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L.A. could learn some lessons from Tokyo

Japanese society isn't perfect, but Tokyo's taxis are clean, its cherry blossoms are in bloom and the city doesn't have a doughnut shop on every corner.

April 15, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

TOKYO — After a week here, I still haven't mastered Japanese.

I'm prone to say hello when I mean thank you, or vice versa, and I seldom know what I am ordering at restaurants, so the chicken might actually be eel. But regardless of what I'm attempting to communicate, the Japanese people bow graciously, which is probably a way of hiding their laughter.

In case you're wondering, I'm here at the request of the Japanese distributor of the movie "The Soloist," and to meet with the publishers of a certain book by the same name. I'm not going to say much more about that, given the flap over the Sunday movie promotion in The Times that drew some complaints from readers and colleagues.

For the record, I wish it had looked a little less like a news section, and would have said so if I'd seen it before publication. On the other hand, ad revenue pays for the journalism we do, and I thought the section was a fair summary of how the filmmakers got to know my friend Mr. Nathaniel Anthony Ayers and were inspired by him, as I have been.

In Japan, reporters were more interested in learning about Mr. Ayers and how I got to know him than they were about the film and its stars. The representatives of a Tokyo mental health agency told me they hope the book and movie will help them de-stigmatize mental illness.

Let me move on, though, to some thoughts on the city of Tokyo and what Los Angeles can learn from it. I'm no expert on Tokyo, this being my first visit to the city. And Tokyo is no Shangri-la, nor is Japanese society perfect. But I like a lot of what I'm seeing, and in no particular order, here are a few thoughts:

This is the cleanest city I've ever visited, and residents seem to take great pride in that. One day my wife and I saw a uniformed man on his knees, scraping a tiny wad of gunk off the pavement, and we saw no graffiti anywhere. In Los Angeles, why do we think it's OK to foul our own nest?

From my hotel window, I watched the comings and goings of trains day and night on a seven-track railway. Then there's the extensive and efficient subway system, which of course makes L.A.'s look like it was designed for a city the size of Bakersfield. As for auto traffic, it can be miserable, but commuters have alternatives. And I didn't see a single Hummer, the car of choice for Jaime de la Vega, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's deputy mayor of transportation. I'm willing to take up a collection and have both of them sent to Tokyo to take notes.

I'm not ready to go easy on L.A.'s billboard industry or their lackeys at City Hall, but Tokyo's neon and flash add to the city's sense of excitement and vitality. I'm now more inclined to say OK to special sign districts in commercial areas of Los Angeles, including Hollywood and Koreatown. But they're still a nuisance and an abomination in residential neighborhoods.

You cannot go anywhere in Tokyo without seeing people of all ages commuting by bicycle, and the city has gone out of its way to accommodate them. There are even designated bike lanes in crosswalks, and bike racks are everywhere. Los Angeles, with its better climate and health-conscious population, should be embarrassed and ashamed about how unaccommodating it is to bikes.

By the luck of the draw, I'm here at the peak of cherry blossom season, and the city is exploding with color, as if it were a sprawling cherry-vanilla confection. The bloom is a cause for celebration in Tokyo. And in L.A., meanwhile, how long ago did Mayor Villaraigosa promise to plant 1 million trees, how many hundreds of thousands of trees short of that goal is he, and why don't we do more to celebrate jacaranda season? There ought to be contests to highlight the most spectacular block in each neighborhood, and the tourism industry ought to be selling the lure of lavender along with the sunshine and beaches.

With the exception of Griffith Park, Tokyo puts L.A. to shame in its attention to open space. There's not a great deal of greenery in Tokyo's concrete metropolis, but where there's a park, there's attention to detail and monuments to history. Hordes of Japanese people take box lunches and sit under trees next to lakes and gardens. The parks also have cafes and museums, and they're all easy to get to without a car.

For whatever reason, maybe it's pride, again, Tokyo's taxis are first-class. Most drivers wear a coat and tie, their cars are polished to a sheen, the interiors are spotless and usually have lace seat covers, and there's plenty of leg room, as opposed to L.A.'s grungy fleet of jalopies. In an L.A. cab, I feel like a contortionist just getting in and out of the cramped and partitioned back seat, and I always feel lucky that a wheel doesn't fall off in transit.

Is it the Japanese diet, is there a national campaign on health and nutrition, or does everyone here belong to a health club? Maybe it's all the walking and cycling, or maybe it's the fact that there's not a doughnut shop on every corner.

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