“Lucian, I can’t find a current record of the city of Tokyo anywhere,” said a female colleague to me recently. Her name is Samantha Penn. Samantha was puzzled about this apparent lack of an obvious data node, but subtly pleased that she had found a gap in our records.
It was late afternoon. The sun stretched in tiredly from long, narrow windows at the top of tall stone walls in our high-ceilinged workspace. The rays reflected in high contrast from the surface of her hair, which was pulled straight back, tightly.
The slices of light cut through the air exposing a sea of dust which constituted the atmosphere of our vault of shelves.
We are stewards of human knowledge. All of it. Everything that ever was or is, and even things that some people thought would be or currently think could be.
We keep records of everything here in these dusty stacks, in this sparsely lit room. If something new happens in the world, we make note of it, and if something that was once considered fact is now known to be fiction, we revise our records accordingly.
It is a never-ending job; things are always happening, or unhappening. A 7.7 magnitude earthquake strikes southern Pakistan; Pluto is no longer a planet.
Even the absence of an occurrence is notable. For example, we have a considerable amount of data on the Pax Romana. We also have catalogued the fact that three U.S. Presidents in recent history have not had sons.
“Surely the record has just been misplaced, right? I can’t imagine that we would have missed a major city like Tokyo,” she said, reaching hopefully.
“We don’t have a modern record of the city of Tokyo because it doesn’t exist,” I said. She scrunched her eyebrows together.
I explained the background to her in analytical detail, in shades of black, white, and charcoal. My explanation wouldn’t be interesting to put down verbatim here, but the short of it is that Tokyo’s non-existence as a city is a mundane technicality:
The city of Tokyo ceased to exist in 1943 when it was merged with its prefecture to become part of the new Tokyo Metropolis.
This explanation deflated my colleague Samantha a bit as it ultimately meant that she had not found a hole in our records after all. Instead, she had exposed a gap in her understanding about this particular subject.
It’s true: Tokyo, the city, doesn’t exist. You can’t make this stuff up.
But here’s something you could make up:
A story. A first draft jotted down in your own chicken scratch on honest-to-God paper. The pulp wafts into your nose as you open your notebook. You use carbon-black ink that rolls out of a ballpoint pen you bought at the supermarket. You got 3 of these pens for $2. You are in the middle of pen #2.
The story takes place now, at night, near Shibuya Station in Tokyo Metropolis, and first you want to set the scene. You start from a bird’s-eye view looking down from the mid-air third-story glass-enclosed catwalk that connects the JR and Keio flavors of Shibuya Station.
Your audience is American and you want to impress upon them the chaos and foreignness of the world’s most famous free-for-all scramble intersection. You want them to see the teeming, ant-like crowds, the ocean of bobbing heads. You might zoom in on a girl dressed like a witch, or Little Bo Peep lolitas, or an androgynous space boy in shiny makeup. You might throw out some numbers about the tens of thousands of people that cross this intersection daily, each the hero spacecraft in an advanced game of Asteroids.
You’ll surely mention the lights, the gargantuan ads covering sides of 12-story buildings, the speakers booming loud sales pitches, the neon billboard-laden trucks driving in circles. You’ll be tempted to compare this intersection in Shibuya to Times Square, but you’ll probably end up nixing the idea in an attempt to avoid belittling the dumbfounding scale of it all.
The scene is set.
Near the catty-cornered entrance to hilly Udagawa-cho, you focus the reader’s attention on a single character in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Big greaser hair and reflective sunglasses, he stands still in a river of people under the faux-daylight of signs and shop entrances. He is in a bubble of unlikely silence.
From his pocket, he produces a cigarette and slowly fixes it between his closed lips. Then he brings a flame towards his face, which dances in his sunglasses as he lights his smoke.
A police officer cuts immediately through the thick flow of the crowd. “This is a smoke-free zone. Put that thing out. If you want to smoke, you’ll need to cross the street to the smoking facility by the station.”
“… What do you mean ‘No’? I said put it out. Now.”
“Go to hell.”
The man pushes the cop gently on the shoulder, but it’s more than enough to make his point clear.
A scuffle ensues, which promptly builds into a brawl between the smoker and several police officers.
Of course, since you’re writing the story, you know what’s really going on. This needless scuffle with the law is just to create a distraction for the real crime happening just around the corner. The smoker is making some room for his buddy’s escape. A night in a cell is a small trade-off for the big payoff on its way out the door and down the street right now.
What’s the crime? A bank robbery? Maybe not here in Udagawa-cho…
What about the robbery of a hidden brothel? A crime of revenge. Oh my, yes. Revenge for what?
Your pen practically tears through the ledger underneath it. Your hand sweats into the page.
Unlike the non-existence of Tokyo City, you could totally make a story like this up.
I can’t write this story though. I can’t concentrate.
I’m on a fact-finding mission to Tokyo Metropolis. I have to gather more facts for our stacks back in Osaka.
I’m sitting in a bullet train, a shinkansen, a subsonic white beam of electricity, metal, and fiberglass screaming us away from Osaka across plains of green patchwork rice fields, through tunnels blasted under mountains, past the stone-tiled roofs of farm cottages, past factories excreting new Toyatas. Poles, wires, concrete, rivers, graveyards, glass towers, polished leather shoes, coffee, newspapers, sunshine, rain, sunshine.
At full speed in a tunnel the train makes a tone-less sound like “haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”, just like you do when you use your breath to warm your hands on a cold winter day.
Sometimes the train sounds like “fweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”, just like you do when you try to cool a spoon of hot soup and accidentally whistle instead.
But the “haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” and the “fweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” are not why I can’t concentrate.
In order to chase a hot, sexy fact through Tokyo, I booked my ticket at the last minute. A last-minute booking will always leave you with the most undesired of seats: the middle spot in a row of three.
I intended to use my time in the train to throw some words out on to a page, to etch another mark on the wall, to make a beautiful and well-ordered list of facts.
The older woman to my right by the window had different plans. She wanted to ask me questions about where I’m from, and what I do, and how tall I am, and how I learned to speak Japanese so well.
In Japanese, I had only said one thing up to this point. It was this: “Excuse me”.
I never really even made eye contact with the woman. She was well-intentioned, but I wanted to be left to my facts. She seemed immune to this obvious desire of mine.
So notebook and pen in hand, I politely excused myself, once again receiving lavish praise for my skillful one-word utterance. I left the main cabin area of the car, which is capped on each end by corridor areas. On one end are the bathrooms, on the other end are vending machines and a train staff office.
I chose the end with the vending machines. I bought myself a cold, plastic bottle of green tea for 150 yen and sipped it slowly, trying to observe the landscape that was anxiously tumbling past the corridor window.
And here I am, leaning against the wall of a corridor in a bullet train that is speeding towards Tokyo Metropolis. I am writing these words.
The way back to Osaka will be better though. On my way back, I’ll be riding in a Green Car. A Green Car is the bullet train equivalent of business class on an airplane.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in a Green Car, but I’m fairly certain I read somewhere that the floors are carpeted in dollar bills, and the seats come with a complimentary bottle of the illusion that you are making things happen.
As soon as I sit down, I’m going to kick my legs up and cut the ends off of a cigar dipped in port wine and the ashy remains of Christopher Columbus. I’ll fill my head with dreamy smoke while I ponder the significance of all the new facts that I will have learned in Tokyo Metropolis.
The train will dutifully say “haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” and it will say “fweeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”.
As we cross into Shizuoka, my eyelids will be heavy and my mind far away, dreaming of data, organizing facts by alphabet, then date. Ahhhh.
From the window to my right, Mount Fuji will turn his head, looking over his shoulder first; then he will spin his body around nimbly:
“Looooooooshian Featherfield! You old devil!”
Fuji will peer down at me warmly through his monocle, like a flamboyant and proud grandfather with a snowy mustache. His words will thunder, but in an unexpectedly comforting way.
“Guilty as charged. Are you surprised to see me?”
“Not at all, not at all. Although I must admit that I’m surprised it took this long,” Fuji will grin.
“It has been a while, hasn’t it.” Smoke will pour carelessly from my face as I speak.
“That’s alright though, you’re here now, and I suspect we’ll meet again soon.”
“Hmm.” My thoughts will start to make their old familiar loops.
“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Fuji will roar in amusement. “Lucian, you never change. Come back soon. The world is so much more than fact. So much more.”
“Prove it,” I will say, challenging him through a half-smile crammed on one side with a hot cigar.
Fuji’s response will be a side-splitting cackle and a long wave goodbye.
The Green Car of the bullet train will start to get tight with cigar smoke, so I’ll roll the window down, expelling a horizontal column of tobacco exhaust. To pass the time, I’ll pull up dollar bills from the money carpet below, and let them fly through the window, one by one, carelessly littering the Japanese countryside with the face of George Washington.
The red sun will begin to sink below the horizon, dragging my bullet train ever faster westward towards the florescent sprawl of Osaka.