For a decade, Steven Schultz was the world’s window into the most extreme and intriguing corners of Tokyo. Until one day, suddenly, he wasn’t.
By Joe M
|MAPS’N’PORN STORE: The most chaotic used book store, just piles of stuff up to the ceiling, crazy combinations of merchandise in riotous profusion. Total vintage 80s Flashdance-era porn, and movie soundtrack sheet music, and reproductions of medieval maps for no good reason. … Go past the Office Depot, look across the street from the police box, it’ll be on your left.|
Much as Paris holds a certain pride of place in the psyches of the world’s romantics, Tokyo sits atop the totem pole for those driven to seek the outré and bizarre. Half-mythologized tales of wild underground clubs and bizarre vending machines have (for better or worse) cemented Tokyo’s reputation as a city of dark and sensual wonders in the global imagination. For decades, Westerners raised on a combination of Japanese pop culture and ‘weird Japan’ travelogues have made secular pilgrimages here, seeking the thrills of the city’s underbelly the same way a gourmand plans their vacations around Michelin-starred meals. For many visitors, however, the city’s literal and metaphorical impenetrability – labyrinthine streets and alleys that even locals find difficult to navigate, language barriers, touristic ignorance of subtle cultural norms – keep Tokyo’s myriad subcultures tantalizingly out of reach.
As inbound tourism exploded over the past decade, an entire cottage industry has risen up to ensure – for a price – that visitors can say they’ve seen the ‘weird Tokyo’ of the foreign imagination. Guides shepherd foreigners down sprawling boulevards in street-legal go-karts designed to mimic Mario Kart to the point of copyright infringement. A visit to Shinjuku’s world-famous Robot Restaurant, with its neon bikini-clad dancers and cut-rate dinner theater antics, has become de rigueur for first-time visitors. Google Maps and GPS-enabled smartphones have cut down on lost tourists wandering the backstreets. Little by little, Tokyo subculture – or at least a facsimile of it– has been distilled into a consumable product, harmless fun for the whole family.
Before Japan’s tourism boom, though, things were different. If you were plotting a trip here in the 2000s and hoped to dive deep into the city’s subcultures, beyond the Lonely Planet layer of tourism, there was one proper resource – the Tokyo Damage Report.
Picture a one-man mix of gonzo journalism and virtual city guide, wherein a wild-eyed American with a Jesus beard named Steven Schultz dished out regular dispatches from the side of Tokyo that most outsiders could only longingly imagine. In the blog boom of the mid-2000s, Tokyo Damage Report attracted readers, then die-hard fans, then acolytes. A generation of foreign Tokyo obsessives first encountered the city under Schultz’s guiding hand, relying on TDR as a veritable White Pages of the city’s various extremes. As they found their own points of entry to Tokyo’s underground, they absorbed his passions and predilections in the process. Schultz was more than a writer; he was at the vanguard of a global cultural frontier. And then, one day, he disappeared.
His fans knew nothing except that he was gone, and with a reputation as colorful as his, the insular expatriate community naturally began to speculate. Was he dead? Imprisoned? Exploding his old life and starting over?
|LOFT PLUS ONE: Tokyo’s most serious “maniac lecture bar.” Every day they have a different lecture or demonstration of some totally underground, uncouth hobby… For instance, medieval torture or scatology or 1960s animation. … Turn right and walk 30 feet … on your right, next to the obnoxious neon sign of Kenny from South Park with a condom-hat, is LOFT PLUS ONE.|
Schultz is the first to agree that he was an unlikely chronicler of the city. A nerdy San Francisco Gen-Xer with a love of punk rock and, as he puts it, “not much of anything going on in his life,” he first took a trip to Tokyo in 2001 on a whim to explore the city’s music scene. Schultz had never studied Japan, never tried learning the language before he arrived. He wasn’t one of those kids who grew up watching too much anime. But what he lacked in background knowledge, he made up for with sheer earnestness, and wherever he went his manic energy seemed to endear him to the denizens of Tokyo’s night. Before long he had put the Bay Area behind him, enrolling in any language academy that would snag him a student visa and teaching English on the side in order to make ends meet. And then, Schultz began to write.
If there’s one stereotype of Tokyo’s expats with a grain of truth to it, it’s their pathological fear of other foreigners (especially tourists) intruding on their beloved spots, boorishly overrunning the intimate spaces where they’ve earned a quiet nod at the door and a seat at the table alongside the locals. A longtime Tokyo expat, taking you to their neighborhood haunt for the first time, is liable to demand a sworn blood oath that you won’t ruin it for them somehow. Even the most knowledgeable foreign Tokyoites often write about their favorite spots with the coy vagueness of a celebrity gossip rag.
Schultz didn’t give a damn about any of that, which made his chronicles of Tokyo subculture stand out instantly. He’s not sure exactly why, when I track him down and ask him. Maybe, he wonders aloud, it’s because he’s on the spectrum. Maybe it’s because he hadn’t spent his young life pining for Japan, and thus missed all of the resulting anxieties and fantasies. Whatever his reasons, Schultz did the one thing his fellow expat lifers wouldn’t dare as he explored Tokyo: he loudly shared all the city’s hidden wonders with the world, the more obscure or obscene the better. TDR’s travelogues were gleefully profane and occasionally libelous, but his raw enthusiasm for the city radiated throughout.
Nicola Vinciguerra, an Italian who now runs an urbane Tokyo-themed café in Bologna, was one of many for whom the Tokyo Damage Report was a revelation. “When I first went to Tokyo in 2006, I was in search of this megalopolis par excellence, the place I had mostly dreamed of through films and anime,” he explained. “Yet without knowing anyone, nor even speaking much Japanese, this underworld would remain such, and inaccessible to my uninitiated self. And then I found TDR, and a completely different Tokyo from my Lonely Planet: a dirty, sweaty, perpetually drunk Tokyo, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, convulsing, sexually psychotic, high on methamphetamine, restless. In short, that same Tokyo that I dreamed of.” For die-hard Tokyo dreamers like Nicola, Schultz wasn’t just writing a guidebook – he was their sole chance to join the anointed and see what lay behind the city’s unmarked doors.
|HEROINE: This store sells only one thing: Porn DVDs and magazines of female superheroes. If you ever wanted to see X-rated Power Rangers or bodybuilder cougars fucking nerds to death, here is your spot. … The owner speaks English, but don’t bug him about ‘Can I take your picture and interview you and please show me around Tokyo,’ that is not part of his job.|
As Tokyo Damage Report’s cult following grew, Schultz was in his element. The work filled him with purpose and gave him a megaphone to express himself. His brain had other ideas.
One day in 2012, at an otherwise unremarkable punk show, Schultz felt what can only be described as a sudden, terrible sense of his own mortality. As he put it to me: “It’s like you’re driving a car, and you’re not really thinking about the fact that you’re hurtling down the freeway at 70 miles per hour in two tons of metal, right? But then, if you suddenly did… isn’t that objectively a little terrifying?” Once a regular fixture of Tokyo’s mosh pits, Schultz was now constantly being reminded by his brain that a stray elbow, a one-in-a-million fluke accident, literally anything could kill him at any time. And nothing he tried – booze, meditation, you name it – would quiet his mounting anxiety.
Before long, Schultz was done going to shows. He spent his days wandering the flat plains of Tokyo’s rural outskirts by bicycle; his subculture friends eventually stopped calling. Misfortunes soon compounded. When his parents had a health scare, his wife Miki finally persuaded him to pull the plug on life in Tokyo and move the family back to Santa Rosa, California to care for them – in Schultz’s eyes, a move to a ‘suburban wasteland’ he thoroughly detested. And then, at last, the finishing blow; following a dispute with his web host, TDR disappeared for good, obliterating a decade of his writing along with it. Schultz had lost not only his equanimity, but also the record of his life’s work. By the time I first talk to Miki, the website has already been erased from the Web for nearly half a decade, and she confesses a bit of bafflement that so many people still miss TDR after all these years. “It’s so old. It hasn’t been updated since 2014, when we moved to the US. Tokyo changes every day; why would anyone still be interested?”
Schultz, despite his reputation, was not dead. He suffered a series of hard blows, but in their wake he found an unlikely rebirth as a Californian family man, living a life profoundly dislocated from the subculture pioneer he once was. And as he settled into his new life, he found it contained its own profound joys. Days filled with solitary hikes, drafts of a David Foster Wallace-inspired novel, the raising of his two children, and something that had eluded him in his wild Tokyo nights – a measure of peace. Recently an admirer of his work had even turned him on to the existence of the Internet Archive, where his blog was still archived after all these years, giving him hope that the site could one day be restored. Miki has noticed the difference. “Sometimes I do miss how Steven liked to go to concerts and surrounded us with all those interesting people,” she allows. “But now sometimes, he’ll open up a little with the kids, show them the archive, and share his memories from Japan with them. Maybe someday, he’ll be interested in Tokyo again.”