(Disclaimer: A creative writing piece so please forgive the generalisations and mischaracterisations! Also a big thanks to my parents for making this trip possible.)
The plane took off from Tokyo and carried over the sea as cargo-ships drifted away on a black mirror. Japan lay awake; restless at night, its endless sprawl burning the clouds auburn. Peaceful, respectful and unique.
There was peace in its syncretism. The Japanese are said to be born Shinto, marry Christian and die Buddhist – after all, all religions spoke to the same God. And with this peace, traditions were not lost, communities were no weaker and the priests were no less devout. At auspicious occasions like New Year’s Eve, the local community came together at the temple to ‘gong’ on the bell and share miso soup, soba noodles and sake. We were kindly invited to join in and watched as overly enthusiastic ‘gongs’ on the 400-year-old bell were met with disapproval from anxious priests. This was far from religious tolerance, the begrudging acknowledgement of some other existence, it was cohabitation, co-mingling, complementing.
And this peace extended across time. Old and new lived together in the streets. Shinto shrines sat next to Buddhist temples surrounded by vending machines. Pachinko (gambling) parlours towered over them all. Traditional houses nestled amongst glitzy towers. The old, more than I had ever seen, worked alongside the young.
History was also present but not overbearing. The city of Hiroshima had become a metropolis and without memorials or monuments, one would be blind to its past. However, in their lives, such a past was not forgotten; it was used as a reminder that we should all strive for peace, rather than as a memory of the unnecessary war crime it was. Japan was peaceful.
Respect for rules, for order, for time, for other people and for space. Respect was all-encompassing in Japan. People waited at empty crossings for the green man to smile and one got accustomed to the ubiquitous and reverent bow ‘hello’ and bow ‘goodbye’. Dutiful deference that we failed to show by crossing the red man but in a culture of such respect, scorn was never expressed. People arrived ‘punctually’, in advance, and trains left within the minute of arrival. According to JR Central, one of central Japan’s main railway companies, the average annual delay per operational train is 0.9 minutes. To delay was to disrupt others.
One refrained from eating in front of others, cash was placed on a tray rather than by hand and mouths were masked from others to keep from spreading germs. And whilst the British may like queues, the Japanese love them for every restaurant had lines snaking out. Space was appreciated as the precious commodity it is. Each shop and house-front was meticulously cleaned by its inhabitants to leave it spotless; a matter of pride. The houses, the roads and the cars were built small and yet they felt large. The same room could function as a bedroom, lounge room and dining room in one day. Japan was respectful.
Most of all, Japan was unique. A uniqueness greater than any other I had seen. Completely isolated from the world for 220 years in the Sakoku period of 1633-1853, the economy had certainly suffered, but perhaps not the culture. An isolated society had developed and deepened its own norms and preferences unlike any other. The extensive traditional arts and crafts are a testament to this. Employed by emperors, not priests, craftsmen and craftswomen specialised in stunning kimonos, lacquered plates, exquisite word-work and many others. These were no greater or lesser than elsewhere, they were simply starkly different.
Upon reopening to the Western world in 1853, the culture interacted with trade and technology. Despite heavy influences from China throughout the entire history of Japan and the 5-year post-WW2 occupation by the USA, Japanese culture stands on its own. As the third largest economy in the world, behind the USA & China, Japan incorporated learnings to then make it its own. Today, music bands of 48 high-school girls roam across the country in stardom, famous for their voice but also their common looks. A rich drinking culture of domestic beer and sake contrasts with beauty standards of looking youthful and meek. Food, of course, is magnificent (if not very vegan-friendly). Anime and Manga fill the screens and posters as trucks drive through the streets blasting their theme tunes. Games of all kinds are pervasive – pachinko parlours, card-playing caves and sumo struggles. I even managed to stumble into one such place to find men battling with cards displaying school girls, I promptly left. Japan was unique.
And yet, like any epithet, this peace, respect and uniqueness had its drawbacks. The uniqueness of Japan was, in part, thanks to its homogeneity within. The peace and respect made for a very hierarchical society where conformity was the norm. Diversity was stifled. People in the streets were of one kind, Japanese, and wore one colour (black, navy or grey), juxtaposed with the occasional floral kimono. Despite 28% of the 127 million above 65, one never saw people with disabilities. Rather than speak in broken and improper English, many refrained from engaging. Rather than challenge ideas, people often acquiesced to authority.
Their lives were dominated by work, a quarter of companies requiring over 80 hours a week, and on average they did not take their 10 paid vacation days. ‘Karoshi’, death by overwork, is a legal term recognised as a cause of death. Worst of all, people were lonely and miserable. On a 2018 UN global happiness survey, they rank 54th in contrast to the US at 18th and are far wealthier than the countries they are surrounded by. Japan may be rich in wealth and culture but it seemed missing in joy.
Japan was not so much a country that had developed with differences, it had differently developed. Peaceful, respectful and unique, it was a reminder that a model of an advanced economy existed beyond the Western framework. As I touched down in Kenya, with people smiling in the warmth of the equator, the contrast was evident. There was a lot to learn from Japan, but it also had a lot to learn from others.
For another creative piece, check out An Evening in Casablanca and you can make my day by ‘following’ on the left-side bar!