[Words and art by Tiarna Meehan (she/her)]
“Tokyo demonstrates that ‘city’ is a verb, not a noun” Mori Toshiko
The veins of Tokyo are wire cables, vivid blues, and startling yellows, ethernet, coaxial, fiber optic. The tangled network routes the city in a map of intricate connections. Its bloodstream: a steady flow of fizzing megabytes which careen along tramlines and scale towering skyscrapers. The current flows into the panels of billboards, illuminating the skyline with an artificial glow. Frayed cables devour palettes of primary colour until eventually they regurgitate the pixelated spew all over the screens: gleaming stills of manga girls with pigtails and knee-high socks, their irises large and purple.
Underneath the crowds operate almost mechanically; seemingly unaware of the vertiginous metropolis that towers over them. Businessmen perform their refined routines; raise their wrists, check their watches, and turn left at Shinagawa station. They stand on crowded metallic platforms and stare downward at the reflection of their black polished shoes. Sipping the reliable elixir of a tall double espresso they wait for the Shinkansen, or rather it waits for them, the anticipated bullet train traveling at a speed of 199 mph (that’s almost 6 times faster than the Glasgow Subway). On a neighboring platform, groups of teenagers pace idly. Some stand in displays of embellished cosplay while others are clad in a hybrid of high fashion brands. They hold the tattered remains of red metro cards as they board the train to one of Tokyo’s glorified arcade blocks.
Back below the glowing advertisements of Mitsubishi and Mugicha barley tea, tourists venture down narrow roads; the delicate capillaries of Tokyo. The alleyways showcase a quieter side to an otherwise roaring city: underground whiskey bars, and hidden eateries. Where power lines cross overhead like string washing lines and air conditioning units cling precariously to concrete walls. The metronomic droplets ricochet off waxed raincoats into overflowing drains. Yet even in the quieter passages of the city, modernisation creeps silently: luminous vending machines fringe the road, painting the ground in their blue futuristic hue. The contents are a little more obscure than expected: fresh fruit, flowers, and pink-laced underwear.
It’s no surprise Japan champions some of the largest names in the technology field: Casio, Toshiba, Hitachi, as well as gaming giants Nintendo and SEGA. Travel in any direction in Tokyo and you’ll be met with more cutting edge creations: from toilets that test sugar levels in urine to soft-eyed robots with the capacity to detect human emotion. Pragmatic innovations have helped craft this digital landscape into its current chiseled state. Blessed with fervent investment in education, statistics reveal current Japanese youth are still upholding the rigorous standard of their predecessors; leading in fields such as science and mathematics.
Yet behind locked doors and between twitching curtains, an entire community resides in isolation. They’ve swapped towering high rise complexes for leaning stacks of manga magazines. Glowing billboards are instead a singular glitching TV screen – a secluded microcosm in their very own bedrooms. Hikikomori is Japan’s lost generation, those who have completely withdrawn from society. At current an estimated 1.15 million hikikomori reside in Japan alone. They immerse themselves in a digital world; tethered solely to society by the umbilical cord pumping rich digital nutrition into their desktops.
In an attempt to pull the recluses from their spiraling rabbit holes of isolation scientists now look toward technological solutions. These come in the form of augmented reality: software applications that provide an interactive experience of a real-world environment. They act as a digital inoculation: a calculated dose of pixels and bytes. Other amalgamations of the online and offline world are also proving effective. Media companies have released video series of faces in direct eye contact with cameras, a simplistic concept to facilitate hikikomori in building the foundations of social contact. Similarly, the online ‘rental sister’ scheme schedules frequent visits from ‘sisters’ to help coax young men out of their isolation.
Despite the emerging report of success stories, Japan’s hikikomori community is still growing exponentially, with a projected figure of over 10 million. It draws into question whether technology can fully solve the issue at hand, or is this simply the price to pay for a society so advanced?