Tokyo Sketches: Short Stories
by Pete Hamill

These stories are fragments retrieved from a number of visits I made to Tokyo over the past decade. When I first saw that amazing city, I was overwhelmed by an odd tangle of emotions. Tokyo was at once the most completely foreign town I'd ever seen (though I was the foreigneir, and a place that was eerily familiar. Walking alone at night on that first trip, I couldn't read the forest of neon calligraphy. I couldn't read the morning newspapers either, or the nuances of gesture, tone, clothing, attitude—that tight mesh of signs that contain a people. So much of life in Japan is encoded that a stranger could spend a lifetime trying to crack the codes and still fail, because so
many codes are continually altered or discarded.

In New York, where I was born, I knew most of the codes; and though I couldn't penetrate them in any way, I could identify the codes of Europe. In Tokyo, in those first days, Iwas looking wilhout seeing.

At the same time, I felt oddly at home. For a New Yorker, Tokyo has the familiar dense vastness of a great city. The basic structures and components are there: rivers, bridges, skyscrapers, traffic, markets, movie houses, parks and subways and bookstores. The streets are as thick with people as the avenues of Manhattan. You hear rap music and rock 'n' roll imd the plangent chords of the blues; you see huge crowds filing into baseball stadiums; you see T-shirts from American universities and scarlet caps from the Chicago Bulls. The surface geography of that Tokyo is knowable. I could sudy maps and guidebooks and explore that physical ciiy on foot or by subway. All cities have similar templates. They can be touched, seen, heard, described. Tokyo was no different. Or so I thought.

But as I spent more time in Tokyo—going back with my wife, who was born there, or visiting with newspaper friends—I began hearing stories that convinced me I would always be a stranger in its streets. Our histories are too different, as I understood after listening to many ordinary people who remembered the horrors of World War II and the humiliations of the Occupation. I'm from a city that has never been bombed, a nation that has never been occupied and can't ever fully understand the feelings that accompany such memories. The rubble of the South Bronx might superficially resemble Tokyo in 1945, but self-inflicted wounds aren't the same as wounds inflicted by strangers. To be sure, the Japanese almost never mention the war to visiting Americans. But its immense, almost mythic presence can be felt in those silences.
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