Japan Diary

By Sean McAllister


I’ve become nocturnal living in Tokyo. Three weeks have turned to six already, wandering without a brief, amongst the neon-lit sex bars and love hotels, searching for a documentary for BBC and NHK, Japan. I feel 'Lost in my own Translation' here.

Never have I been somewhere for so long and felt such an outsider. It was easier to be invited into people’s homes when filming in Saddam’s Iraq. Those days keep coming back to me as I journey through modern Japan, as I watch the teaming, salary-men marching to and from work – industrial soldiers oiling the cogs of industry.

I go to meet a potential character for my film, an office manager for a large sake company. It is 6pm. The office bell sounds the end of the day. No-one moves. When I ask why, he laughs and says that they are all scared. ‘Scared of you?’ I ask. ‘No’ he laughs. ‘They’re scared of each other’. Something to document, I think to myself.

I visit my co-producers at the Japanese state TV station, NHK. They’re housed in a big, grey, dirty old building. It reminds me of one of Saddam’s ministries. Ryota, the NHK commissioning editor, is crammed into the corner of an office surrounded by papers and a clunky, old laptop computer. There are VHS tapes all over the place. What happened to high-tech Japan I wonder?

I’m taken to meet the boss. He sits in a Saddam-style office on his own. I cannot take my eyes off the cinema-sized TV on his wall. The boss is watching sumo wrestling with crisp HD quality. HD for broadcast, yet NHK still off-lines on VHS.


Japan’s feudal past is still present in this ultra-modern, day-to-day society. I realise that I need to explore the past. I want to know what has happened here since 1945. I want to find someone who can bring this into perspective in the film. Ryota tells me that there was a thriving hippy, peace movement here in the 1960’s and a vibrant, Communist movement. I want to find someone who remembers this, someone in conflict with Japan as the ultra-capitalist empire.

The NHK office seems like a microcosm of modern Japan to me. Male office managers sit at the head of each of their teams and the women occupy the secretarial positions. They never become managers. Not yet at least. A friend tells me he expects women to get rights more quickly in China than in Japan.

But women are fighting back here. Divorce still has a stigma but is now acceptable and on the increase. Women in their 30’s are refusing to marry. Instead, they prefer to be ‘free’. Most of the women in this office are ‘free’ I’m told. I look at my watch. It’s now eleven at night. A funny kind of freedom I think.

Leaving the building, I watch the homeless in tents scattered across the parks and littering the streets. One man I speak to says he considers himself to be lucky now he is outside the pressure cooker of daily life here. He too feels ‘free’. Yet each day he dresses in a suit and heads off to work. He tells me he became homeless after feeling depressed and attempting suicide.

Last year Japan ‘officially’ recorded 32,000 suicides. The real figure is expected to be double this in a country whose population is 130 million.


On the subway train I watch a whole family sleeping in complete exhaustion. Around them businessmen sleep standing up. They wake instinctively when it is their stop.

Next day, my commissioning editor, Ryota, tells me he finished work at 5 am and slept on the floor in the office. When I tell him I have been in bed most of the day, he envies my Englishness, my ‘freedom’. I joke that I feel I’m becoming Japanese. He looks at me and tells me I could never be Japanese.

Three months later, out of money and out of luck, with no character for my film, I head back to England. I feel defeated by this alien nation.

In London, I meet a friend who has lived in Japan. He tells me of Naoki, a 55 year old, ex-Communist who used to run a bar in Yamagata, three hours north of Tokyo. He lost it after getting into a fight and being hospitalised for three months. Now he works at the post office, lives with a girl half his age and dreams of re-opening his bar. He enjoys a drink and is open about his feelings towards Japan. My friend says he’s definitely ‘my kind of guy’

Now I’m heading back to meet him, fully commissioned this time by the BBC and NHK, and hoping that Naoki holds some answers for me to the mystery that is modern Japan. I have a year and half of filming to find out.

All photos by Sean MacAllister.