It’s back to someone else’s past as Tokyo goes dark

So this is Neo-Tokyo. Despite being the inspiration, the city still exists as a kind of homage to the 80s cyberpunk imagery we saw in Akira and Los Angeles 2019. Long after those styles and even Japan itself went out of vogue, Tokyo shrugged and went about business in all its oversaturated neon glory. There was good reason for this: it wasn’t actually futuristic, it just looked that way to everyone outside Asia. It was the way Tokyo appeared on a normal day, and the rest of the world could make whatever it wanted of that.

In April 2011 Tokyo, things are not normal. Power shortages have provided ample excuse for everyone not to party or carry on as usual in the face of tragedy. Whether it’s a genuine attempt to save scarce electricity or a gesture of solidarity to those suffering the effects of last month’s earthquake and tsunami, or both, 21st century Tokyo has become a very different and even un-Tokyo-like place. The neon, jumbo TV screens and billboards are switched off. Crowds trudge up stairs instead of queueing for escalators, which are roped off as well as deactivated. Convenience stores and supermarkets have empty shelves where the toilet paper and bottled water used to be, and in most public buildings lighting has been halved. Even pachinko parlors, those temples of tacky overload, have been reduced to just annoying.

(yes, I know it's actually set in Chiba)

Many years ago, when I still thought stumbling out of clubs and trudging through the main drag of Shibuya at 4AM was a decent way to live, I was amazed how exanimate the place looked with its lights off. The only light and movement in ‘scramble crossing’ outside Shibuya station was a street sweeper, its orange hazards bouncing off streets of dark glass and concrete. Shibuya could have been any neighborhood in any big city, anywhere. 

This is, after all, the city that shrugs at Earth Hour. Have a private candle party in your apartment if you like, but your room would be lit by the pastel glare of the billboard across the street. Drivers turn off their headlights at traffic signals and forget to switch them on again, probably forgetting it’s even night time. Tokyo without its electric shine is a lot less Tokyo.

After 9/11, New Yorkers grieved for their skyline for years after the initial human loss. Even those who’d never had much affection for the stark WTC towers had accepted them as part of the landscape, something that appeared in every tourist’s album whether intended or not. They turned to the Empire State Building for reassurance that New York was still New York, and worried that its very symbolism of the city might make it another target.

Tokyo doesn’t have much in the way of internationally recognizable built landmarks. Many foreign visitors have never heard of Tokyo Tower or Meiji Shrine, and the Sky Tree isn’t finished yet. It’s all about the lights. Tourists sometimes ask me to show them ‘the place with all the TV screens’ and even if we’re nowhere near scramble crossing, there’s probably something in the vicinity to stand in for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll compare, but not equate Tokyo’s loss of identity with New York’s. After all, it’s a decade since 9/11 and the World Trade Center gap is still there, while Tokyo can flick its lights back on once enough power is available (and a suitable period of mourning has passed). But while the lights are off, and Tokyo has been hauled back into a past that was never its own anyway. Its resident city-lovers and cyberpunk dreamers can only hope it doesn’t get too used to the change, and does indeed revert to its garish old self again.