113 Comments
Jul 17, 2023·edited Jul 17, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Tokyo is absolutely one of my favorite places to have lived. I'm blessed to have gotten to live in its burbs, I made many dear friends there, while exploring both* the city and all of the country that I could...

But I have to admit, I did not always feel welcomed. There were times when i'd sit on a train and someone would move away, there were times when folks wouldn't want to sit next to me. Honestly, I often didn't mind in the humid summer months.

90% of Japanese folks didn't care that I had dark skin and was clearly a foreigner, they loved the little Japanese I'd spoke, they would go out of their ways to help me get directions or find a lost camera or learn the cheers at a baseball game. But yea, there is racism there, and it's different than what I experienced in America. This was from over a decade ago. My white friends didn't experience it as much, if at all. Most women friends I had felt safer in Japan than anywhere else in the world. It's a great place, I'd agree it's the greatest of places (agreeing though with the mentioned caveats on corporate culture)...But I definitely think it can feel different for people of a certain appearance than, say New York or Chicago. It did for me.

*edited a typo

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5 of the happiest years of my life was the time spent in Tokyo in the 1990s. Don't be fooled by this nonsensical view that the last 30 years were "lost decades" in Japan. The country has continued to flourish and, if anything, Tokyo has become even greater. It is the model city for the 21st century.

One final point: when I first moved to Japan, I was struck by the country's sense of cultural uniqueness and exclusivity. But that has all changed, perhaps reflecting the new self-confidence and worldliness of the current generation. Japan has become a major exporter of culture and has at the same time become a much more inclusionary society, with Tokyo (and Osaka) leading the way: fashion, anime, technology, Noah has seen the future, and it is Japan, with Tokyo as the tip of this beautiful shining spear.

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I miss Tokyo! What a terrific post.

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Jul 17, 2023·edited Jul 17, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Noah, I totally agree. I live in Tokyo (as a lawyer) and love it. Next time you're in town, let me know -- would enjoy meeting up! Also, sorry for the loss of your pet rabbit. That was a heartfelt post.

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Jul 17, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

I love Tokyo, especially the whole metro area including Odaiba, Yokohama, Kawasaki and down to Kamakura and Enoshima. The new Azubadai Hills tower will take over from Osaka’s Abeno Harukas (which has the excellent Marriot Miyako Hotel on the upper floors) as the tallest building in Japan. The penthouse recently sold for ¥200,0000,0000 ($141,000,000) so you can also find expensive housing in Japan, although the average apartment is cheaper than in many big US cities (studio under $1000).

The best city however is Fukuoka, which has much of the charm, beauty and attractions of Tokyo (and better ramen) with 1/4 of the population and fewer tourists.

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Interesting piece that does seem to capture the zeitgeist I am picking up from everyone traveling here post-covid. Like pent-up global desire arriving all at once.

There’s one paragraph where your argument seemed incorrect to me. I don’t think it’s proper to compare Tokyo-to (2,200 sq km) and New York City (780 sq km). When people hear "city proper" they think of the urban core surrounded by suburbs. Better to compare to the 23 wards (628 sq km, 15,568 persons/km2). I looked it up a day ago and the 23 wards are basically the same size as Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens. This part of Tokyo has a similar distribution of urban scales as New York City, and is denser by a significant margin. The reason Tokyo-to as a whole is less dense is not because so many of the people are commuting in, but because a third of it is uninhabited forest, and another third of it is suburbs of varying density. Tokyo-to’s daytime population goes up by about 20% to 16+ million. The 23 wards’ daytime population goes up by about 30% to 12+ million. So the effect you’re referring to is more pronounced at the level of the central wards. Anyway, I was just writing about the same stuff this week so thought I'd chime in.

The other thing I wonder about is how much Tokyo is truly exploring its urban possibilities as you say—it goes forward, for sure, proving the wonders of urban density and development can be extended almost endlessly, but much of the development of the past 20 years has been iterations of the same forms, making the city and urban life more homogenous. No real movement here to create dramatically different eco-housing, or new ways of using common space like rivers and roads, or efforts to actually assimilate the immigrants who now prop it up. Also worth wondering, if Tokyo didn't absorb everything, would there be healthier economic clusters around the country, in Fukuoka and Sendai and everywhere else? The country goes sideways because Tokyo goes ceaselessly forward.

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Jul 17, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

I agree. Would also like to buy you a beer. How about subscriber meet up at an izakaya? :-)

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I've seen Japan as a very interested visitor with a limited Japanese vocabulary as early as in the mid 1950s,( traveling with a friend and his mother, who had taught in Japan in the late pre-War years), then frequently in the 1980s and 1990s through various IBM collaborations. And as recently as a few years ago, bringing our kids in trail. IBM's Research labs were once close to the Imperial Palace, but then moved into the near suburbs, at Yamato. Both were fascinating places in which to work and exist. And the culture, once I had a role in it, was very warm and accepting.

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Jul 18, 2023·edited Jul 18, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

I'd argue as someone who is trapped in the local rat race in Tokyo, it's still pretty idyll, even if it's not as nice as existing here with basically unlimited money and no responsibilities. I'm certainly enjoying life way more being trapped in the rat race here, than I was being trapped in the rat race in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and even more than teleworking on an American salary in Germany.

Tokyo is a playground for the middle class in a way other cities just aren't. For example, on effectively a single local upper middle class salary, my partner and I can and do eat delicious restaurant food for almost every meal. And I'm not alone, Japanese people eat at restaurants almost 400 times per year, and I'm sure it's much higher for childless office workers in Tokyo. And the middle class that can enjoy this playground is unusually large despite the stagnation and poverty, considering my friend group includes minimum wage workers and starving artist types, which would be unimaginable when I lived in California.

Would I prefer to live here on an American salary? Definitely. However, a large part of daily life is society and the built environment, and it's just not possible to buy daily life in Tokyo with money when you live somewhere else.

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FYI Noah, if you're ever in NYC/live there, go to Izakaya Juraku on the Lower East Side. Biggest Japanese craft beer selection in America. Great food. They project anime on the wall behind the bar.

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Jul 17, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

All true! Especially being there on an American salary (I lived there 6 years). I tell every friend to visit Tokyo, not for any particular sights but just to live in it for a couple of weeks. It’s hard when folks feel an obligation to see Kyoto or something (not knocking Kyoto - it is more or less as advertised) but, man, the endless pleasant surprises of Tokyo are hard to improve upon... The optimistic and adventurist attitude about the future that one absorbs from the built environment and infrastructure… The breakfasts!

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Look man, I’ve wanted to go to Japan for a long time. But I have young kids. I’m not as worried about them flying over there, even though it’s a very long flight. Is it a viable place to go with children and still enjoy the cultural aspects of it? And I ask this with you knowing nothing about my kids, but I have a feeling they would enjoy something different like that. Especially Tokyo.

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Not only do you have me looking up Seattle to Tokyo flights on Skyscanner but you have me hoping for a big, multicultural, fast-growing (again) Japan generally. As a normal person would, I was perusing OECD subdivisions by PPP the other night and was seeing the consequences of low Japanese growth - it seems that Japan has migrated from being one of the richest developed countries in the 1990s to one of the poorest today, as you've noted. Britain should take note.

What do you think would be the biggest thing that Japan could do to make it more attractive to migrants? What could it learn from places like the US/Canada/Germany?

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Would love to get your top to-do's with friends who you are showing Tokyo for the first time!

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Jul 17, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Striking that you don't mention London. Before Brexit it was routinely described (or paired with NYC) as the the primary example of a "global city". Now it looks more like a cross between Grand Fenwick and the Cayman Islands. Living on faded glories and tax evasion.

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Ok, you’ve convinced me - I’m on my way!

Technically true - I’m arriving in Osaka on Wednesday and Tokyo in a couple of weeks. First time ever visit to Japan, excited is an understatement!

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