“People lived or died like pebbles.” Nobody rambles across Tokyo. “Caught in.” The ultimate megacity. “Or washed through.” The vast web of suburbs. “A sieve.” Of small cities, really. “I was a grain of sand that escaped” — a forced laborer named Damien, aka Mbah Ubi, who lives on Java. Radiating out from a hub. “The Revolution.” Of skyscrapers. In A History of Modern Indonesia. More than 30 million. By Adrian Vickers. And “Yomping through the drizzle.” People live. By Marcel Theroux. Within 50 km of its center. Cambridge U.P. “Taking the scenic route on foot.” The Guardian. “Is an ideal way to explore Tokyo’s strange mixture.” 2005. “Of modernity and tradition.” February 11, 2013.
For Indonesians World War II and their subsequent national revolution started optimistically. A city this big and complicated. Kicked off by the enthusiasm of liberation from the Dutch by the Japanese. Can only function because of its extraordinary mass transit system. Pramoedya Ananta Toer recalls the arrival of the Emperor’s forces in Blora. Which shuttles millions of workers to and from its suburbs each day. “In March 1943 the Japanese had swept rapidly through the Indies.” But I wanted to experience the city at walking speed. “And people came to meet their army, waving flags and shouting their support for the liberators from the Dutch.” Under the concrete and the tower blocks.
“With the arrival of the Japanese.” The monorails and the overpasses. “Just about everyone in town was still full of hope.” Like other versions of Japan. “Except for those who had worked in the service of the Dutch.” The culmination of thousands of years of island history. Given the success that the Dutch had in suppressing the small nationalist movement in Indonesia. Presided over by an imperial family. The country would not have come into being without Japan’s intervention. Which still traces its descent. The Japanese encouraged and spread nationalist sentiments, created new institutions. In an unbroken lineage from the sun god, Amaterasu. And put political leaders like Suharto in place.
This strange combination of modernity and tradition is what’s so intriguing about Japan: Equally they destroyed much of what the Dutch had built. Bullet trains and tatami mats. The combination of nationalism and destruction. Pachinko parlors and tea ceremony. Were essential ingredients for the revolution. Concrete ugliness and a reverence for natural beauty. That followed the end of World War II. The kitsch of Hello Kitty and the simplicity of haiku. Japan had spread the word that it was the “Light of Asia.” So one bright December morning I started my walk across Tokyo. It was the one Asian nation that had successfully made the transition. From the nature reserve on the summit of Mount Takao.
To a modern technological society at the end of the nineteenth century. On the western edge of Tokyo’s municipal boundary. Japan had remained independent. It is roughly 65 km. Whereas most other Asian nations, with the exception of Siam. As the crow flies. Had fallen under European or American power. To the heart of the city. And in 1905 Japan had beaten a European country, Russia, in war. With me that first day. Militarism came to dominate the Japanese state during the 1930s. Was Mr. Suzuki. Leading up to Japanese expansion into China. A handsome, 68-year-old former airline steward. As they turned their attention to Southeast Asia. Who had taken up guiding in retirement.
The Japanese spread the message that other Asians could be part of a “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” We had reached the summit by cable car. A kind of trade zone led by Japanese. After a 90-minute train ride from downtown Tokyo. The Japanese promise for Indonesia was an end to the racially based Dutch system. From here on, we traveled by foot. But for the Chinese in Indonesia, Japanese rule in China gave them no reason to be sanguine. Looking west from the summit, we could see miles of velvety green mountains. As Pramoedya recalls it: Home to wild boar, monkeys, barn owls and flying squirrels.”The landing of the Japanese army made the young men more dynamic.”
But east of us lay the urban sprawl of Tokyo: “They were in awe of the Japanese.” The city fanning out from the bay. “The Japanese had severely dented the glory of the white man’s realm.” Its central district a hub of distant gray spikes. “In both mainland Asia and throughout the archipelago.” It would have been serene, except the mountain was heaving with visitors. Japan’s lightning push south from China was already underway. Tokyo is short of green spaces. When they launched the pre-emptive strike that ripped the heart out of the United States Navy.” And Takao is a popular place for day-trippers. In 1941. Most had come to admire the late autumn colors of the maple leaves. At Pearl Harbor.
They were snapping pictures on their mobile phones. And then took the U.S. colony of the Philippines. “Ooh-ing and aah-ing.” Helped by quasi neutral governments in Indo-China and Siam (Thailand). Some were in full alpine kit and caboodle. The Japanese quickly marched into Malaysia and Singapore. With walking poles, tin mugs jiggling on their backpacks, and gas stoves. Sulawesi and Kalimantan were under their control by January 1942. But no one was going as far as I was: By February 1942 the Japanese had landed on Sumatra. I had four days’ walking ahead of me before I reached central Tokyo. Where they had already encouraged the Acehnese to rebel against the Dutch.
At the base of the mountain, Mr. Suzuki and I ate a bowl of buckwheat noodles in the Maple Leaf noodle shop. The Allied navy’s last efforts to contain Japan were swept aside in the Battle of the Java Sea. Mr. Suzuki spoke English with the careful pronunciation and vast vocabulary of the autodidact. And the Dutch army crumpled under the Japanese onslaught. He wanted me to clarify a few points of translation: And thus the Netherlands East Indies was no more. “Marcel-san,” he asked politely. The basis of independence had come into existence.
“Should I say soba with grated taro?” But not as an independent state. “Or soba with grated yam?” Instead it consisted of three Japanese military commands.
In return. Sumatra (along with Malaysia). I questioned him. Java and the eastern islands. About the mysterious Japanese aesthetic principle of wabi-sabi. And Kalimantan. “Very difficult to explain in simple words, Marcel-san,” said Mr. Suzuki. All reported to Singapore. “This is part of the Japanese spirit” Which in turn reported to Saigon. “Nothing permanent, nothing perfect, nothing finished.” Which in turn reported to Tokyo. Wabi-sabi is most visibly expressed in the arts that are unique to Japan. The Islamic leaders were pleased with the way the Japanese supported them over the Christian community. There is a hint of it in the apparent artlessness of Japanese flower-arranging.
But not so happy when the Japanese demanded that the fasting month not be observed. In the wonky teacups that are prized for tea ceremony. Because the Japanese war was to be a Holy War that overrode other concerns. And in the somber colors and weathered old stones of Japanese garden design. Feeding the population proved the most difficult task. Wabi-sabi belongs to pre-modern Japan: At the end of the Dutch period the Netherlands Indies were self-sufficient in rice. This in the Japan that predates manga, industrial development and the armies of salarymen riding commuter trains to work. And had always depended upon importing rice from Java, Burma and Thailand.
But it retains significance, particularly for older Japanese people, to whom it also seems an ethical imperative. The Ambonese experienced during Japanese rule a period of extreme food shortage. For the next hour. And also a shortage of other basic necessities, particularly cloth. We found a few wabi-sabi features in the landscape. The Japanese launched programs to promote the growing of vegetables. Clear mountain streams were running beside the road. The making of soap. There were traditional wooden houses with tiled roofs. And home weaving. Citrus trees in their gardens and strings of persimmons drying in the sunshine. Saying that the Ambonese were not used to the “easy life.”
In one house, I could see an old woman kneeling on her floor as she worked on a huge piece of embroidery. Men were drafted by the Japanese as laborers, smaller numbers of women to provide “comfort.” We were walking along route 20, which follows the line of the Koshu Kaido, one of the five arterial roads of medieval Tokyo. Pramoedya remembers the fate of one “comfort woman.” We passed a marker showing 50 km to Nihonbashi — the bridge in Tokyo from which all distances were traditionally measured. During his imprisonment on the remote eastern island of Buru, near Ambon. The road was lined with two rows of gingko trees, which had shed their leaves in piles on the pavement.
A fellow prisoner was working in the fields. “The gingko leaves, like heaps of gold,” announced Mr. Suzuki, as though roughing out the draft of a haiku. When this man met up with a middle-aged woman who spoke to him in High Javanese. Around us, the city was still on a human scale, with small, artisanal shops: a man making tofu late in the evening. She had been “the daughter of a deputy village chief from Wonogiri” in Central Java. (“Very difficult work, Marcel-san. Hard to compete with supermarkets.”) In 1943 the occupying forces sent her away from Java, aged fourteen, with the promise that she was to be educated. A woman selling pickled turnips and various wagashi shops.
Shipped to Ambon, and then to the remote island of Seram, she found herself in a dormitory with other young women. Which sell the bean paste sweets with seasonal themes that are served with thick green tea as part of the tea ceremony. Where their real duties began: “They were the Japanese officer’s sexual toys.” But gradually, the city began to grow higher and denser around us. She had tried to return home after the war, but got no farther than Buru, where she stayed for another three decades. At Hachioji, an overpass over the road seemed to signal the onset of the city proper. Women were taken from all over Asia to work in the barracks brothels, along with Dutch prisoners too.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by vending machines covered with pictures of Tommy Lee Jones that dispensed cans of hot and cold instant coffee. A few, such as the women on Buru, were recruited by trickery, most were raped and brutalized. “No ordinance preventing this,” said Mr. Suzuki. There have been no estimates of how many Indonesians suffered this way. “Americans think it’s very funny to find Tommy Lee Jones here.” But there were tens of thousands of “comfort women” throughout the Japanese empire. “You know he went to Harvard with Al Gore.” Many have had to live out their lives with the disgrace of their experiences, despised by their communities, when they returned.
Mr. Suzuki and I parted at Hachioji. He had set up his mobile phone as a pedometer. “That is the farthest I have ever walked, Marcel-san. Thirteen kilometers!” I was sad to see him go. I fell asleep at 9 pm, exhausted from the walk and jet lag. At some point during the night, my phone rang with vague communications from home: a child was a speaking elf in a Christmas play, something about my mother-in-law. My jet lag felt less like Lost in Translation and more like Life on Mars. The next morning, the weather was raw and gray. I followed the yellow gingko trees along route 20 and over the Asa River. My breath came in smoky puffs. Under the Dutch “peace and order” Indonesians were meant to be passive.
For the next two days, I walked across gray Tokyo suburbs in light rain, carrying a change of clothes in my backpack and listening to a Japanese tutor tape. I used sign language and half a dozen Japanese words to order lunch and dinner in noodle bars. I relied on Tommy Lee Jones for coffee and tea. I had the exhilarating feeling of being immersed in a mysterious, distant world. At night, I was reading Richard Lloyd Parry’s book People Who Eat Darkness, and I couldn’t improve on his description of the excitement of being in Japan: On the other hand, the Japanese mobilized the whole population for the war effort. Sukarno was elevated by the Japanese in order to unite the Japanese and Indonesian causes.
“Every morning it takes her by surprise — the sudden consciousness of profound difference. Is it something unfamiliar about the angle of the light, or the way the sounds register in the summer air? Or is it the demeanor of the people on the street and in the cars and the trains — unobtrusive, but purposeful; neat, courteous, self-contained, but intent, as if following secret orders?” It briefly became legal, if not encouraged, to sing “Indonesia the Great,” to raise the red and white flag of the independence movement, to hold rallies. While the independence military authorities were wary of giving the Indonesians too much license, they recognized that they could not maintain their position by force alone.
Even at its most gray and mundane, there was something extraordinary about the city. It manifested itself both in strange absences — litter, overt conflict, graffiti, noise — and in the people wearing surgical masks, the baffling signage, the sedate cyclists beside me on the pavement, the schoolboys in their Prussian uniforms. Sukarno was allowed to travel the countryside giving speeches with nationalist messages, so long as he made it clear that supporting Indonesia was a way to support the war. No one greeted me, tried to talk to me, or ripped me off. It seemed perfectly natural for a gaijin (literally, an outside person) with no Japanese and a big backpack to be yomping through the drizzle.
His work involved recruiting forced labor. Every now and again, I’d have what I thought of — no doubt, inaccurately — as a moment of wabi-sabis. Other Indonesian politicians were drafted into leading roles on ava, where nationalists mixed with regents in “advisory bodies.” I’d see a little temple, or a tiled house with an orchard of persimmon trees around it. Indonesians were not allowed to have their own political organizations. I walked past miles of industrial hangars echoing with the sounds of heavy machinery, and through residential areas that had, within living memory, been open fields. But they were allowed to participate in organizations sponsored by the Japanese.
Gradually, I became familiar with the way the city rises and falls. Praoedya got a glimpse into the world of politics and government through the Japanese propaganda machine. Hotels, skyscrapers and big department stores were clustered around the train stations that link the suburbs to the transport system. He joined the 250,000 Indonesians who moved from the countryside to Jakarta. Some were miniature Tokyos: high-rises, neon signs — the suburb of Tachikawa had its own red-light district, where hostess bars and karaoke clubs were housed in the upper stories of tall buildings. There he found work in the Japanese news agency as a stenographer and researcher.
But half a mile farther on, the architecture shrank again, the landscape reverting to suburbs of two-story houses. Artists, traditional theater performers, writers and ideologues were all recruited for the war effort, producing plays, films and newspaper articles. Modern Tokyo is the product of two cataclysmic 20th-century events: the 1923 earthquake and World War II; the destruction gave planners a free hand to design a city that was unsentimentally efficient and dynamic. The Japanese supervising these activities had clear ideas of what should or should not be portrayed. But there is little visible remnant of that older Japan. I looked in vain for the delicate imperfections of wabi-sabi.
At times, the urbanization seemed relentless. Whenever I saw something not made of concrete, I had an urge to snap a picture. On my third day, as I raised my camera toward some aubergines growing on a tiny plot of land, I had a strange realization: I had become a Japanese tourist. That lunchtime, I found a tiny restaurant, run by a couple who were at least in their 70s and possibly a decade older, opposite the campus of Tokyo Gakugei University. I banged my head on the low pole by the entrance. There were half a dozen tables inside and one other customer, slurping his noodles companionably. Its authenticity was only enhanced by the fumes from a paraffin stove and a television showing a Japanese quiz show.
For example, films were not allowed to reproduce western values by showing “stories of a petit bourgeois character, those which describe the happiness of individual persons only, scenes of a woman smoking, café scenes . . . and frivolous and flippant behavior.” I ordered by pointing at a photo in the menu and using a phrase I had learned from my tape: Kore okudasai — this, please. Rather films should encourage patriotism, “Japanese values, such as self-sacrifice, motherly love . . . modesty of women, diligence, and loyalty” and emphasize a work ethic that would increase production. I watched the quiz show while the elderly chef rattled pots in the kitchen.
Then his elderly assistant slowly brought me a pretty lacquered tray with tempura, soba noodles, pickles and a satsuma. Japanese propaganda proclaimed a new age. The number and visibility of healthy, active older people is another of Japan’s minor oddities. Life expectancy in Japan is very high. But whereas its citizens are living longer lives, fewer and fewer of them are being born. The country has actually been shrinking at the rate of about a million people a year. In the new era women were expected to maintain femininity but were simultaneously part of the mobilization of the general population. The government has projected that the population of the country will have shrunk by a third by 2060.
The prospect of a collapsing, senescent population struggling to maintain its living standards and its infrastructure seems like a vision from a dystopian novel, but it’s something the Japanese are having to take seriously. They were conscripted into groups where they wore pants, and even into a military training body named after a heroine of the wayang theater who dressed like a man to win in battle. Kichijoji, where I spent the third night of my walk, is only 15 km from Tokyo and considered the city’s most hip and desirable suburb. It’s Tokyo’s Williamsburg, or Notting Hill. It has little bars and vintage clothing shops, and, best of all, beautiful Inokashira Park, from where I set off in the morning.
I followed the course of the river Kanda all the way into the city. Most of all the Japanese new age promoted military values. This was the best walking yet. The sun was bright, the maples and gingko trees red and gold in the light, and the river was full of big, fat carp. There were residential houses on both sides of the river. The Japanese had the most modern technology but presented themselves in the ancient tradition of the Samurai warriors. Just a few hours from my final destination, I felt like I’d found space and tranquility. From here, I emerged into the city proper, close to the big towers of Shinjuku, Tokyo’s administrative center. Indonesians were trained in Bushido.
After days of steady walking, I was unprepared for the impact of the big city: its chic, black-suited crowds, its towering neon escarpments. Tokyo has a purposefulness and an energy that resembles Manhattan’s, but on an even bigger scale. I gawped at the Blade-Runner world of Akihabara, and went into an eerie maid cafe. Inside, the colors were bright, like the set of a children’s television program, where desexualized waitresses in French maid outfits speak in put-on squeaky voices. At Tsukiji, Tokyo’s awe-inspiring fish market, I ate sushi and marveled at the produce: tuna fish the size and shape of human torsos, every kind of crustacean, bivalve, mollusk and invertebrate that this seafood-crazy nation eats.
At Nihonbashi, where five medieval roads meet, I concluded my walk. The bridge, built in 1911, seems almost ancient in modern Tokyo. But the city’s lack of sentimentality about the past is evident from the way its clean lines are boxed in by a concrete flyover. Being in the city was energizing and intoxicating, but I missed that sense of an older, more timeless Japan. Then, from the 30th floor of my hotel, I rested my weary feet and looked back across the teeming city to the green slope of Mount Takao. Behind it hovered Mount Fuji. Although news leaked out in August 1945 that the Allies had dropped a huge bomb that could destroy cities, the Japanese were reluctant to admit that they had surrendered.