In 50 years, Japan has hurtled from devastation to post-industrialism. Is it now counting the psychic cost? The Aum gas attack and similar disturbing events have shocked the world. Lesley Downer explores the country's shifting values by talking to members of a youth cult with mass support, the otakuby Lesley Downer / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Saturday night in Centre-gai, the main drag in Shibuya, Tokyo’s youth district. It is early, barely seven o’clock, though the street is already full of pleasure-seekers. I am with friends, fresh from England, who are shocked to see, just behind us, a group of young women staggering about. They are little more than schoolgirls, plump, in short skirts and ankle socks. And they are either drunk or high. One crouches over a drain and vomits copiously. Another supports her, giggling, as the group reel into a bar.
Worse is to come. A group of thugs descends upon us. They are big, well-built and mean. They loom over us. “We’re fucking Japs!” they sneer. “We’re fucking Japs!”
In ten years in Japan, I have never before felt afraid. I have come across gangs of leatherclad bike boys. In fact, I have deliberately sought them out just to prove that they offer no threat to me. True, they dress like Hells’ Angels; but, in the usual Japanese style, it is merely a fashion statement. Or perhaps I am not threatened because I am a foreigner; and foreigners do not exist. Just as the Chinese Triads don’t waste bullets on ghosts (us), Japanese bikers don’t waste a swing of the chain.
But these thugs are different. For a start, they speak English-not stilted “book English” but real street English. They are a new breed-international thugs.
So what is happening to Japan? Has it joined the real world? Until now Japan has been a charmed Disneyland, where the trains run on time and people are cheerful and polite. There is no mugging; you can walk down the darkest street in the small hours of the morning without fear. But all that, it seems, is changing. Recently I have heard talk of fights and drugs in Roppongi, the clubland of the city. Perhaps Japan has finally come of age.
It took the Aum nerve gas attacks, which began in March this year, to alert the Japanese public to the fact that something in their social foundations was shifting. The problem was not Shoko Asahara, the mad individual who led the Aum cult. It was the people who had chosen to follow him. After the first outrage, as the Aum followers went public, it became apparent that these were not social failures or the dregs of society but its elite-young men and women in their…