Yuki Kasai-Pare, currently based in Montreal, Canada, works as a translator and a photographer. Writer Lisa Taniura spent her college years at a dormitory in London, and has experience living in Berlin. Both having spent time abroad, sharing interests in art and fashion, and similar world-views, the two were brought together in Tokyo – where they freely spend their days. This, is a ‘Tokyo Story’ on their day’s memories and discussions.
–You have been returning to Tokyo at least once a year, Yuki. How do you view Tokyo’s dramatic changes recently?
Yuki: “I’ve always thought Tokyo was a city that’s very good at creating an invisible framework. However recently, there’s been an increase in visible frameworks. Separated smoking areas are a part of that too – it’s interesting how there has been a lot of space-making. It seems trivial, but it’s actually amazing.”
Lisa: “That’s true. Speaking of frameworks, Japan is taking down more and more old buildings. Berlin still reforms old buildings like it’s a usual occurrence, but Tokyo has been reset once with a history of getting bombed and becoming a burned, barren land. That’s why I think there isn’t much of an attachment to old buildings. To me, it seems like such a waste.”
Yuki: “They often say, ‘old buildings deteriorate fast in Japan because of the amount of earthquakes”, but even if it’s possible to re-build something, they decide not to renovate but to destroy it all and start from scratch. It’s unique. I wonder if they are ashamed of old buildings?”
Lisa: “Ah, maybe they’re reminded of the dark times when they were still a poor country, as shown in the Golden Street (Golden Gai) in Shinjuku or the black markets in Shimokitazawa.”
–There’s probably a big difference between those who have lived through that era, and those who haven’t.
Lisa: “That may be true. To us, the Shinjuku Golden Gai is retro and cool, but to those who know it when it was first made, it was a red light district. It may be a place or memory that they don’t want to remember.”
–We have a culture of covering up our past darknesses. That may have something to do with it.
Lisa: “In Germany, there is a tendency to look back at things, more than re-building. I think the image that Japan wants to portray of themselves, although it may sound stereotypical, is a somewhat ‘naked’, minimalist one. The reason behind why Japan’s living spaces are so cluttered is because of the limited space they have in their living environments. Tokyo is even one of the most overpopulated cities. Compared to that, the image that Japan has of the living environments in the United States is of the vast LA lands with backyards, so they feel an inferiority complex towards having small land. Maybe they’re ashamed of that kind of clutter.”
Yuki: “Despite that, it’s not like they are fond of big spaces either. It’s an interesting point.”
Lisa: “Yeah. Also, our generation no longer holds such a strong admiration towards the Western World.”
Yuki: “Right. Our parents’ generation strongly praised them, so all they say is “Why do you want to live in Tokyo? America is the place to be!”
Lisa: “The lifestyle of the Americans we see in movies is actually just the top 1%. In reality, there’s an enormous gap between the rich and the poor. Also, even now they tend to only cast caucasians in movies, but in fact there are many races living in the states.”
Yuki: “I have always admired the New York lifestyle from growing up in Japan watching American TV series, but my friends who are actually currently living in NY are all struggling, even more so than Tokyo. Paying expensive rent and squeezing in very small spaces. Even in the suburbs the rent is soaring.”
Lisa: “Yup. And then they move so often that everyone tends to relocate out.”
Yuki: “It’s gentrification.”
Lisa: “I used to hear that word a lot when I lived in London. Also, “redevelopment”. Taking the area that poorer people used to live in, and newly developing it as a trendy place by raising the rent and kicking out those who had lived there before.”
Yuki: “Come to think of it, compared to other cities Tokyo’s rent hasn’t increased.”
Lisa: “London is horrible – real estate goes up every 3 months and Berlin is also expensive now.”
Yuki: “Montreal has been comparable to NY and elsewhere and the white and wealthy have been moving into industrial areas. They say it’s ‘hip’ to be slightly out of the city center, and build expensive, beautiful, spacious and minimalist coffee shops. Then those affected, who are struggling with lower income, structural racism etc. – specifically the homes and businesses of POC, immigrant communities – are being kicked out of the area. Many have gathered and did demos etc, but it’s tough.”
Lisa: “I’ve heard that by 2040, 60-70% of the world’s population will be living in cities. I wonder if the population of cities will continue to increase, and every time there will be a cycle of destroying and creating. Tokyo might just be in that situation now. Honestly, I don’t think many people will be able to live here. The trains are packed and inflation won’t even be a thing.”
Yuki: “Even so they destroy buildings and living properties that don’t really need to be destroyed to build high-rise buildings and pour money to major general contractors… the Olympics is exactly that. I passed by an athlete’s village in Toyosu yesterday, but I was shocked. Who’s going to live in a high-rise apartment in a place like this? I think there’s a fantasy that living in high-rise apartments gives you a certain status.”
Lisa: “I wonder why there aren’t any protests on destroying precious, old buildings in Tokyo.”
–There are many instances when that’s overturned in other countries.
Lisa: “There has never been a time when Japan successfully stopped development. It was interesting how they eyed that the new generation may overturn development in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Everybody is starting to become aware that now is a time susceptible to chaos, so there is no time to sit around and give up – if we don’t raise our voices now, something terrible might happen. Hence, people have been starting to act more.”
Yuki: “But we do have a bias, being surrounded by people like that. It’s scary to think that in reality, things may have barely changed at all. There are many people around me who are interested in politics and social justice, and gather to raise their voices on their beliefs. So I become relieved that, “our generation is going to change our future!” I think it was Jodi Dean who said this but, just because it’s become easier to pass along information and capitalize on it, it’s all over if we get comfortable in that. Like, “Okay, I shared it – My job here is done.”
Lisa: “Right, we tend to stick with liberal people. But the extreme right and extreme left just differ in content and aren’t much different. So it may be interesting to actually talk to each other. Something specific like not being able to stop development, the example before about the fantasy of high-rise apartments, all require us to be aware that there is a force that affects the act of buying an item. Our actions are often affected and decided by power and invisible influences, but there are many people who don’t realize this and accept everything they see and hear as they are. I’m terrified of seeing ads on Google on something I was looking at on Amazon, but people who accept that as something natural, their thinking must be paralyzed.”
Yuki: “Me too. I’m most terrified of seeing it and thinking, “Oh, that’s what I wanted! Thanks!” I’m scared of becoming attracted to its convenience, and being okay with it and becoming a slave to it.”
Lisa: “I buy the books that Amazon recommends to me!”
Yuki: “Yeah! Like, “Ugh you know me too well.” But I can’t tell if it’s my own choice or yours…”
Lisa: “Because you’re contributing to the information and acting as one of the gears, you’re not even that surprised at that situation. That’s what’s most scary.”
Yuki: “It’s not like obvious brainwashing and propaganda, where now that there’s this uncanny form of awareness, i would say, where the lines between technology and the individual are blurred, you stop to think of who the information comes from and who it’s for.”
Yuki: “I’m the most scared of the words ishikitai – directly translated as ‘highly motivated’. Similar but very different than the word “Woke”, it has this kind of mocking tone. We use those words to speak of people who are trying to engage in more political discussions or do social and political good. Those who say it probably use it as a way out of embarrassment that they themselves aren’t doing anything or don’t feel comfortable. But affirming to yourself that you haven’t done anything or thought about those things, shutting it down with those words is scary. This is also a form of invisible framework.”
Lisa: “If you verbalize things like that, they group you together as ‘highly motivated’ people. Like people who say, “Feminism? It’s too early in the morning for that!”
Yuki: “I never know what to say to people like that. If they continue on like that, they’re only suffering themselves. Talking to people from my grandmother’s generation who participated in feminist, social justice movements, and being told “after I stopped thinking about it, I no longer felt distressed. – was pretty sad.”
Lisa: “I was also writing about feminism for my senior thesis, but it’s true that the more you know, the sadder you feel. You feel that you alone are helpless in an unfair social structure like this.”
Yuki: “I guess it gets worse when thought through in solitude. But, it’s also dangerous if you feel that you’re a “gathering of people who cannot be understood”, the more you talk about it with others.”
Lisa: “Things are easily brought to extremes in Japan. Despite the fact that there are people living in multiple cultures while living in Japan, there is a stigma that if you’re born in Japan, you are what they define ‘Japanese’.”
Yuki: “Yeah. I was working in Japan the other day, and even though we were speaking Japanese during our whole conversation, and was pretty clear about my background from the beggining, the person told me multiple times, “Wait, you’re Japanese right?” to then “..No way, you’re a gaijin (foreigner)!” and then “ Wait but you are SO Japanese!” They probably didn’t mean it as an insult and jokingly said so, but I was just so confused for him and what is both ‘foreign’ and ‘Japanese’ to him.”
Lisa: “I wonder where this person is coming from with that. Is it a compliment?”
Yuki: “It seemed like they were simply surprised that they were speaking Japanese with someone who didn’t physically fit in with what they imagined a ‘Japanese person’ to be like. I thought, “where should I even begin?” Haha. I felt stupid for being too mindful of the scene and being afraid of being – well, too ishikitaikai in a way. The me now can stay unoffended and laugh about it, exchange thoughts in an objective way, and I think the next step is to be able to smoothly communicate my honest thoughts in a light, constructive way.”
–Maybe the person wanted to categorize. Like the culture of exchanging business cards, maybe they felt unsettled by not knowing who the person is or what category they fit into.
Yuki: “Do they become confused if it’s neither Japan nor abroad? Same thing with gender, people just love binary forms of thinking. Especially in Japan, in my opinion.
Lisa: “They’re very attached to blood relations. Very pedigree.”
Yuki: “Historically Japan is so multicultural, but all of a sudden they erased it all and started calling themselves the pure and united, Yamato people. There’s an idealism of being a purebred anywhere in the world, but historically Japan is quite extreme on that. That included, things will never change without an un-learning and re-learning.”
Lisa: “For example, for the topic of feminism and racism, even if we get mad about it to innocent people who know nothing about it, they’ll never understand why you’re angry. To be able to understand, there’s about 5 steps you need to take, and that’s also the difficult part.”
Yuki: “When thinking about who is going to fill out those 5 steps, of course both sides should make an effort to meet in the middle. However, there’s a tendency to ask for an explanation from the side that is facing the discrimination. I truly understand those who say explaining “ It hurts and is a lot of work so I don’t want to do it”, but then what are the solutions…”
Lisa: “When the people who got discriminated are angry, I tell them “I understand your feelings, but I also understand the people who don’t know anything and haven’t done anything wrong.”
Yuki: “Yeah, I think the people who understand both sides will play an important role. Those who understand the feelings of each, through empathy.It’s hard work too.”
Lisa: “Yeah, It’s important to use words that will be understood by both sides and fill in the gap.”
Yuki: “Word choice is key.”
Lisa: “When speaking of words, it bothers me that when speaking of politics and gender in Japanese there are many foreign words that are written out in Katakana. We use foreign words in Katakana like ‘basic income’ and ‘transphobic’, but I think we should make new translations for them in Japanese.”
Yuki: “It becomes too …. indecent to use those words as they are. Come to think of it, when I talk about my sexuality in Japanese, I don’t use the word queer in katakana. I believe in the importance of being mindful of the ways in which the words were originally used, as an insult for example, and then turned as a way of empowerment, as a means to be set free from the weight of it. Understanding the history and the forces within the given culture where the expression was born, transformed, is exactly why words have their power. There’s no point if we don’t use it with respect.”
Lisa: “The structure of language itself is at times transphobic.”
–There’s also the topic of “how feminine pronouns and masculine pronouns will change hereon”.
Yuki: “Even in Montreal, those who wanted to be referred to as “they” and not “he” or “she” used be seen as extreme, and I mean many still think of it that way but it’s slowly being more acknowledged – around me at least, it’s become so prevalent. We underestimate how words can be integrated into our lives very quickly. If you think about how freeing it can be for many, you’ll realize it’s a very important thing.”
Lisa: “It’s interesting how in German, “she” is sie and “they” is also sie. I think from now on, many new words will be born in many different languages. Even in the fashion industry, there isn’t a word to describe the tendency of only caucasian models being used, so it’s difficult to recognize the problem’s existence. I want to make a word that describes that.”
Yuki: “Words are also frameworks, and they evolve. So we must re-examine words that are used mindlessly, and understand their power, make new words if needed, and most of all, communicate.”
photography Yuki Kasai-Pare
model Lisa Tanimura
text & edit Ryoko Kuwahara
From Miyazaki, Japan. Graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and East Asian Culture. Currently is a translator, a photographer, and art director.
Writer, translator and brand marketing consultant. After graduating middle school in Japan, studied abroad in London. After studying at a boarding school, returned to Japan. Graduated Waseda University’s College of Liberal Arts, spent some time in Berlin, and now resides in Tokyo. Specializes in fashion, electronic music, media, and feminism topics.