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Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

THE VIEW FROM NEW YORK

Three LatAm capitals and the Tokyo of 1964


NEW YORK — While visiting three capitals in Latin America on a lecture tour earlier this month, I wondered if Tokyo looked or felt like any of these cities to someone visiting it from New York or a large European city half a century ago.

The wonderment, on the face of it, was silly. The three cities — Quito, La Paz and Caracas — are all European in origin. Two of them, La Paz and Quito, are the world's highest and the second-highest capital cities, and have little in common with Tokyo, which stands on alluvial plains.

Yet certain urban disharmonies — for example, the presence of ramshackle houses not far from the downtown where modern, gleaming towers mushroom — made me think of Tokyo of the past.

No, I never lived in the Japanese capital; I was a college student in Kyoto at the time. But because of a biography I am working on, I had known for some time that "Life" magazine had done a Japan special in the fall of 1964 to mark the Tokyo Olympic Games and that the writer it chose to make a coherent observation on the city was no less than Arthur Koestler — something I had been reminded of when a new biography of that famous writer came out: Michael Scammell's "Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic" (Random House, 2009).

So, as I returned to New York, I checked Koestler's "Life" article, "For Better or Worse: Her Course Is Set" (Sept. 11, 1964). I did not have to go far into the article to find what I had expected. Tokyo is "the first city in the world with a monorail system linking airport to urban center," he had written, "but it has no citywide sewage system."

The monorail, along with "the Bullet Train," was built to show to the world that Japan had made it, and these technological achievements made proud news. But I knew back then that Tokyo still lived with a number of incongruities. "It has subways, speedways, highways, superhighways, artificial ski slopes and air-conditioned taxis, but practically no street names and only bafflingly nonconsecutive house numbers."

The latter half of this observation refers to the well-known result of the amoebic growth of the Japanese metropolis, and it may not exactly apply to the three Latin American cities. Installed in a luxury hotel in each and escorted by embassy people in every detail, my wife and I had little chance to observe such things. Still, my wife, the reader of guidebooks, tells me that Caracas has its own odd street address system, and I glimpsed enough helter-skelter urban sprawl in each city.

Quito and Caracas suffer from water shortages. Tokyo, in 1964, had a severe water shortage that necessitated a 15-hour-a-day water stoppage in many areas. Caracas also suffers from power shortages, even though, our embassy friends insisted with some indignation, Venezuela is an oil-producing country and "gasoline is cheaper than water."

Koestler had merely indicated that the power supply in Japan had improved from his visit five years earlier, in 1959.

Caracas suffers from palpable air pollution. Tokyo was definitely far worse in this regard in 1964. A chronology tells us that the cars on the city's roads exceeded 1 million that year, but in the 1960s little thought was given to auto emissions. Koestler did not note air pollution most likely because it was common to all big cities in the world.

Koestler mentioned one other thing that makes Caracas comparable to Tokyo. It has to do with what Rolland Barthes gleefully noted in "Empire of Signs": the Japanese Caucasian complex.

The Japanese for a long time have felt inferior to Caucasians. At the time he was asked to write about them, Koestler picked for illustration "the movie actress or fashion model who undergoes plastic surgery to eliminate the slant appearance of her eyes and who inflates her bosom to conform to 'Caucasian' standards."

The immediate issue was "Olympicitis." It was the divorce epidemic some Japanese feared would sweep through Japanese women as soon as a mass of tall, good-looking American and European males descended upon them with the Olympic Games. The Japanese males in comparison were "insignificant."

Our embassy friend in Caracas, Kumiko, told us, with incredulity, how young, beautiful Venezuelan women customarily subject themselves to plastic surgery. My stay there was too short for me to learn the whys and wherefores of said Venezuelan behavior (can't be a racial inferiority complex!).

But the Japanese, if anything, have gotten a lot worse in this respect, as Kumiko knows. I bless her soul: She is determined to stay with what her parents have endowed her with.

If we may leave Latin America for now, Koestler began his "Life" article with the blandest cliche possible but did not belie his reputation as a cosmopolitan skeptic. He observed, "These Asian islanders are at the same time so very like us and so very unlike us." Yet he went on to note that "every nation has its contradictions and paradoxes," adding, in the case of the United States, that "the organization man still sees himself as a rugged individualist."

Similarly, he touched on religions but mainly as a social phenomenon. They are "symptomatic of a spiritual void which material prosperity alone cannot fill." What he observed in Japan, in short, was not "a particularly Japanese but a universal predicament in an age of anxious reappraisal of human values."

His prime example was Soka Gakkai, at the time on a "spectacular rise," and he described in accurate detail the religio- political (Buddhist) body's "special method of aggressive proselytizing — Shakubutsu." I know his description was accurate because I was subjected to "the method" with relentless persistence.

Incidentally, Scammell's biography does not mention Koestler's 1964 visit to Japan, but only the first. The earlier visit had a great deal to do with Zen, which he decided was "an existentialist hoax."

Translator and essayist Hiroaki Sato is working on a biography of Yukio Mishima.


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