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At Last the Rising Sun

It took me to the age of seventy one to get to Japan. There had been projects and possibilities to go along the way, but all had fallen through and my major contacts with Japan had been translations of my work into Japanese and, much more interestingly, teaching dozens of Japanese students. So what was needed was a Japan 101 tour – or, rather, Honshu 101 since nearly everything one knows about Japan relates to its central and principal island. The tour we went on, which is very well designed, shifts base from Tokyo to Hakone to Hiroshima then Kyoto and back to Tokyo.

I should explain that I’m neither Nippophobic nor Nippophilic. In my youth most of my relatives fell into the former category and I was often told that the Japanese were the cruelest people on the planet. Many of my generation also read Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island and listened to his emphatic condemnations of Japan on the Home Service. He was an Australian who had been a Japanese prisoner of war. Nippophiliacs, on the other hand, often respond to a kind of exquisite minimalism that they perceive in Japanese life and art. An extreme example of this was the “Zen garden” we visited: it consisted entirely of rocks and pebbles. But the best definition of the aesthetic I found was in a programme. The Gion Corner Theatre in Kyoto very sensibly runs what can only be described as a taster event in Japanese performing arts including music and dance and two forms of Japanese theatre, Kyogen, an ancient form of comedy and Bunraku, a form of puppet theatre. In describing the evening as a whole the programme refers to ” . . . the Japanese people’s intuitive striving for the recognition of true beauty in plainness and simplicity.” I think this is as good a formulation as any to describe what some people see in the Japanese aesthetic. A subtle version is to be found in the writing of the Malaysian novelist Tan Twang Eng: in his several works set in the war which naturally do portray the Japanese as cruel and ruthless, Tan also portrays them as having taken an Asian spirituality and aesthetic implicit in Buddhism to levels to which others can only aspire.

But none of this is for me. I prefer life – and art and people – to be big and scruffy and complex. Even so there is much in Japanese culture to like which almost all foreign visitors respond to. The people are enormously polite, friendly and helpful; pull out a map and you are likely to be approached by a local person with a discreet offer of assistance. The trains are the world’s fastest and promptest. There is virtually no petty crime and hardly any lawyers. You’re not expected to tip anybody. There is no hassle and I’ve never felt safer on the streets of any country.

So what’s not to like? The most visible part of the answer is urban sprawl: Japan is the nearest to a nightmare megalopolis I have seen. The main train routes never seem to put the conurbation behind them however fast they move. Greater Tokyo is thirty five million people and lowland Honshu feels like one enormous pool of urbanisation, flowing out to anywhere flat, like puddle water. And it’s not as if it’s attractive or varied: it consists of numbingly mediocre twentieth century buildings. Because of earthquakes, but also building materials, the Japanese have never built to last and it shows. Only in Kyoto did I really enjoy the townscape and landscape. Exceptionally, the city has genuinely old quarters and is ringed by the parks and gardens of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and paths which lead into the wooded hills.

Those are the visibles not to admire in Japan. The invisibles may raise rather more serious questions. The Japanese students I used to teach were 90% female. They hardly ever wanted to go home and preferred scruffy, criminal England where the trains are slow and hardly ever run on time. If you asked them why they talked of a bullying and hierarchical culture, of glass ceilings and harsh choices for women and of a stressful Japanese angst which left them feeling freer and happier in our country. (Female) tourist guides tell the same sort of story which is interesting and impressive in its way because guides in most countries are reluctant to criticise.

Japan seems to demonstrate several dimensions of split personality: it is gentile, but cruel, concerned with beauty but tolerant of an ugly townscape. Perhaps the greatest aspect of this is the attitude to foreigners. Before 1868, under the Shogunate, the country was closed to outside influences, its limited trade conducted in conditions allowing cultural sanitation. Then the Meiji imperial period was the opposite with an emperor who wore top hats and offered French wines to the Shinto gods. In the quarter of a century before 1945 the dominant military created an educational system which inculcated contempt for foreigners. After that, the country embraced a long list of items of foreign culture which it loved to distraction: Beethoven and the Beatles, baseball, Viennoisserie, Kit-Kat, Thomas the Tank Engine . . . the list is nearly endless. The best known Japanese novelist currently and internationally is Haruki Murakami. I read and much enjoyed the novel which made his name, Norwegian Wood, not least because it is about a student of my own vintage. But note that the title refers to a Beatles’ song.

Thus Japanese society seems both extraordinarily impressive and more than a little disturbed and disturbing. There are currently strange phenomena being discussed which affect young males in particular: increasing numbers do not like being outside and there are also many who prefer purely virtual relations with the opposite sex to anything real. There is also the question of the suicide rate: three times that of the UK and four times for men. But this must not be taken as an index of greater misery. Not only is there a positive tradition of harakiri, but there is the absence of any idea in either Buddhism or Shintoism that suicide is a sin. On the contrary, it is often seen as a quite proper way of taking responsibility as it was in many pre-Christian religions and cultures.

In short, I suggest, there are many reasons for liking Japan and just as many for being glad you are not Japanese.

Japan in Surprise Mode

It is a principle of travel in my mind that however much you read about a place or watch documentaries about it there are always interesting things you never know till you go. Japan is no exception. For instance:

JAPANESE DEER BOW TO YOU. The sacred deer in the parks around several Shinto shrines greet humans by bowing in much the same way that Japanese humans do. This is learned behaviour – the young ones don’t do it – and probably Pavlovian rather than merely imitative as many guides will only give them one of their special biscuits if they bow.

JAPANESE GUIDES DO STAND-UP. I used to think that I would really have succeded as an educationalist if one of one of my Japanese female students said, “Lincoln, you’re talking bollocks.” Of course it never happened. But here are Japanese ladies working as guides (often because their original careers have been abandoned for families): Megumi and Mihoko grown up, a good deal more assertive and very funny. One of them taught us how to pray to a Shinto god:
” Throw the money. Bow twice. Clap twice. I will now pray. I ask that my English guests return home safely and that they find one person to look at their photographs. Only one, because we must not ask the gods for ridiculous things.”

PICKLED APRICOTS ARE DISGUSTING. Most Japanese food that you only get in Japan is either tolerable or nice. I liked crunchy lotus root.

KAMIKAZI CYCLISTS. We know in advance that the Japanese are extremely polite and this is true. The are even well behaved at the wheel of a car. BUT – put them on a bike and they behave like Zero pilots heading for Pearl Harbour. They career down the pavement and cross pedestrian crossings on red. They even steal bicycles (they don’t steal anything else – thus the Japanese joke that if you don’t want your bicycle stolen you should chain your wallet to it.) All societies have their occasions of and triggers for licensed misrule; the main one in Japan would appear to be the bicycle.

REAL GEISHAS DON’T TAKE SELFIES. The older parts of Kyoto appear to be full of Geishas (or Geikas as they are called locally). But notice how they walk and how much they giggle – and how many selfies they take. Real geishas walk in a special, trained way; they don’t giggle and they certainly don’t take selfies. These are tourists and hen-nighters, many of them from China and Korea. Probably the only real Geikas we saw we had paid to see, performing music on stage.

SUNG MASS IS VERY BEAUTIFUL IN JAPANESE. The church was St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Kyoto and the occasion Palm Sunday.

Lincoln Allison