My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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notes on Tokyo

I’m avoiding the computer in Tokyo. But i have a few random notes… small things that have made me scratch my head.

Most tall buildings have little red triangles on certain windows. This bugged me until i learned that it was to indicate to firemen which windows were fire exits and ladders should be sent to them.

Most shops demarcate their entrance by a small step. Nothing in Tokyo is wheelchair accessible. Yet, every crossing is marked by bumps in the sidewalk to inform blind people of where to go.

Tampons are still in the back of the store.

If you think that the 80s fashion has returned in the States, you’re wrong. Tokyo kids know how to do retro-chique in a beyond-disturbing-as-all-hell way. I’m cringing even more than i ever cringed in LA.

I laughed when people told me that Tokyo would be expensive. Within 2 hours of landing, i took a $250 taxi. Dear god. And after spending $42 on a cover for a generic club, i will never bitch about a $10 cover ever again.

It is possible to engage in a full conversation where one party speaks one language and the other speaks a different language and neither of you understand the other’s words but information transmission happens. Especially when it involves a shopkeeper and me with the clear intention of purchasing something.

Baraka doesn’t even begin to capture Shibuya crossing. It is such a beautiful dance of chaos.

All of my city navigation skills are broken. The smells are foreign (there’s no urine). There are no straight lines or circles… especially in the roads. Along many streets, there’s a street level for cars, a catwalk for people and another highway above you.

Every train station in Tokyo is modeled after a different station around the world. There was some utterly traumatic about walking out of all day meetings and getting a flashback to Amsterdam because Tokyo Station is a near-replica of Central Station.

Advertising built on kleenexes somehow seems far more practical and valuable than fliers.

I love the phone chatchkas. I love the heated toilets. I love that caffeine drinks come with vitamins. Getting beer out of a vending machine is quite peculiar. Particularly when you can only see cows and the neon of the vending machine.

It’s utterly eerie to see people wearing sars-masks post-sars-crises. Some tell me it’s because people have colds. But my ex says that it just became habit for some people.

I love the transit system. The little holes in your ticket. The way people line up properly in waiting and then cram into each other as hard as possible once boarding the train. I even had some residents tell me how to scam the system and tried it out of curiousity. Sure enough, scamming option is confirmed.

Buying clothes of the “opposite” sex is near impossible. The shopkeepers steer you into the proper gender performance. While (fe)male bodies are far closer to one another in Japan as compared to Europe/America, the gender performance is far more divisive.

What an adventure.

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10 comments to notes on Tokyo

  • The smells are foreign (there’s no urine).

    Trust me, that particular smell does indeed exist in Tokyo–it is just concentrated in particular places. Give it time and it will come to you.

    One of the dearest memories I have of Japan is a group of middle-aged drunk men in suits showing up at the train station, and whipping it out to pee on the tracks in front of everyone.

    Some years back, there was an international incident when a Japanese tourist was arrested for peeing on the side of a building in LA. It’s just a matter of finding the right (wrong) spots :).

  • aahh, natsukashii!

    the use of surgical masks predates SARS.
    it’s part of the cleanliness fetish.
    it was never uncommon.

  • dariusIt's

    Check out the fish market in the early morning. It’s one of those non-tourist stops that really give you a feel for the place.

    Many japanese wear the masks when they are sick. It’s polite to protect others from your germs. Nice people, the japanese.

    Are you wearing the big fuzzy hat?

  • Dan G

    First, take the Narita Express back. Cab fares are absurd. You can leave from the Tokyo station, Shinjuku, or Yokohama.

    It’s actually far more socially acceptable (or at least used to be) once you get outside of the cities (for men) to pee on the side of the road in Japan.

    And, as people have mentioned above, the masks are mainly a politeness thing for people who are sick. They were around before SARS. I’m sure there are some folks who do wear them out of fear for SARS/other germs however.

  • I was just eating these little pink rice flower slightly sweet candies Kevin Marks brought back while reading your post. Feels right. I am so envious. I would love to see what you did (sans cabfare). That’s even worse than the $200 taxi I had in London two summer’s ago. Anyway, when are you coming back. I have things to tell you and i miss you. m

  • I was just eating these little pink rice flower slightly sweet candies Kevin Marks brought back while reading your post. Feels right. I am so envious. I would love to see what you did (sans cabfare). That’s even worse than the $200 taxi I had in London two summer’s ago. Anyway, when are you coming back. I have things to tell you and i miss you. m

  • ..i guess that was important enough to say twice.

  • [The dreadful cabfare was due to going out to visit a friend in the country late at night. D’oh.]

    Yes – i know that the masks predate SARS in Japan and that they’ve been used when people are sick. Sorry for not clarifying. In talking to my ex, he told me that the incident rate of wearing said masks just magnified after SARS because people became generally more cognizent of getting illnesses from others. The cleanliness fetish just got larger.

  • michael

    how big were the “small steps”? the difference between 2 inches and 4-5 inches is huge for me. (heh. no part of that was a joke.)

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