Skip navigation
UVic Website CAPI Website

Sean Grisdale - Blog Post 3: Experiencing Urban Japan (excerpts)

Sean Grisdale - Blog Post 3: Experiencing Urban Japan (excerpts)

Post type: 
Blog post
Blog Public State: 

For my final CAPI blog I thought it would be interesting to share an excerpt from a large assignment I put together for a directed study I did simultaneous to my internship activities. The excerpts below include some context, as well as two of the least academic (most enjoyable to read) sections from a larger essay I wrote to be an "autoethnography" of my experiences living in Japan. Enjoy in no particular order.

What is autoethnography?

...Reflexive, phenomenological research strategies like autoethnography are increasingly common in the social sciences, especially as researchers struggle to attend to their biases or privileges while studying foreign cultures. Fundamentally, this practice is “a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context” (Butz and Bezio, 2009, p. 1660), however, a number of different types of autoethnography can be practiced based on the researcher’s intentions, and their level of immersion in their object of study. Butz and Bezio (2009) have formulated their typology of autoethnographies as a continuum between two inverse poles. At one pole are autoethnographies from above wherein the researcher situates themselves within their object of study through some personal experience narrative or reflexive ethnography. At the other pole are those autoethnographies from below wherein the objects of study consciously produce self-representations meant to intervene in dominant ethnographies or discourses about them. Of course, as a visitor to Japan, as an outsider, I will engage in the first type of autoethnography, using myself, my own experiences as a means by which to understand some aspect of Tokyo which involves, but exceeds, myself (Butz and Bezio, 2009)...

Imaginary Spaces

...When I learned I would be heading to Tokyo for the summer I was elated. I have always been fascinated by cities, as hubs of culture, technology and creativity, and Tokyo is among the big ones. Alongside London, and New York, it remains a major world hub, playing host to the world’s most influential financial, cultural and technological institutions, and claiming title as the world’s most populous human settlement, with a greater metro region of more than 37 million people (Demographia, 2014), as well as being the wealthiest, churning out a GDP of nearly $1.5 trillion USD, or 4/5 the wealth of Canada as a whole (PIC, 2009). The opportunity not only to visit, but to experience living here was beyond exciting, and the months preceding my trip were spent constructing an imaginary idea of the city from the fragments of pop culture I had absorbed throughout my life, assembling the scene for all the things I hoped to experience there.

Like other world cities, Tokyo has established Japan as a major global cultural centre, developing a unique aesthetic and urban image for itself through the production of media like video games and animation, which play on both its unique traditional legacies, as well as on its more postmodern bent in the post-war period. Thus, I admit that my excitement to travel here was profoundly influenced by the images I had in my mind from a life of media consumption.

Indeed cultural and technological Japanese imports were very influential on my childhood as I know they were for many in my generation. Throughout elementary school I navigated countless Nintendo video games and Canadian syndicated Anime cartoons, admittedly oblivious to the culture being referenced in their narratives. I played these games and watched these films assuming their settings to be ones of fantasy. Until now, I had never experienced any landscapes resembling those forested hills or coastlines of Princess Mononoke or Pokemon, and I had no point of reference for the strange foods eaten by the characters of these cartoons, until I recently tried my first bowl of tonkotsu ramen or adopted the habit of eating onigiri for breakfast. I mention this because, while I have not played these games or watched these shows since childhood, my first impression of the forested hills and beaches of Shizuoka, Japan was one of unexpected nostalgia for their familiar landscapes. 

I had similar experiences with the spaces of downtown Tokyo, especially the night-time neon of Roppongi’s and Shibuya’s shopping streets. Due to its unique infrastructure, density and scale, Tokyo is commonly viewed through Western eyes as some kind of model for the future or as a city of science fiction. Movies like Akira and Bladerunner, two of my favourites, are especially notable for their appropriation of the Tokyo aesthetic to represent grim dystopic futures imagined as densely populated, technologically advanced, and hyper-urban. Sometimes, at night, as I enjoy my 13th floor view of Yokohama’s sea of orange lights, highways and industrial districts, I see factories spewing fire from their smokestacks (literally) and cannot help remembering that iconic opening scene of Bladerunner I have seen so many times. And again, when I hear the motorcycle gangs that rip down the highway near my apartment, obnoxiously loud and seemingly forever, I come closer to understanding Akira.

However, since I’ve established a routine and habit, and a familiarity with the city, my propensity to force the Tokyo imaginary of my mind onto the phenomena of everyday experience has faded some. Many things still appear to me as spectacle, but past me is the wonder I felt at standing amidst the crowds of Shibuya square for the first time, or taking my first Tokyo train. Now, as I follow the rush hour crowd to the exit of my local train station, I no longer distance myself from my surroundings as a tourist views a landscape, but rather repetition of experience has caused me to slowly feel immersed in it all. Rather than wander through neon lit backstreets imagining I’m in Bladerunner, I now scan them in the banal way of someone looking for the bank or the corner store.

However, as I think about the associations I make between certain media and the spaces around me, I also become aware of the imaginaries I construct about my own spaces in Canada, and the imaginaries likely constructed by my Japanese acquaintances about their own country. I have especially noticed my tendency to do this when describing some aspect of Canada to those people I interact with. When describing the forests of Vancouver Island or the Canadian love of hockey, what I express is not always my true experience or opinion of these things but a continuance of some mythology or story signifying my attachment to those places.

For example, I haven’t hiked a Canadian mountain in years but for the pleasure of my Japanese audience, those few times I did become central to some mythology I’m bound to as a Canadian. That story, though true, is not representative of my everyday life in Canada yet becomes a central contribution to the geographical imaginaries of my listeners. Questions posed to me are generally framed from the outset by some commonly held Japanese imaginaries of Canada as a natural expanse, or cold northern clime, and that in this way a particular discourse is constructed and subsequently reproduced by my answer.

In the introduction to his book Empire of Signs (1970) Roland Barthes entertains a binary between East and West, almost as a way to critique or illuminate the very Western tradition of thinking which creates these binaries in the first place. Though he acknowledges that “the Orient” and “the Occident” cannot be taken here as realities to be compared and contrasted historically, philosophically, culturally, politically,” (p. 3), he proceeds to appropriate the cultural symbols and products of Japan through a thought experiment aiming to explore the emptiness which necessarily lies beneath these imagined constructions. Thereby this thought experiment aims not to define the apparent systems or worldviews of the other, or map the borders of their cultural products, but to play with these representations as means by which to tease out potential possibilities for difference within his own culture. Rather than investigating Japan with the aim of capturing its cuisine, its art, or its urbanity in some sort of representational stasis, he allows the other to provide him a situation for writing and exploration, to provide him those unique moments or spaces which might inspire a disturbance or mutation in his own person.

While I have come to Japan bearing both those cultural preconceptions provided me by media, as well as those place-based mythologies I connect to my own identity, my understanding of Tokyo comes to me not only in these representational, compare-and-contrast discussions we’ve all engaged in with foreign others, but also in those non-representational chance encounters, and moments in daily life which cannot be scripted or coded by ideology. Just as Barthes delights in the emptiness of language and the gulf which separates representation from reality, so too do I enjoy examining the contrasts between the mythologies I construct, and acknowledge in discourse with others, with the realities of my lived urban experience; for here is where I can shake up my sense of self and explore those possibilities for difference otherwise invisible to my ideologically clouded mind...

Spaces of Transportation

To travel is to engage in transportation, however, rather than transportation towards an end or goal, I think, travel, so far as one is engaged in a journey, instead implies a particular engagement with the process of transportation itself. However, at the same time I must speak for myself. Indeed, modern tourism offers many opportunities to avoid the mystery and surprise of travel for something more predictable. And in a way, the comfortable calculability of modern travel packages emerges from a particular view of space as passive and representable. Here, space becomes a field through which we move, a field subordinate to time, and frozen into representable finalities (Massey, 2005). Whether this approach to travel emerges from this view of space, or whether the desire for predictability precedes a Newtonian view of space, these ideologies nonetheless hold implications for how urban space is produced. For instance, the desire for spaces that are predictable will engender the creation of such spaces, alongside the institutions and attitudes required for their maintenance. Indeed, Henri Lefebvre saw this historically biased perspective as bound up in the logic of a globally influential capitalist system, claiming: the “city historically constructed is no longer lived and is no longer understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists, for aestheticism, avid for spectacles and the picturesque” (Lefebvre, 1996, p. 148).

And no doubt, the majority of my conversations this summer have been concerned with what sites I’ve visited, what spectacles I’ve attended and what I’ve eaten or purchased. And while these things are fun and educational, and delicious, there are downsides in their attendant crowds, often predictable and familiar atmosphere, and off putting lack of subtlety. Indeed, my most memorable experiences are those that appear most banal in conversation: riding the trains, cycling through neighbourhoods, or getting lost in backstreets. In my opinion, it is these practices which best embody travelling as a process. Often I do these things without a plan or a concrete destination, while attempting to lend some purpose to my wanderings by taking a camera. It is in practices like these that one can glimpse the city with its “hair down,”  unscripted, unpredictable, and enjoyed without expectation. Indeed, by approaching travel in this way, all the stress that comes with expectations and itineraries disappears, allowing you to engage in the now.

Since spending time in India, I have grown to love trains, and so viewing the famously chaotic map of Tokyo’s metro system before departure instilled in me a tremendous curiosity and excitement for experiencing this world class public transportation system. And since arriving here I have done my best to explore its complex pathways and unique spaces. Because trains are so prominently woven into the infrastructure and rhythm of Tokyo they seem to be the most important landmarks or nodal points within the city. Every neighbourhood spills out from these centres where the majority of shops and restaurants are located. Indeed, many of these stations, like Shibuya or Yokohama for instance, form only one part of a greater subterranean shopping complex whose reach will extend beyond immediate comprehension, while containing a steady flow of people at all hours. Furthermore, because of their ubiquitous use by people of every class they serve as ideal sites for people watching.


The spaces inside trains and on platforms seem to express important themes in Japanese society, considering the consistency with which they demonstrate them. Colour coded markers show the proper places to stand and lineup for each respective train, and these lines are always formed dutifully and quietly. In fact it is rare to hear any talking, or witness any interaction, as trains scream by in either direction, and bleep-bloops, jingles and polite instructions emanate from overhead speakers (and yes, every station has a signature synth jingle which signals the arrival of each train). A conscious silence is also observed inside the trains, as everyone finds their space and keeps to themselves, some closing their eyes from a brief nap, with others reading books or observing phones, while still others sit patiently.

I take the train to work and back each day and this is always a new experience, even at the most micro of levels as new faces lend a unique flavour to my otherwise monotonous train rides. And this is a significant time for my imagination to run wild, imagining what each person around me does for a living, a practice which is admittedly coded by my preconceptions about Japanese culture, but otherwise no different from my people watching practices back home. Also different are the thoughts that occur to me about the various non-verbal communications I engage in in public as a result of my self-consciousness as a foreigner. Eye contact is uncommon here (with me), however, it is not uncommon to catch people staring my way, while I’m not looking. Sometimes I also find myself to be the only one with an empty seat beside me, making me wonder whether this is coincidence or a result of my looks or smell.

Cycling is an activity well suited to my dérives through Yokohama. On these journeys I’ve explored an aspect of the city markedly different to those I’ve seen on foot or by train. The combination of speed and manoeuvrability affords me unique views of the more marginalized, quiet, industrial spaces of Yokohama, which relatively few come into contact with. On bicycle I’ve discovered hidden greenbelts, homeless encampments under freeways, vast industrial yards, secret fishing spots, and even an eerie, trash strewn, post-apocalyptic space beneath the city’s sprawling Bay Bridge. While I approach the predictability and monotony of trains as an opportunity to do some deep reading on people’s public social habits and quirks, my cycling journeys are less human focused as I explore those interstices of Japanese urbanity disregarded by most.

Finally, walking and wandering provides me access to still more spaces, namely those human-scaled sites of commerce and housing which form important hubs of urban social life in urban Japan. These extend walking distance from every train station, offering spaces to eat, shop and drink, at street level, heavily adorned in long neon signs which hang vertically off their building’s sides. In his book Tokyo: A Spatial Anthropology (1995) Jinnai Hidenobu explores how modern Tokyo has carried forward the same spatial forms laid down in the Edo period of over 100 years ago, despite the many fires, wars and other disasters which have levelled the city and necessitated fresh construction. Along with these spatial forms have also persisted the unique vertical signage and human-scaled, street accessible manner of Edo’s working class spaces.

Yet despite their easily accessible exteriors, there are other ways in which these spaces make themselves private or difficult to access to outsiders. Many of the shops along my dorm’s street are spaces I would never dare to enter, despite their public accessibility, for a number of reasons, including my limited understanding of Japanese language and customs. These are the spaces of a working class neighbourhood that is ageing and in decline: there are traditional Japanese restaurants which lack English menus and black out their windows with light-faded pictures of food; there are those restaurants and shops which always seem empty, their signs sun bleached over what has probably been decades; cafes where one or more seniors sit in silence from time to time; a street-open karate dojo; the tailor’s; the mechanic’s; and the laundromat, to name a few. If I keep walking, towards the station, I enter a livelier but shadier group of shops, among which the Yakuza supposedly have a headquarters. This Yakuza influence is not surprising, for the number of ‘massage parlours,’ shady karaoke bars, and Pachinko places here is remarkable. As I walk through these streets I pass old people walking dogs, gangster types talking on cell phones, chefs enjoying smokes out the backdoor of restaurants, the whirring lights and sounds of Pachinko as doors open to allow people to come and go, and all other manner of people who must pass among these sights and sounds on their way home from the station.

Thus, while the train and bicycle are modes of travel conducive to a full experience in silence and observation, walking is the most intimate of derives as one confronts the private spaces of Japan most closely, while also requiring interaction with others for proper engagement.  This is not to say I haven’t engaged in the consumption of spectacle and culture on my derives through Tokyo, taking breaks to try new foods or stop by important sites, but I also think it is a very different approach to tourism which acknowledges a processual and open engagement with space, free from what can feel like the tyrannical obligations of those sights that one “must see”...


Barthes, R. (1982). Empire of signs. New York: Hill and Wang.

Brumann, C., Dimmer, C., & Schulz, E. (2012). Introduction. In C. Brumann & E. Schulz (Eds.), Urban Spaces in Japan: Cultural and social perspectives (pp. 1-14). London: Routledge.

Butz, D., & Besio, K. (2009). Autoethnography. Geography Compass, 3(5), 1660-1674, doi:10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00279.x

Demographia. (2014). Demographia world urban areas (built-up urban areas or world agglomerations). Retrieved from website:

Elden, S. (2001). Mapping the present: Heidegger, Foucault and the project of a spatial history.    London: Continuum.

Fluchter, W. (2012). Urbanisation, city and city system in Japan between development and shrinking. In C. Brumann & E. Schulz (Eds.), Urban Spaces in Japan: Cultural and social perspectives (pp. 15-36). London: Routledge.

Jinnai, H. (1995). Tokyo: A spatial anthropology. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Lefebvre, H. (1996). Writings on cities (E. Kofman & L. E, Eds.). Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.

Massey, D. (2005). For space. London: SAGE.