

This scene of bustle—with trucks carrying away dirt at the rate of one every two or three seconds—contrasts with Narita. When you emplane at Narita—in the aftermath of SARS and the second Gulf War—and get out at Heathrow, you see two different worlds. One, London, is bedlam. The other, Narita, is like an out­patient ward without any patients. It is clinical, antiseptic and quiet.

At Heathrow, I learned, an incoming passenger is flung into a sea of polyglot humanity. The heterogeneity is outrageous. You can march for ages—it takes up to 20 minutes to get to Immigration at Heathrow, strid­ing at a rapid clip—and not see a single Brit. (Do I exaggerate? Yes, a little, but not much.)

All of this is absolutely flab­bergasting. Thirty years ago, perhaps a little more, London was almost solidly British. Today, it is a melting pot that is out-doing that rather conserva­tive city, New York. You have the strong feeling that London turned into a major hub. Can the same thing happen in Tokyo, my wife asked me—as we strolled about central London, dropping in on the V & A?

Akiko’s question absolutely floored me. I haven’t the faintest idea, was my first reaction. When I got back here, therefore, I looked around me with fresh eyes. What did I find, as com­pared with what I had got used to over in England in a few days?

The first thing that gob-smacks you is the sight of grown men pawing through manga —those thick comic books—in the subway. That is utterly insane, as seen through the eyes of a man from Mars. You take one look at these young Japanese gents and wonder in what kind of strange anti-paradise you’ve ended.

I made inquiries. I asked friends in the mag trade, what’s going on? The big story, I was told immediately, is that two mass-circulation rags—Shukan Post and Shukan Gendai—are going head-to-head every Monday. That is the big magazine story at this time. As of the spring, both of them inserted into their mags sealed envelopes containing photos of girlies. In effect, the magazines here have plunged headlong into the porn trade. Or so my friends in the business tell me.

The other thing that struck me was those much commented-on right-wing trucks. Yes, they are unbearable. You wonder who are the apes inside, and who gave them permission to storm up and down the streets of the heart of our city, making such vile noises. Isn’t there supposed to be some control on those loud­speaker volumes? My, my—they crack your eardrums at 200 yards. Why here, the question comes, and nowhere else in the world? Why only in Tokyo?

These are old puzzles—the manga madness and the uyoku insanity—but I confess I found myself thoroughly put off by these goings-on, on arriving back here from the UK. In a few days, my annoyance will have subsided, and I will once again be a Tokyoite resigned to the hor­rors and abnormalities on all sides. No doubt.

This, of course, gets me no closer to answering my wife’s question. Or no closer than saying this: something has got to give here, to make this city a bit more livable. If, as and when it does, then we can consider the question of whether it is capable of turning international. For now, it is turning inside, into itself, and that’s awful.

Years ago, someone wrote a novel with a scene that epito­mized the Tokyo of the 1960s. A man is in a bar, and a cockroach jumps out. The man pops it into his mouth—remarking that it tastes “a bit salty.” This unspeak­able scene comes in Moetsukita Chizu (Burnt Maps), a novel by Kobo Abe, someone I knew. The Tokyo of today has a side to it that is a lot worse than crunching the odd roach, however.


[email protected]