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JAPAN | Saturday, 10 September 2011 | Views [415]

Tokyo felt hardly strange. This makes no sense. The population of the city alone exceeds that of Australia. It is crowded, densely packed, perpetually on the go.

Shop signs and hoardings are written in mix of three impenetrable alphabets. This, after years of travel in countries where the script [Arabic, Greek, Persian, Cyrillic] yielded more or less, more or less quickly. Here even the numbering was not necessarily the same.

And the faces!

It is said that Japan, through its island status and long political isolation, has a singularly cohesive society and culture. Hardly any migration, at least in comparison to the great waves that have swept across the rest of the world. The country was barely colonised, never the hub of some European trading concession.

But each face I saw – and there are many faces to see in a city that depends so heavily on public transport – was different. There would occasionally be a face that seemed iconic, like something from a print by Hiroshige or Hokusai. Maybe gnarled, maybe smooth. Male, female, delicately or crassly indeterminate. Seen once, and never again.

There were no repeats. K____ looked nothing like her sister, her father. K______ and M____ could as easily have been brother and sister as man and wife. There was no way to tell.

Names repeated. Colleagues were known as senior or junior depending. Hair was mostly dark, eyes black. How such variety was achieved within such constraints was like some prodigious feat of legerdemain. I am still watching to see where the magician puts his hands.

[See the] faces in the crowd
Petals on a wet, black bough.

— Ezra Pound

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