Shelf Life MAG

April 30, 2008
By Chloe Ferguson, Wellesley, MA

It is 4:30 p.m. in Shibuya, Tokyo, and 30 feet to my left, a twenty­something gang member pulls out a cigarette and lights it. I’m standing in front of the central train exit, carefully weighing my dinner options ­versus my dire need for new books. Finally resigned to the notion that a good book outweighs a good meal, I grasp my clear plastic umbrella tightly in one hand, hike up my shoulder bag with the other, and step away from the low wall where I’m leaning.

I’m instantly engulfed in a seething mass of people hurrying blankly in all directions. In front of me is a concrete jungle of epic proportions, already aglow in the unnatural light of fluorescent neon. Ten stories of glass rise above the four-way crosswalk, the eighth floor splashed garishly with an HMV logo in a toxic shade of pink. Celebrities and sugary idols flit across the myriad screens, touting housewares one minute and themselves the next.

My destination is a multi-story bookstore at the end of the block, sandwiched between a Wendy’s and a massive shopping complex. I pick up my pace, shivering – it’s late April, and my school uniform is rendered useless by the piercing winds. Silently cursing whoever first implemented a skirts-­only policy, I whiz by small storefronts ­selling cheap beauty products, and slick, corporate branches where blushing models wave the newest cell phone designs from inside glossy white posters.

I reach the door and, pushing past throngs of people, cascade into the magazine department with a gust of cold air. I quickly tramp up six flights of escalators, my eyes scanning the quietly intent customers flipping through volumes on every level. ­Finally, the top floor – my stop.

The foreign book section is only half a room, dominated largely by reading and speaking guides aimed at foreigners or English dictionaries for the ambitious Japanese. There remains, however, a small section of ­serious English books: two shelves of classics and four shelves of modern pop lit.

And there, smack in front of the modern lit, she stood. Around my height, slim, glasses, dusty blond with a half-twist ponytail. Her being foreign didn’t shock me; ­indeed, Tokyo is full of wan-faced English businessmen and a smattering of eager tourists, with the occasional expat thrown in for good measure. No, my shock stemmed from something so unusual, so out of place, I had yet to see it anywhere. She wore a school uniform. Just. Like. Me.

In all my days trolling through Tokyo in uniform, I had never once encountered another Westerner in one (besides my occasional schoolmate). The sudden appearance of this stranger was jarring and phenomenally curious all at once.

The uniform is a distinctly Japanese phenomenon in terms of scope and scale, with every school touting its own design and colors. Creeping quickly over to the classics department, I tried to unravel the secret code imbued in the piping, colors, and logo of her uniform from behind a copy of Emma. Seiryu? No, they were red plaid. Meidai? Nope, they had a navy blazer, and I was reasonably sure the Fujimigaoka girls wore gray.

I switched to a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. Should I ask her? Was that weird? Was she in a Japanese school or an international one? I smoldered silently in front of the foreign dictionary rack, debating whether to strike up a conversation with the first non-tourist foreigner my age I’d seen in months. I decided I would do it. It would be vaguely awkward, but perhaps we could share our mutual experiences of living in Tokyo, and ….

I rounded the bookcase and found myself alone. I glanced at my watch. It was slightly past five; a half hour had passed. Evidently, my ability to ruminate had vastly outstripped her ability to loiter. I perused the classics section dejectedly, finally choosing an appropriately somber choice. Clutching a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I hurried toward the register, increas­ingly frantic in my desire to catch the 5:12 out of Shibuya.

Grabbing my parcel, I raced down six flights of stairs, pushed through a throng of customers and burst out the door into a cool spring twilight. I picked up the pace; it was a long ­commute home, and my only riding partner was Mr. Dorian Gray.

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This article has 3 comments.

Vespa PLATINUM said...
on Apr. 9 2011 at 4:22 am
Vespa PLATINUM, Portland, Oregon
21 articles 4 photos 18 comments

Favorite Quote:
When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.
~Leonardo Da Vinci

I know exactly what you're talking about here, because I too used to live in Tokyo as a foreigner. I didn't go to a Japanese school, but I do remember the copius amounts of teenagers wandering around in school uniforms, and the shock when one of them was obviously not Japanese. I can also identify with your search for English books since that's what I spent quite a bit of time doing. The shop you talked about, was it Tower Records?

I loved it in Tokyo, and if you happen to still be there then I advise you to take complete advantage of the situation since nowhere is as wonderful as Tokyo. Trust me, I would know.

on Oct. 16 2010 at 10:03 am

when was this article written?


on Feb. 14 2010 at 4:59 am
brookedawson101 BRONZE, Hoofddorp, Other
2 articles 0 photos 2 comments
I love how I can completely identify with the feelings you have described in this article. I am an American living in the Netherlands, and I always experience the same sort of shock of pleasure whenever I come across another American or English-speaker living here. I always wonder what their story is and why they are here, but I usually don't dare to speak to them for fear of them thinking I'm a weirdo. The Netherlands might be a long way from Tokyo, but I can understand completely what your message in a foreign country is a wonderful experience, but can be rather lonely at times.

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