To be born in the wrong time – and the right at the same time

(originally published in Swedish on a game site community)

I’ve always cursed myself for being born in the wrong time, far away from all the action. While my grandparents saw Sweden blossom in the years following the Second World War, got to experience everything from the arrival of television into the living rooms to smiling stewardesses dressed in elegant uniforms, serving coffee in china sets on low altitude flights across the Continent. The welfare state was blooming and the standard of living rose not only in Sweden but all around the world. And people appreciated their surroundings, as everything was new and memories of the miseries of war were not far behind them. Now the winds were blowing faster than ever, but forward.

Since I was a little kid I’ve been a sucker for things old, and the summers spent at my grandparents’ house in Gotland (a Swedish island) always offered a bonanza. Grandpa was a mechanic and in his garage stood old English automobiles that had conquered the roads decades earlier, but shone polished and looked almost as good as new. That garage became my time machine, along with grandpa’s office full of old photographs, marine potpourri and all kinds of curious hodgepodge. And each time I watched an old city symphony documentary on TV, I thought about grandpa and his garage.

But if I did get a chance to be born in another time, I would not choose Sweden. Because despite all I’ve mentioned, not enough happened around us – submarine mysteries and other Cold War paranoia (being close to the Soviet Union) aside.

Maybe I’d choose to be born in the U.S. as a baby boomer. Then I could read science fiction magazines in the basement in the 50s, cry over the shots in Dallas a decade later, protest the Vietnam War and most importantly – see us land on the Moon. It must have been amazing to experience the Space Age of the 60s, from Yuri Gagarin’s maiden voyage in April 1961 to recently deceased Neil Armstrong’s big little step in July of 1969. Maybe I could follow it all from a small mining town, like Jake Gyllenhaal in the excellent film October Sky.

Or, if I’d been born a few years later, I could sit in this classroom and listen to the poetry of Simon and Garfunkel. The Dangling Conversation is one of Simon’s absolute masterpieces, here lectured by a charming young teacher in cinema verite master Frederick Wiseman’s High School from 1968. Look how her eyes sparkle after putting the song on for her students. I’d like to get to know her. Fall in love with her. Go out in the streets and revolt with her. Simply put, I’d like to be there.

But if I only had one choice, I probably still wouldn’t choose the U.S., but Japan. During the same period. Because there, the bustling commotion around people’s daily lives was even greater. Mostly because they had lost a long and hard-felt war, and people wanted to forget all about the imperialism that had brought it about, but also because the Japanese post-war industry model became so successful that everything just exploded – in happier tones than the fire bombs during the war. The country was also bombarded by foreign influences left and right, not unlike when it opened its doors to the West after nearly 300 years in exile after Admiral Perry’s black ships sailed in about a century earlier. All of a sudden everything foreign became modern, and all came at once like the water in a dam someone had just opened. At the same it was Japanized  – the Japanese are masters at taking foreign things and making them more Japanese than they originally were foreign – and created a unique culture that could only be experienced there and then. Contrasts more beautiful and exciting even than a haiku poem by Matsuo Basho.

But let us get back to the 60s, perhaps to a university campus. Because the student protests that had started in the United States and spread around the world had reached Japan as well, and here more than anywhere else did the protests matter for the students as individuals. For the first time they could break free from the overly demanding expectations from family and society. Japan had become a rich country and individualism could prosper like never before. Many protested just for the sake of it, set up film festivals showing works of Godard and Koji Wakamatsu. The boys read Rimbaud and pretended to be Bob Dylan while the girls joined English drama clubs and masturbated with radio tubes. At least according to Ryu Murakami’s semi-autobiography 69, a fantastic novel depicting how the youths living in the countryside were affected by the wave of revolt that washed over the big cities miles away. (Both kinds, by the way, were crazy about Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends)

There, in Tokyo, lived another Murakami. Namely Haruki. And the charm of one of his masterpieces, Norwegian Wood, is that the protagonists deal with their love issues in the middle of all the political chaos, but at the same time ignore it. In a sense, the commotion built a wall between them and society that made their lives a little but simpler, a little bit freer.

And I want to go there. Now. To Midori and Toru. To Yazaki and Adama in the countryside. While living in Kyushu for two years, I actually visited Sasebo, where 69 takes place, and located the high school Yazaki and his friends barricade. Japanese schools have a very timeless look so it was easy to imagine myself back in time. And through a window I almost saw Iwase shitting on the principal’s desk.

One year earlier, in 1968, Japan got its first Nobel laureate in literature, my favorite author Yasunari Kawabata. He grew up in the in my opinion most appealing era of Japanese history, the Taisho democracy of the 1920s. Here was glimpsed what would happen in full force 40 years later, especially as women got more independent and could both work and earn money. “Moga” (modern girls) set trends that shocked the older generations, broke free from the male-dominated society and got sexually liberated. Perhaps the most colorful portrait of “moga” was painted by another Japanese literary giant, Junichiro Tanizaki, in his short novel Naomi from 1924. A must read for everyone with a passion for Japanese culture.

But it is to Kawabata’s Asakusa Kurenaidan (The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa) I want to go. Asakusa in these days was Tokyo’s equivalent of New York’s Times Square or Montmartre in Paris. Entertainment in all its forms, cabarets and movie theaters, Tivoli games and peepshows. Ero guro nansensu.

And some of the charm of this era is documented on old e-hagaki (picture postcards) collected on one of my favorite websites, Click on a postcard and dream yourself away. At least that is what I do.

But wait a minute.

I was born the same year as Donkey Kong, got to experience the NES during its prime, enter the famed Nintendo bus as well as play Street Fighter II live on Swedish television. I’ve seen video game journalism develop from fanzines to the front pages of Sweden’s most respected dailies. Tested virtual reality when it was new. Heard all the schoolyard myths about Zelda II. Played portable games from Game & Watch and Game Boy to smartphones. Pretty much lived through the entire history of video gaming.

And in 20 or 30 years people will want to die to get a chance to have experienced that.


It’s enough to see the commercials above to understand that the 60s were awesome (note Bill Murray’s predecessor in the second film!)

And I’d really like to be able to crawl out of the TV when I see this one.

The Dangling Conversation, again.


Footnote: Everyone who likes Japanese culture should, if they haven’t done so already, read something by Donald Richie. He came to Japan on a ship as part of the Occupation in 1947 but quickly broke free from the military establishment and hit the streets, where he wasn’t supposed to go. He was one of the first Westerners to see the new Asakusa get built (but soon the western districts of Shibuya and Shinjuku would take over its role) and after specializing in film help introduce Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi to the West. He has written over 40 books on various topics within Japanese culture, among them the exceptional travel journal The Inland Sea as well as The Japan Journals, 1947-2004.


About Dan Asenlund

I'm a 36-year old writer, filmmaker and memory hunter from Sweden. Life and work has led me in a circle through the United States, Japan, South Korea, Sweden again and Japan again. I'm currently dividing my time between Stockholm and Tokyo. Personal quote: Her kiss was just a sheer reminder of a past that didn't happen and a future never written.
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