Friday, January 28, 2005

nowhere, japan

Up til now I've basically relied on the loose metaphor that Saitama is Tokyo's New Jersey, and have said a few things about how it's very anonymity and lack of local distinguishing color makes it feel like one of the most thoroughly Japanese of all places I've been to.

Obviously every place in Japan is Japanese by definition, but it's a loose thing, this Japaneseness, more of a modern invention of mass communication than anything else. Just a hundred years ago the country was awash in impenetrable local dialects and regional customs. One of the classic examples is natto, fermented soybeans coated in this sticky goo, mixed with some sauce and mustard, usually eaten over rice. It also stinks to high heaven, like the smelliest cheese you could never actually bear to bring to your mouth. While people in Eastern Japan (including Tokyo) eat this stuff for breakfast, it's only just barely starting to be sold in the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe).

In anycase, Saitama seemed distinct by its very lack of character. It is a prefecture of people who came from somewhere else, from cold little hamlets and one horse towns, coming to the big city, ending up in Saitama where the rents are lower and the groceries cheaper. In my two years here almost comes from some little town I've never heard of, or they have grandparents whose speech they can't understand. Uprooted from their hometowns and transplanted to the rough Kanto soil makes for a lot of lost souls. It's a pet theory of mine that the idea of a national Japanese identity only came into being with the massive move to the cities, and the advent of television.

At any rate, Saitama is concurrent in many people's minds to Japan at it's most bland and characterless. Saitama's nickname is "Dasaitama". Dasai is an adjective reserved for the likes of mullets, Pauly Shore movies and New Jersey. But with a prefectural population topping seven million, that is a lot of people to be calling lame, and something resembling local pride is starting to crop up.

It's remarkable how America exports both the image of "normal" modern life and the modern images of rebellion to other countries. Following this odd phenomenon, hip-hop is absolutely huge in urban Saitama. Although the bulk of hip-hop in Japan, like in the US is about cool cars, cool clothes and booty dancing honeys, the strain of hip-hop that pumps local pride and the empowerment from local hip-hop scenes has survived the trans-Pacific journey. It seems to cling fastest to those places blighted worst by urban development, the liminal gray zones of apartment blocks and corner factories. In my old neighborhood in Western Saitama the quiet train station was often overtaken by scores of hip-hop kids who brought in boom boxes and practiced breakdancing moves with their friends. They would use the broad windows as mirrors to check their moves. I never saw anything resembling a 40, and you better believe most of these kids had never even smelled a blunt.

Across the border in Tokyo prefecture (the distinction is pretty meaningless, the urban sprawl being pretty constant the whole way), hip-hop also thrives in the suburbs. Last year there was a major hit from a group called the Ota Crew, whose name is a pun on their hometown, Ota-ku, the largest ward in Tokyo. In my loose translation, the chorus of their hit went something like"In the alphabet it's O-T-A!/Biggest of the 23 wards in Tokyo ze!/In the alphabet it's O-T-A!/Feeling a'ight in the Keihin area today!"

But back to Saitama. The other night a local English teacher showed me his local watering hole, Riki. (Google translation software!) I'd walked by it a few times before, this rowdy Japanese style bar smack in the center of downtown Urawa, on a central corner in the middle of the pedestrian shopping area, with tables that spill out into the street even in January. There's a counter right on the corner with several baskets of yakitoris skewers, steaming in the January air, bought by hungry commuters grabbing a take-away snack for the walk home. It is emblazoned with posters that scream "We Are Reds!" in English, which I thought was pretty awesome, until I realized The Reds are the local soccer team. While the season is over now, this place is ground zero for fans who can't make it into the stadium during games. The Reds are the longest running soccer team in Japan, and for a long time they were the only major sports team in Saitama, lacking even a baseball team. As such they inspire fanatic loyalty in their fans, and my friend told me this place gets insane during games. The street will be jammed in every direction and they'll still be serving everyone, waitresses lugging pitchers of beer and ticking off orders on the little clipboard slips they leave with every customer.

The Reds took the championship this year, and while my memory of the story is fogged by all the beer on my brain when I heard it, Riki's was apparently the epicenter of the riot-party that followed. Urawa's downtown was brimming with whooping elated fans awash in alcohol and maniacal good spirits. Funny, but the only other time I've seen that type of thing here are at the local festivals, in the hometowns Saitama folk left behind.

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