Previously in Atlantic Abroad
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
March 17, 1999
"Japan's economy is in a terrible recession," my friend Jun, a Buddhist priest, complained as he gunned his temple's Saab 9000 Turbo, bought during the bubble years, through the alleyways of old-town Tokyo. "On the other hand, now we have the Head Mount Display."
"The what?" I hadn't been back to Japan since the summer of 1997, when Thailand's currency began the nosedive that would erase half its value against the dollar and would drag much of Asia into an economic tailspin.
"You know: the Scuba," Jun said. "Tonight," he added, turning his shaved head to me and smirking deviously, "we will try it on you. Full immersion." He downshifted aggressively, and the Saab whined in protest as we negotiated Tokyo's gridwork of tiny streets, on our way to lunch at his temple. "Then you and I go head-to-head."
Sitting in the temple's Western-style living room after a lunch of herring roe and boiled kelp, seeking a shot of spiritual salve for the impending showdown, I said, "I ought to pay my respects to the Buddha at your altar."
"Later!" Jun barked. "I want to show you something now."
He knelt at a stand by the large television that dominated the living room and reverentially lifted a dust cloth. Under it, the object of his obeisance: a Sony Playstation.
Jun's wife called out, "Dear, you have an appointment for soul-absolution ceremonies this afternoon."
"Work," Jun said, sighing apologetically. He laid the cloth gingerly back over the Playstation pedestal. "But I'll be back. Then we go see the Scuba."
Left alone with me, Jun's wife rolled her eyes. "I wish he had never bought that Sony video game."
I managed only a syllable of consolation before she cut me off.
"Right after he bought it," she said, leaning toward me with her eyes wide, "Sega came out with a much better one. It's called the Dreamcaster."
I suspected that when Jun returned we would soon find ourselves bound for Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo, and I was right. We arrived at dusk. Massive arrays of colorful neon signs overwhelmed the senses. I had made pilgrimages to this place in years past. It was a shrine to a sacred object in the Japanese economy: the nyuu aitemu, or the "new item."
In the bizarre nomenclature of Japanized loan words, the nyuu aitemu signified a crucial component of Japan's legendary high-tech economic engine. Japan had long tested products here at Akihabara on its own consumers, voracious for fresh gadgets, before dumping shiploads of merchandise on export markets abroad.
This time, though, I sensed that Akihabara was no longer a fount suggesting an ocean of national wealth. Now it felt more like a last-ditch oasis in a desert of economic depression. Amid flashing lights and dazzling towers of electronic goods, I wondered how many Japanese were now here not to purchase products, but simply to escape the reality of Japan's economic nightmare by gazing at them.
"When I used to come here," I said carefully, attempting the Japanese trick of not saying what one wanted to say, "I felt a sense of awe."
Jun caught my drift. "Yes," he said wistfully. "It makes me nostalgic."
We encountered a crowd in the street outside a video-game store, at rapt attention in front of four large television screens. At each a lucky young man twitched his fingers over a control pad. Mesmerized, I stared at the most magnificent computer graphics I had ever seen. "That," Jun whispered into my ear, "is the Dreamcaster."
The game was impressive. But the crowd appeared bent not on buying it so much as simply playing it, or even just watching others play it. Jun dragged me away and back to our mission. Soon he motioned me inside a sparkling electronics showroom. "There," he pointed. "See? Head Mount Display. The Scuba."
On a podium sat a cumbersome piece of space-age headgear that brought science fiction eerily to life. I tried on this "Virtual Immersion Visor," as the Scuba was subtitled, and relinquished reality. From total sensory darkness, suddenly I became beholden to two miniature television screens, one directly in front of each eye, and a pair of speakers in my ears.
The effect was overwhelming. I had the sensation of floating in space surrounded by three-dimensional images many times larger than myself. Dead to the actual, alive only to the pipeline of wired-in video-game data, I left this world entirely. But after a seductive moment I yanked off the heavy Scuba. The thought of drowning terrified me.
Back at the temple Jun and I finally went "head-to-head." Over drinks we raced some of the fastest cars in the world -- on Jun's Playstation. Freed from the disappointingly real Saab on the frustrating streets of Tokyo, we reveled in full power on the open road. But I had the feeling that neither of us was sure where we were headed.
Trevor Corson was a research fellow at the Institute for Comprehensive Studies of Buddhism at Taisho University in Tokyo from 1994 to 1996. A former Atlantic Monthly intern, he is now the executive editor of the Harvard China Review.
Share your thoughts on Atlantic Abroad in Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.