The Tokyo in which one finds oneself on the first night is clean, except for cigarette butts. It is not beautiful. In stores and on signs the color sense is superb: rich primary colors well matched. The streets are crowded with black sedans, which are status symbols and so are new and spotless. Hair is moussed. Middle-aged men are not quite so prone to overflow around the middle. One notes on the street a sense of poise and self-confidence, especially among the younger men and women, who dress with great style and care. One would sense instinctively, even knowing nothing else, that this is a society in its building phase. There is a sense, among these men and women, of a people who have hit their stride and know it. Admiration is commanded. Awe, even. This was all rubble 45 years ago. Tokyo throbs with a feeling that what is happening is happening here. The only city that compares to it that way is New York, but New York has a stench of decay and fear.
You feel perfectly safe among the people, and also completely on the outside. As you walk in Roppongi, a busy night-life district, the closest thing to human contact is a boy's "Hi," followed by an excited smile when his magic word elicits the same in return. You notice something different and realize it's that people are quite unfazed at being looked at. Within reason, you can look them straight in the face as you pass on the street. This is provocative if tried in the United States, where eye contact makes women embarrassed or fearful and men hostile or suspicious. But the Japanese either don't notice or don't care. This unaccustomed freedom to gaze raises mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is testimony to Japan's safeness. Someone who looks at you is probably not going to hurt you. In Japan you are about an eighth as likely to be murdered as in America, a thirtieth as likely to be raped. On the other hand, one feels slighted, conspicuous yet ignored. I was always a little startled when I was addressed from time to time--if a bus driver wanted my attention, for instance--as \o7 gaijin-san,\f7 "Mr. Foreigner." I suppose I felt the way a black man might feel if he were addressed as "Mr. Negro." \o7 Gaijin \f7 is very frank. Literally it means "outside person," and nothing could be more apt. It is a close relative of an equally frank and still more important word, \o7 gaikoku, \f7 "foreign country." \o7 Gaikoku \f7 is nothing but \o7 gai \f7 plus \o7 koku, \f7 "outside" plus "nation." Outnation, outland. Thus the more polite expression for "foreigner," \o7 gaikoku-jin, \f7 literally means "outlander." And that is just how one often feels among them, especially at first: outlandish. On the street in front of the Labor Ministry I was hurrying forward and brushed past a man whose cigarette scraped my sleeve and left ashes. Instantly he said, "Excuse me," in English. He could barely have had a chance to look at me, yet he registered that I spoke English.
It must be reported that the Japanese are exceptionally beautiful. Though generalizing is hazardous, there is a certain type of beauty that is recognizably Japanese: balanced, self-contained, demurely radiant. At their best, the women are lithe and focused and have warm, dark eyes, which are shy at first but soon sparkle. The young men make no attempts whatever to hide their vanity. At their best, they have compact frames, with broad shoulders riding above slender waists, and perfect, straight carriage and a certain swaggerless lightness of bearing. The skin reminds you that, after all, the Japanese are Pacific Islanders, like the Balinese or Polynesians: It is very smooth in texture, glowing gold-brown in color, and ideally set off by the thick black hair. One feels that no other combination--skin brown-gold-pink, hair crisp black--could be as right.
It is frustrating and grueling to come here as an outsider and try to work the system: All the knobs and levers and buttons are on the inside. To enter any Japanese social system you must first get past the sign on the front door, which invariably says, "By introduction only." I cannot think of Japan without thinking of Kochan, the master sushi chef. To screen out the frivolous he required an introduction, and he hid all his fish under the counter. When strangers wandered unintroduced into his tiny Ginza restaurant, he would tell them he was fresh out of everything. I saw this happen once. A couple came in asking for a table. Kochan shook his head: Sorry, no fish today. They knew he was lying, since the restaurant was full of people eating fish--but it was a polite lie, understood for what it was and therefore acceptable.