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The International Writers Magazine: Twin Cities

A Tale of Sister Cities - London and Tokyo
• John Christopher Ong
Identity can be a fickle thing. Partly because it depends on how you relate to other people. Mostly because it relies on how you perceive yourself. It is an intangible stemming from the tangibles but more valuable than the sum of its parts. Confusing? Not so much.


When you consider that the qualifiers of identity have more to do with how a person fits into a group, it becomes clear that a person’s background is a piss poor indication of character. In fact, that kind of data lends itself more easily for the use of profiling. Is this a bad thing? Yes and no.

With regards to the individual, the fact that our system may refer to a statistic in order to evaluate someone’s worth is definitely bad. In other words, just because the shoe fits, it doesn’t mean it’s yours. More often than not, what seems like prejudice is actually just misconstrued laziness.

Despite these flaws, it would not be fair to say that profiling has no value in and of itself. Profiles are public faces. They are the lump sum of information we wish for the world to see. In some cases, profiles act as a shield to protect more sensitive information. In others, they become the identities that gather the most advantages. Financial profiles. Racial profiles. Psychological profiles. All of these speak to us from a particular aspect of life, which when corroborated paint a general impression.

Whereas a single person’s profile is used to distinguish from his or her peers, the profile of a group is used to find common threads between its members. Scaling up even further we find common threads between groups, then leagues, then societies. And at the end of that long chain of associations, you eventually arrive at our largest physical body: cities.

Tokyo Now one might argue that countries should be the largest denomination available for profiling. However more often than not, individual cities come to represent their countries. So much so that a foreigner’s vision of a country is composed of landmarks and the places that have them. London and Tokyo are no different. When it comes to London, it’s always about Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Covent Garden. When you think about Tokyo, there’s Tokyo Tower, The Tokyo Dome, and The Imperial Palace. What is remarkable about these two cities is how much they have in common.

Here are three examples:

Space is a Premium.

The cost of it will always be high in the major cities. But the two previously mentioned cities have turned this reality into a scheme of extortion.

In London, the price of a basic 27 square metre flat can go as high as 100,000 pounds. Bigger and better apartments go up to half a million or more. The price tag attached to these properties, and land in general, have pushed some landlords and renters into desperate feats of creative insanity. “Microflats” are considered the solution to London’s housing problem. It proposes to turn a space as small as a storage cupboard into an apartment. Actually, it does not propose. An apartment like this already exists. Measuring at a little less than six square meters, it has somehow managed to fit every amenity a person requires to live for about 135 pounds per week. Joy not inclusive of purchase.

But if London is only now considering the advantages of subhuman housing, then what more can be said about Tokyo? Well the average apartment starts at about 30 million yen. That rounds out to about 240,000 pounds. What you get for this price is 40 square metres on average, which is not too bad compared to London. Smaller apartments, at around 20 square metres, do exist but usually are not available for sale because of the lack of amenities. Or course, the most eye-catching of these rentals are the capsule hotels. Resembling see-through coffins with a bevy of modern conveniences, capsule hotels state explicitly what was implied with Microflats: that this place is not a home. These places efficiently regulate all the functions need to preserve life by removing all the flotsam that a renter does not absolutely need. In their view, all you really need is four walls, a roof, and air to breathe. With rooms at roughly 2 m by 1 m by 1.25 m overall, they just barely manage it.

Tube Subway Tokyo

Public Transit is King

Often when speaking of cities, people focus on the destination. London and Tokyo are two cities in the world in which the mode of transport counts as an attraction. The subways and railways of these cities are so iconic that they rarely escape being featured in media and fiction. Ironically, they are also so much alike that both London and Tokyo use the same simplified color-coded map to help passengers navigate the subway.

The London Underground by 2013 will be 150 years old. It is the first rapid transit system in the world and carries about 1.1 billion passengers per year. With the Olympics looming in the horizon, the Tube is set to take center stage as the transport of choice for tourists wanting to watch the games. Not that it needs any help with publicity since it has been featured as the backdrop to several films, literature, and video games. 28 Days Later (2007) shot some scenes in Canary Wharf station. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is set mostly in the London Underground albeit altered. And in the RPG Hellgate: London, the individual stations of the Tube are safe havens for your character to recover in.

The Tokyo Subway, also known as the Tokyo Metro, is considerably younger than its British counterpart. Started in 1920, the “Metro” has steadily improved both its reach and over the 92 years of service. Since 2010, it has carried an annual quota of over 3 billion passenger rides; that is thrice the population of India and roughly 24 times the population of Japan. Despite this, it is still largely absent in popular culture. Aside from a few high profile tragedies like the “Subway Sarin Gas Attack” of 1995, the subway is largely lacking in publicity. Given the annual revenue stream of 3 billion people, it might not be necessary. Speaking of unnecessary, where does changing the handrail of subway car to look like a lightsabers fall in the realm of good ideas? Oh it doesn’t, what a surprise.

The Population is Most Elderly.

Make no mistake. When it comes to hippest and most happening scenes, London and Tokyo rate so high that they border on pretentious. The nightlife, the shopping and the history speak for themselves. All the bawdy boys and randy girls, from their respective countries, visit London and Tokyo. The problem is that none of them can afford to stay.

It may not be big news in London; the change so gradual that no one really noticed until it started complicating things. But senior citizens have been occupying the six-figure bracket of the population chart since 2005. The difficulty of maintaining a healthy standard of living for the elderly within the city has prompted some caregivers to put up retirement villages for them to spend their golden years. However, with the cost of living as high as it is, this still may not be enough to coax the younger, less financially stable demographic to move or stay in the city. Young professionals and university graduates in particular are seeking their fortunes elsewhere. Filling in for them are professionals from Asia, hoping to make it big in London.

In Tokyo this trend has been going on a lot longer. The most recent survey conducted in October 2011 at 2.6 million out of an estimated total of 13 million. Unlike in London, the senior citizens are more rigidly locked into their respective communities. This is a result of both cultural and financial differences. In Japan, it’s not uncommon for a man to work for one company his entire life. In turn, the company answers most of the man’s finances and provides housing. As a result, older employees no matter the age are far less inclined to leave the place that gave them everything. The flipside of this is that younger professionals have less upward mobility in the city. As a result of fewer opportunities, many young Japanese professionals are trying their luck elsewhere with approximately 75,000 having permanent residency in another country.

Of course, there are many more things that these cities have in common. Both cities are home to their Royal Families. Both suffered their respective bombings during WW2. And both reached the height of their economic power during the period of the 80’s to the early 90’s. You could not find more coincidences in fiction if you tried. Moreover in fiction, their opposing sides in history should have all but guaranteed that they would be rivals as long as they lived. In real life, the ending is far less dramatic.

© John C Ong June 2012

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