Seeing as I have been in Seoul for about a month now, I know have sufficient knowledge about Korean tradition, culture and society to make a complete comparative assessment of Seoul vs Tokyo in the 21st century…… Yeah, OK, so I am not an anthropological expert or anything and staying just a month here makes me nothing but sick of Kimchee, but I still want to take some time and give you my thoughts on Seoul as seen by the eyes of a westerner living in Japan.
Grab a cup of coffee and sit tight!
One of my first reflections when I arrived here was “wow, Seoul is so much more Asian than Tokyo,” a statement I now shall revise to “wow, Tokyo is so much less Asian than the rest of Asia.” Yes, when you think about it, South Korea is definitely a part of Asia and feels similar to cities in China or Malaysia whereas Tokyo and Japan has a completely different feel to it – it’s less Asian and just “Japanese”. It’s hard to describe in words.
As I said before, I was expecting Seoul to be sort of like Tokyo, because that is the impression you get by watching these darn Han-ryu dramas on Japanese TV. It’s all big flashy cars in modern looking cities and everyone’s rich and fabulous… Turns out – GASP – that these dramas are not so close to reality as one is made to believe! (The horror!) Seoul is a city that has grown at a tremendous speed over the last few years, and it kinda shows. There is tons of construction work going on everywhere, traffic is chaos, public transportation is crazy in rush hour and there are street markets even on the most modern and upscale street where old ladies are selling various kinds of fried foods. It’s a crazy mix of old and new and for the most part I think it’s pretty nice.
But you feel that the soul of Seoul (no pun intended) is not really in tune with the modern facade. Even though the city presents itself as a modern 21st century metropolis where money is made and spent, the “rural” poverty still shines through and it makes me kind of sad, because you see that this country is trying to evolve quicker than what is good for it. For instance, there are a lot of upscale neighborhoods here with nice department stores and boutiques that match those of Singapore or Tokyo, but take a closer look at areas such as Apgujeong, Myeong-dong or Gangnam, and what do you see? Well you see that the big department stores are filled with Chinese and Japanese tourists. You see that the streets are pretty deserted except for the ones lined with street vendors selling cheap knock-off products. You see the beggars sitting around reminding the onlookers of the tough economic reality. In an economically sound country, would you see 70-year old women sitting in the subway station selling packs of gum she bought in a store at a markup to survive? Do you see unemployed business men trying to sell brushes and whatnot on the subway train in Tokyo or Hong Kong?
One other thing that glares you in the face is what seems to be a total lack of city beautification. And I say beautification because I can’t think of a better word – what I mean is that the sidewalks, the roads, the parks, the public areas, the stations, etc. look pretty run down and are not well taken care of. It really doesn’t give the impression of strong economic growth. At the same time, property prices are skyrocketing and Seoul is becoming a city which is more expensive to live in than Tokyo. There is something that is definately bubbly about the current economic climate and it must be just a question of time before it bursts.
Photo by Min