City of Eyes

The other day, for the first time, a young woman on the train won the contest of “who will look away first.” In the past, I could always stare longer than anyone in Tokyo, but this Tokyo woman outstared me. I felt surprised, and maybe a little humiliated, that she could hold the eye contact longer than me–a westerner!


It was a clear case of ocular disempowerment, but it wasn’t always like that. When I first came to Tokyo, shopping, teaching or just walking around, I felt bewildered because no one met my eyes. Of course, I knew that in Asian countries, eye contact, like other body language, carries vastly different meanings than in America. Still, when eyelids would clamp down, I felt like the human element of the city was veiled and hidden away from me. It was hard to get a clear look into the heart of the city since the path through people’s eyes kept getting blocked.

City of eyes2

These days, though, Tokyoites’ eyes seem as comfortable with western as with eastern eye contact rules. Whenever I make a purchase or look around on the train, people do not look away like they used to. Their eyes linger on mine as they hand me my bag, sit across from me on the train, or cut in front of me up the escalator. Tokyoites have always been masters of the side-glance and the stolen glance. But these days, Tokyoites are starting to master the direct stare, too.


I suppose some of this change comes from more Tokyoites going abroad. I can almost always tell when Tokyoites have spent a lot of time overseas from their eyes. In the same way foreign words have crept into the Japanese language, foreign eye contact has crept in, too. Some Tokyoites’ eyes holler out, “Hey, how ya doin’?” To determine time spent abroad, eye-contact duration is as accurate as any English language test!


Some people might interpret this is a loss of politeness. But it signals a big change in attitude. Keeping one’s eyes cast downward used to express social position and respect, so the current directness may seem lacking in delicacy and courtesy. When I order a coffee at the foreign-owned chain stores invading Tokyo, I’m startled by the way young part-time workers look right into my eyes. It makes me think, “Where am I? New York?”


Yet, though it might sound strange, but I feel somehow like Tokyoites’ eyes have been freed! They can look wherever they like for however long they want.


Unfortunately, though, some Tokyoites probably feel they can look more directly because they are safe inside the technological insulation of their cellphone and earphones. For some of them, I guess, I’m just another passing image. Looking at me is about the same as looking into the eyes of a close-up of Johnny Depp (though arguably less handsome) on their video screen. They may be looking more directly, and for longer, but not any more deeply. For some of those people, eyes are just an image of eyes, nothing more.

Usually, though, for most eye-contact-makers, I think it’s much more that. Increasing eye contact shows people are not retreating deeper inside themselves, but coming out a little more. Tokyo is, after all, a safe city, with people around all the time. For me, this increased eye contact shows an increasing comfort with other people, without any loss of civility. My students used to stare down at their desks so hard I thought there was something wrong with me, but these days, they are not afraid of confirming what they’re hearing, or what they want to say, through eye contact.City of eyes


Even though we never say a word, the eyes I meet are ones filled with curiosity and a little warmth. They want to know what I’m doing there, I imagine, and let their eyes linger a bit to find out. In Tokyo, it’s always easy to look away, so I love these brief moments of ocular intimacy as I wander through the passing thousands of people every day. The increased eye contact shows people are unafraid to meet the inner world of some stranger in the middle of the city, even if for only a moment.


There’s a lot to see in Tokyo, but despite all the attractions, the brief, little moments of eye contact offer beauty and intensity. So different than observing another building, reading another menu or perusing another purchase, Tokyo eyes express unfathomable meanings. What could be more beautiful and mysterious than human eyes? What could be more human? Tokyo has a lot of eyes to look into!


There’s often a moment in the rush of Tokyo when I catch someone’s eyes and feel stirred by some sympathy and connection that I can’t quite name. That moment, when eyes touch eyes, brief as it is, always recharges my human batteries. It reminds me that Tokyo is a city of human beings, whose most interesting achievement is what their eyes, in their own special silent language, have to say.

© 2016 - Michael Pronko
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