Vision of fun is blurred by bouncers; TOKYO DAYS

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The Independent Online
Why do foreigners in Japan get so wound up? This, after all, is the most crime-free country in the industrialised world. The streets are clean. The trains always run on time. You never have to tip and, apart from the odd typhoon and a few sticky weeks in the summer, the climate is mild and predictable. So why does it provoke the kind of frustrated loathing usually reserved for third-world dictatorships? Complaining about Japan (the expense, the language, the bureaucracy) makes up a good 50 per cent of expatriate conversations. There are even clinics for foreigners suffering from culture shock.

The other day I began to understand why. My particular epiphany was unexpected because it occurred at what should have been a jolly occasion. Blur, the reigning princes of British pop music, were playing in Tokyo, and I had tickets. "Bra", as they are called here, are big in Japan, and images of the band and their lead singer Damon ("Day Mon") Albarn were plastered over my local record shop. In capital spirits, my friend and I took the subway to the opening concert at Budokan hall.

The Budokan is the country's most famous concert venue and the location of some of the most solemn state occasions. I was here in August for the 50th anniversary ceremony of the end of the war. Unsmiling men with heavy bulges in their jackets had scrutinised our IDs. But the security extended to the Emperor was nothing to that enjoyed by Bra.

Steel barriers funnelled the crowd to the doors, scrutinised by megaphone- wielding stewards. "Unauthorised objects must not be brought into the hall," they warned. Inside, more officials bustled us to our seats in the back row of the upper circle behind a pillar. Even the front row was 10 yards from the stage. Patrolling this fenced-off no-man's-land were more of the fellows in suits. They were everywhere: crouching in the aisles to mop up anyone foolish enough to move out of their seats, inspecting the tickets of anything that moved.

The band bounced on and the entertainment began. My mate and I quickly abandoned our perch at the back, but no sooner had we found a vacant space lower down than the storm troopers were onto us, escorting us back up again.

For the rest of the evening we played cat and mouse in a simple effort to see the band. During one evasive action, we saw one of the suited Gestapo catch a transgressor. She was a schoolgirl, and she had been caught in possession of one of the unauthorised objects we had been warned about. The tone of the man who was barking at her suggested that this must be something serious: a knife perhaps, drugs? No. The object was a small disposable camera. "It's the first time, so we'll let you off," the guard told her. "I have committed a rudeness, I have committed a rudeness," said the girl, bowing repeatedly. She re-entered the auditorium, tears rolling down her cheeks.

On stage the sprightly Day Mon was also about to make a big mistake. "Ye-e-e-es, They're stereotypes,/There must be more to life," he sang, clambering off the stage and towards the crowd. "All your life you're dreaming/Then you stop dreaming," he went on, offering the microphone to the front row. In an instant, eight security guards were on top of him, bundling him back on to the stage. Later he threw his hat into the audience. A hand shot up and caught it. The hand belonged to another steward.

After the show I went backstage and found a frowning Damon who revealed that the band would be fined for this behaviour. Penalties were also imposed for running over time - they gave too many encores.

Bra wanted to have a good time. The girl with the camera wanted to have a good time. I certainly wanted to have a good time. What was stopping us? Japan, more than any other country, attracts conspiracy theories. The conformity and homogeneity, the rules and bureaucracy, you will hear, are all part of a plot orchestrated by the Liberal Democratic Party/Ministry of Finance/Bank of Japan to keep the populace under its thumb. A book published earlier this year seriously claimed that the reason cash-dispensing machines close so early in Japan (mid-afternoon at weekends) is to discourage people from spending, thus promoting savings and fuelling economic expansion with a ready supply of cheap money. Such academic paranoia is easy to pooh-pooh. But in the Budokan I felt for the first time the presence of some great impersonal killjoy force, singularly devoted to snuffing out fun.