There are girls in pink wigs, girls with cornrowed hair, girls with towering Erykah Badu-style head wraps, and girls whose dreadlocks are pulled up into the wool tams that mark them as devotees of Japan's dance hall-music craze. There are scores of girls all talking at once into their computerized I-mode cell phones, saying "Ima doko?" ("Where are you now?")
There are girls in the slutty fishnets and slashed Daisy Duke shorts that, later tonight, will help guarantee entrance to Shibuya's hot club Womb, and girls in the Playboy-bunny outfits that mark them as members of the informal Red-Hot Sexy Girl Mafia. There are boys wearing customized soccer jerseys, ripped and resewn and emblazoned with the name of Hidetoshi Nakata, the 25-year-old midfielder who constitutes a kind of one-man Red-Hot Sexy Boy Mafia in this newly soccer-obsessed nation. There is a woman wearing a shirt from a label called Eccentric Pill, the legend on which reads: EIGHTIES WOMAN, SHE GREW INTO HER WOMANHOOD, YES SHE DID!
"I mean," says Maiko, who is wearing a skirt over trousers and a Prada raincoat suitable for a flasher, "all you ever read about is Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, you know. It's a little bit boring, don't you think?"
Of course it is. And, as much as I have spent time wondering who actually goes for all those three-sleeved sweaters, I am equally confounded that people persist in thinking of Japan as some kind of luxury-goods dump. (In fairness: 60 percent of LVHM receipts are said to come from Japan.) Never mind all the people who still carry around a mental postcard of Tokyo that includes bamboo tea whisks, silk kimonos, and rice-powdered geisha.
These things exist, of course. But when I inquire of my Japanese friends whether the women I see on the subway wearing kimonos are traditionalist holdouts, they laugh. "Probably restaurant hostesses," Yutaka Mori, a commercial photographer, said one night as he proffered a piece of pork sushi from his earthenware plate.
The Tokyo I know resembles so much less the Western depictions of it than some fantastic DJ's motherboard that I have to laugh, too. And this is not to suggest, as people often do, that traditionally insular Japan hungers indiscriminately for all the cultural junk of the outside world. Much more probable, it seems to me, is that the Japanese are merely persisting in their delight in wabi sabi, the beauty of decay, and are finding their own way to absorb and transform what can sometimes seem like the weirdest and most evidently indigestible things on earth. (I passed on the pork sushi, by the way.)
Perhaps I was in a susceptible mood, but I felt my acclimation to Tokyo had already begun when, on the flight over, I read an interview with the artist Hiroshi Sunairi, whose autoerotic photographic collages are much admired. Asked to name his influences, Sunairi cited sources almost nutty in their dispersion: the melodies of John Lennon, the aqueous qualities of Richard Diebenkorn's landscapes, the colors in Öyvind Fahlström's installations, Björk's strenuously adventurous lyrics, the logos on United Bamboo polo shirts, and, finally, Tezuka Osamu, the inventor of Atom Boy. I was listening to a mixed tape by DJ Jazzy Jeff at the time, and so Sunairi's welter of referents made fine sense to me.