The Wild Side of Tokyo

Nature in the Cyberpunk Wilderness

Sunset over Shinjuku
Sunset over Shinjuku
28 AUG 2016
by

In the global popular imagination, Tokyo is often portrayed as a neon wasteland of glistening skyscrapers and drunken salarymen; a floating world of corporate conformity and empty hedonism. Famously, the 1982 science-fiction film Blade Runner used Tokyo as its template for its dystopian vision of the Los Angeles of 2019, presenting the City of Angels as a noirish megalopolis of decaying technology teetering on the edge of catastrophe. This futuristic image of the Japanese capital became increasingly pervasive throughout the 1980s, reiterated in ‘Night City’ in William Gibson’s 1984 seminal cyberpunk Neuromancer and ‘Neo-Tokyo’ in the 1988 anime Akira. More recently, the 2003 film Lost in Translation presented Tokyo as a city of fleeting and often inexplicable encounters. In each of these incarnations, the inhabitants of the city are portrayed as being profoundly alienated from the natural world.

The idea that Tokyo is estranged from nature is not without basis in reality. The municipality may not yet have arrived at the situation depicted in Blade Runner, in which human beings have achieved almost complete control of the environment and replaced extinct animals with artificial copies. But the city is sometimes guilty of treating animals as consumerist artefacts: poodles huddle in Louis Vuitton bags, cats are chauffeured in prams, and the notorious animal cafes offer patrons the chance to interact not only with cats but also dogs, goats, hawks, lizards, owls, rabbits, snakes and tortoises. Eerily, if you hear bird-song in a subway station it is most likely a recorded whistle piped through the stations. Officially these loops have the purpose of aiding the visually impaired; but it is rumored that they are also designed to provide commuters with a subliminal feeling of wellbeing and thus dissuade them from jumping on the tracks and committing suicide.

The city’s air of dislocation from the natural world is encapsulated in the bizarre and controversial 2006 art-installation ‘Super Rat’, by the six-person collective ‘Chim Pom’. This piece involved the group catching rats off Tokyo’s central ‘Gai’ street then stuffing, mounting and painting them yellow in imitation of the short, chubby lemon-colored rodent ‘Pikachu’ from the children’s video-game and television franchise Pokémon. While we may have misgivings about their methods, the collective’s grotesque manufactured creatures mirrors effectively Tokyo’s frequent habit of regarding animals as decorations or possessions. All human communities have used the non-human world for their own purposes, but Tokyo seems to have forgotten or disregarded nature all together.

On the other hand, the idea that Tokyo is completely alienated from nature is an obvious exaggeration. Firstly and most obviously, there are the numerous parks and gardens that dot the city, providing citizens with venues for the famous springtime hanami (picnics to view the cherry-blossom). Secondly, the huge number of human beings in such a small area creates opportunities for certain species. As ‘Super-Rat’ highlights, the city’s vast labyrinth of underground walkways and tunnels provide havens for rats. Discarded food maintains the ravens that prowl the Shinjuku skyscrapers and the pigeons idling in Ueno Park. And numerous domestic cats slink across the quieter suburban corners of Shibuya. Thirdly, Tokyo’s dedication to convenience can provide its inhabitants with opportunities for experiencing nature that are less disconcerting than the bar in Ikebukuro that allows patrons to feed live penguins. More whimsically, Ichigaya fish centre allows anglers to dangle lines in rectangular pools of carp fed by the Kanda river right in the city centre. In such instances, rather than being separated from nature, the city offers opportunities to experience in in unconventional ways.

Most importantly, the idea that Tokyo is estranged from nature involves limiting one’s definition of the city to its most famous and most urbanized environs: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara and the like. Crucially, Tokyo is one of forty-seven prefectures (or districts) of Japan. As such, its territory encompasses not only the illuminated Tokyo Tower and the infamous red-light-district Kabukicho, but also forests, lakes and mountains. In particular, the city’s famously efficient rail service allows speed admission not just to Mount Fujii and Mount Takao but also to what is perhaps Tokyo’s best-kept secret: the small town of Okutama and its surrounding area. This region is still technically part of Tokyo, yet features caves, two major lakes (Okutama and Shiromaru), the Mountain peaks of Kumotori, Mitō, Ōdake, Kawanori, and Gozen and many waterfalls, as well as numerous hiking trails, local sake breweries, rural villages, and onsen (Japanese baths). In addition, the area is home to a range of different animals, including monkeys, raccoons, snakes, the Japanese serow (a goat-antelope), wild boars, even tsukinowaguma (Asiatic black bears). Although Okutama is part of the 1250 square kilometer Chichibu Tama- Kai National Park, it is still a section of Tokyo.

Okutama is an area completely at odds with the representation of Tokyo as a super-urbanised megalopolis. Yet it does sometimes share the whimsical a character of more famous parts of the Prefecture. Ome station is decorated with fading movie posters from the 1940s and 1960s. Certain hikers scale mountains barefoot in Buddhist acts of devotion. And the mountains are dotted with oversized wooden staircases so elevated and poorly-maintained that they resemble a cubist masterpiece or a cruel practical joke. Anyone who has seen such constructions will be unsurprised to discover that Shigeru Miyamoto―the Japanese video game designer who created Donkey-Kong, Mario Brothers, and The Legend of Zelda―claimed he was inspired to do so by his childhood expeditions in the Japanese countryside. What this anecdote demonstrates is that the hi-tec aspects of Japanese culture often display surprising connections with nature.

While many people across the world are fascinated by a vision of Tokyo as an outlandish futuristic hinterland, there is in fact more to the region than that. Feasibly, visitors could come for camping holiday in Tokyo and rarely encounter a building more than three floors high, never mind a maid café, pachinko parlor or a restaurant made out to look like a dungeon. Although many might imagine that the closest that residents of the Japanese capital come to nature is in the form of a fire-breathing giant lizard wreaking havoc in the city, in fact a considerable portion of Tokyo constitutes mountains covered by trees spotted with occasional roads and villages. The familiar vision of Tokyo as a cyberpunk hinterland far removed from nature may have some basis in truth. But the city also surpasses this stereotype, encompassing also lakes, woods and mountains.