Hello for the 2nd time in Japan where this email contains some good and some bad about the country but definitely nothing ugly- aesthetics play such a key role in Japanese culture that seemingly nothing ever looks bad. From the buildings to the people to the environment even manhole covers, everything seems to look gorgeous in Japan. My, it’s weird too but with its cultural uniqueness I’ve found it utterly captivating, thought provoking and left me definitely quite enamored with the place.
In the aftermath of the previous week’s earthquake/tsunami the Rising Sun at the Imperial Palace was at a somber half-mast and with an aftershock a day the world’s largest city was very quiet during my time there, even the world’s busiest railway station (Shinjuku) and the famous Shibuya street crossing were fairly muted. The neon signs which form such an important part of the city’s iconography were turned off to save electricity although I was most disappointed at both the J-League and baseball games being cancelled L.
The city doesn’t have a center as such but half a dozen skyscraper clad neighborhoods which were mesmerizing to wander round and view the various elements that make Tokyo one of the most dynamic urban experiences in the world.
Whilst the bay, fashionable shopping streets and the imaginative red light district were all great I think the otaku (boy geeks) and otome (girl geeks)areas in Akihabara aka ‘electric town’ will live longest in the memory. Otaku roughly means something like ‘geekery’ and for this Tokyo is the world capital; it’s another great journey into the peculiarly Japanese brand of weird as you shop in 10 story department stores filled with nothing but comics, collectible figures and a bewildering array of gadgets.
I found the cosplay (costume play) actors more interesting to look at though; basically these are kids aged between say 13 and 25 who dress up in a variety of outfits like maids and nurses. Often this is just a way for them to show off, as with the posing ‘Goth Lolitas’ (really, that’s what they’re called) but mainly it’s used as a novel way of selling stuff and attracting attention to a store. Probably the most famous type are the maid/butler cafes where in taking the Japanese politeness/submissiveness fetish a bit far the boys/girls wander round paying you insincere compliments whilst they serve you tea and cake. As frequently happened in Japan I found the over attentiveness a bit unsettling (you get a “Hello and Welcome”! in convenience stores and even public toilets) but the settings were even worse. Whilst most of them understandably sport Alice in Wonderland style designs, on the ceiling of one of the cafes in the otome district they had a huge poster of a pair of half-naked male manga characters in a homoerotic pose. Welcome to Japan.
Global top level cuisine has apparently undergone something of a revolution when Michelin discovered Japan a few years ago, very quickly they realized that the whole rating system had to be rethought as Japanese food is so good, now remarkably both Tokyo and the Kansai conurbation have more starred restaurants than London, New York and Paris combined. All that was obviously way out of my price range but I did get to see plenty of strange ‘foods’ or perhaps ‘things being eaten’ would be a better description which has been a theme throughout Asia.
When it comes to meat Asians are much less wasteful than Westerners using every possible part of the the usual suspects as well as other Asian staples like snake and dog as you get used to seeing people tucking into things like pigs ears or a dogs hindquarters. However, they also don’t seem to have qualms eating well, virtually anything, put it this way there’s a Chinese joke that goes “What’s the only thing with 4 legs a Chinaman won’t eat? A table.”
In the Philippines the national delicacy is called balut which is a fertilized duck egg which according to the diners preference is eaten at different stages of embryonic development though the practice of sedating monkeys, slicing the top of their scalps off then eating their brains with a spoon (whilst the monkey’s still living) has to rank as one of the cruelest things I’ve ever heard of but that’s The Philippines. In SE Asia they’re really into their insects with the usual suspects like grasshoppers as well as things silkworm cocoons eaten not at all infrequently. In East Asia the food has got even stranger as despite Japan’s best efforts to empty them of life the food mainly comes from the sea, even if it’s dangerous. The Japanese love eating the poisonous fugu and as one particularly memorable scene in Oldboy showed Koreans love eating sannakji or baby octopus that’s still alive. Now and again people die as the still moving tentacles cause them to suffocate- they can’t really have too many complaints though eh? They also love their sea cucumbers and various other anemone type things, in their bright purple, orange and blue colors it definitely reminded me of the Jonathan Swift quote about the first man to eat an oyster must have been very brave. In Japan one of the most common ways to eat out are in izukayas where bars serve food in a tapas style. You see some amazing things in the most normal neighborhood bars, aside from the bee larvae and shirouo no odorigui (the tadpole like almost creepy ‘dancing ice fish’, again eaten live) probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen eaten is shiroko which appetizingly enough is the sperm sack of male fish.
Truly vomit inducing –I’m fairly confident I will never eat meat.
Moving on there’s a theory that you can tell how civilized a country is by the size of its middle class, and by this measure Japan stands right up there alongside the Scandinavian countries as one of the most civilized in the world. Between the end of WWII and 1990 the Japanese economic model was rampantly successful and I’d personally rate it as the best system in the world at the time. There is a long held policy of big companies like Mitsubishi known as kereitsus having business interests in lots of different areas(banking, manufacturing etc). They’ve been implicitly backed by government in a variety of ways (loans, tax rates etc.) with the goal of creating full employment and being the mainstay of an economy based on export led growth.
Unlike in the UK for example, in Japan when companies made a profit, instead of adopting a ‘quick, give it to the shareholders’ approach Japanese companies consistently reinvested most of the profits back into the company. This allowed the famously creative R&D divisions in areas like electronics or automobiles to flourish and meant that despite the drubbing it received in WWII for the next 40 years or so it was probably the most successful country in the world. With the goal of doing things for ‘the greater good’ the government has also retained control of and (note to Margaret Thatcher) crucially, invested in the magnificent railways, post office and efficient welfare system . Altogether this has meant Japan developed into a country where financially at least next to no-one is left behind and virtually everyone is middle class. In a great change from other Asian countries you hardly ever see either needlessly flashy cars nor homelessness, crime or other poverty related problems. On a personal level I’d place it as Exhibit A on why fettered or managed capitalism is the best system to run a society. When you consider the size of the population and the variety of environments which make up the country it really is a phenomenal achievement.
By 1990 in terms of its economy or infrastructure Japan had achieved the goal of the worlds most developed or advanced country… but about this point the overheated economy led to the bubbles on the stock and housing markets to pop and the economy has struggled to grow ever since. The country has spent most of the last 20 years vainly trying to retake their preeminent place in the world economy but I think the time would have been better spent in trying to change the work/life balance of their lives.
Living in one of the most formal and pressurized cultures in the world may have brought them success financially but as the infamous suicide rate will attest it does cause other problems. There’s a Japanese saying that ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’ and in a culture where conformity is nearly everything it appears people aren’t given enough freedom to develop emotionally in their own way and consequently the Japanese struck me as an uptight and generally unhappy people.
One thing I did find difficult about Japan and which nearly every foreign visitor to Japan remarks on is how little attention you get; not exactly an extroverted bunch in 5 weeks just one person tried to speak to me and I’ve certainly not been anywhere where I’ve fitted in less but to no interest whatsoever from the locals aside from when it’s their job e.g. shop assistants.
But then I realized that the Japanese are like this with everyone, whilst Londoners are rightly criticized for living in a bubble i.e. we only speak to people we know Tokyoites are about as unemotional as is possible. On the Metro they barely seem to breathe let alone talk and any eye contact they accidentally make with anyone will last either 0.1 or 0.2 seconds. Whilst the bows and smiles are an inherent part of the formalities they observe, natural laughter and easy jokes isn’t really the way here and it continues the theme in Asia of people in richer countries being less friendly/happy than in the poorer ones.
During this trip I’ve been forced to think quite a lot about what makes people happy; it’s been educating seeing people in very poor countries like India or Nepal being very happy but at the same time richer populations like the Taiwanese or Singaporeans are visibly much less content with their lot. The challenging and slightly uncomfortable conclusion I’m trending towards is that in Asia at least the more religious people are the happier they seem to be. In somewhere like Hong Kong or Singapore far and away the people with the lowest quality of life are the Filipino women brought in as maids and nannies for wealthy local families as they work tedious backbreaking jobs 6 days a week only to send 80% of their wages back home to their families. However, on Sundays they have their day off and the public parks in those places become a party scene as they noisily chat, eat and sing with a sense of effervescence that the gimlet eyed locals looking on can only dream of.
Whether it’s Christianity in The Philippines, Hinduism in India or Buddhism in several countries despite having far fewer life opportunities and a low material quality of life the populations in those countries seem significantly happier and friendlier than in more secular places like China.
In this sense Japan is no different from their other wealthy neighbors and the last 20years maybe represent something of a missed opportunity to change the setup of the country somewhat.
Like most of their fellow Asians the Japanese work unbelievably hard but whilst I understand this work ethic in developing countries in Japan it now seems unnecessary as they enjoy (and have done so for some time) one of the most comfortable lifestyles in the world. One morning bleary eyed I got on a train at 6am on a Sunday to see kids on their way to cramming school as even they’re expected to do 15+hr days at least 6 days a week. One student I met said she did 35hrs waitressing in a restaurant as a part time job whilst she went to college by day! And they receive just 5 days holiday a year- it’s insane! The situation seems to be that people have plenty of money to spend on an unnecessary level of comfort with the expensively wrapped food, designer clothes and toilet seat heaters yet don’t have enough time to spend with their families and friends. As a result they’re emotionally very cold and seemingly not too enamored with the situation, I think if they had a more European i.e. relaxed style approach to work and the personal development of the individual the economy would still be OK but their quality of life would be much, much better than it currently is and consequently they’d maybe be happier.
And as Richard Littlejohn agrees (so it must be true) there is a darker side to the Japanese too; due to their treatment of POWs during WWII Japan did terrible damage to their reputation in countries like the UK or Australia. However, amongst their fellow Asians the Japanese are truly detested. Many Western countries have superiority complexes and Asia’s no different, Thais, Chinese and certainly Koreans are guilty of it but worldwide even Israelis might come second to the Japanese. Throughout the early 20th century when they built their empire in Manchuria and Korea through WWII in SE Asia their barbaric treatment of the local populations will simply not be forgotten or forgiven. The Indian freedom fighter Chandra Bose enlisted Japanese help to train his men to fight against the British but after a couple of months had to abandon the plan as the Japanese treated the Indians ‘like animals’ and were far worse than anything they suffered under the British. They destroyed virtually all of Koreas cultural heritage but most famously in 1937 China suffered the so called Rape of Nanking where high command instructed Japanese troops to massacre between 200,000-300,000 the local population and rape around 50,000 of the city’s women for essentially no military gain. Even now hotels in China have signs up saying ‘No Japanese allowed’ and whilst to be fair Japanese Prime Ministers have made various apologies over the years and give very generous financial aid, their annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Jinja shrine to honor Japans war dead- among them 14 Class A war criminals means relations with their neighbors are perennially frosty.
At 127million people Japan is the 10th biggest country in the world yet only around 1% of the country isn’t pure Japanese and the rest are Chinese or Korean so ethnic diversity there ain’t. But this is starting to cause problems; most developed countries have an ageing population problem but Japans is the worst in the world. With a fertility rate of 1.3 only Italian women have less children but Japan also has the highest life expectancy in the world (a whopping 86 for women) meaning that under current predictions by around 2040 just 40% of the population will be paying for everyone. One of the easiest ways to improve this position is by bringing in lots of immigrants (eg the UK) as they have more children but in Japan it’s difficult to see that ever being adopted. About 8yrs ago the unusually flamboyant prime minister Junichiro Koizumi tentatively floated the idea of introducing an immigration policy for the first time in the countrys’ history but despite the logic of this plan it was absolutely shot down by both the opposition and the general public. Whilst they’ll grant 2 year visas to English teachers or Pinoy cleaners/prostitutes the idea of them settling down, having families and becoming a long term part of the ‘Japanese’ population seems unacceptable for the country at this stage, despite the damaging implications this has for both their economy and ability to evolve as a society.
Whilst just about every other developed country have accepted their position and responsibilities in the global village to take in asylum seekers etc. Japan seems unwilling to do so, content in their own world. In its desire to remain firmly ‘Japanese’ a strong vein of xenophobia surfaces and foreigners can never fit in; however this in itself creates a truly unique feel to the place and makes it a fascinating, alien culture and society to observe.
Japan is often described as a ‘2 paced country’ and if Tokyo represents the side running into the future then the old capital Kyoto and the nearby even older capital of Nara represent much of the Japan which remains rooted in tradition. It is a quite amazing place, with over 2,000 temples and dozens of World Heritage Sites there are more ‘sights to see’ than any other city in Asia and like Rome it’s one of those wonderful spots where people live around 1,000yr+ old buildings as an integral irreplaceable part of the city. In the national rebuilding of the country after WWII most urban planners had an affair with the wrecking ball so most Japanese cities including Tokyo possess few buildings which were built earlier than about 1960. However, for several centuries Kyoto was the nations’ capital and whilst it eventually lost political and economic status to Tokyo it stands as the country’s historical and religious heartland.
The rectangle shaped city is bordered on 3 sides by forested mountains and in building nearly all of the biggest wooden structures in the world the architects had the usual Japanese knack of gloriously incorporating the natural environment into the designs. It very much represents the Japan of the imagination as I spent days exploring the city’s shrines built onto the cyrptomeria lined hillsides with my favorite one being the torii covered Fushimi Inari. Based on a set of mountain shrines are several KMs worth of walking paths, not unusual in itself but virtually every step of the way is done underneath a bright vermilion tori (entrance gate to a Shinto shrine) to leave literally thousands all over the mountain. Dotted around are statues of foxes (symbol of good luck) which would be fine but they’re open mouthed with their fangs bared and designed to look scary, you’re allowed to walk the paths at night and catching sight of one in the lamplights is a pretty scary almost supernatural sight. A much more pleasant nocturnal memory is the infamous geisha distract of Gion, it’s simultaneously a very old fashioned yet very lively neighbourhood. In early evening you can still see the glamorous ones shuffling round in their mesmeric kimonos en route to their evening engagements and in the twilight along the river it’s a pretty enchanting sight in a magical place.
I got my timing very right and very wrong in Japan, the Winter lasts quite late so I decided not to visit Northern Honshu and Hokkaido as all the national parks, including most guttingly Mount Fuji were still closed. Having said that visiting in the school holiday month of March meant I could get a rail pass which single handedly made the country affordable. Since the beginning of the economic crisis the Yen has been stronger than Mariusz Pudzianowski as all the banks abandoned the Dollar, Euro and Pound. After the quake/tsunami its value went even higher to its record level so trying not to empty my account has been ‘challenging’ to say the least. Before I came here everybody I spoke to about Japan said the same thing, in the same tone that “I don’t mean to be racist but…” (then immediately contradicts themselves) has become a commonly used phrase: “Japan’s great but jeez it’s expensive”. I simply haven’t been able to afford to do some of the classic Japanese experiences like the bullet train ($30 for 15mins) or an evening with a geisha (around $2000) and the first things I’ll do when I return to China is gorge on fruit (about $1.50 an apple) and get my hair cut ($40) as it now looks worse than Andy Murrays. Well, maybe not that bad.
With all that in mind being able to travel 5 whole days (and I even got a free 1.5 days extra when no-one stamped it!) for just $130 was an absolute Godsend in a country where even by English standards nothing is cheap, very much a stroke of luck.
Being here at this time of year was also great because it’s the time of the legendary sakura, Japan is absolutely covered in cherry blossom trees and at the beginning of April they all come into bloom. In the absence of a big Christmas style festival the entire country goes crazy over it, aside from everyone taking hundreds of photos of the spectacle they host hanami parties where every spare foot of ground in the parks are taken up by picnics as people get drunk and generally celebrate the beginning of Summer. When the wind blows the petals come down like a pink snow and aside from being a beautiful sight it’s a lot of fun to be around.
I ended my time in enjoyable city of Osaka which was a perfect place to get a last dose of the Japanese urban experience. Something else the Japanese are very good at is putting on big scale entertainment options and it was great fun going up on the worlds largest ferry wheel and possible best aquarium- they’ve even got a whale shark! I couldn’t explore the Blade Runner like landscapes in Tokyo but Kansai hasn’t been affected by the quake so I got to enjoy the pulsating neon of the amazing Dotombori district. At night the streets and all the scrapers are covered in a blaze of electricity in the form of moving ads on billboards and even sides of buildings, like Time Square or Picadilly Circus but over a much larger area. Just fantastic, yet again I found myself struck by just how unique Japan is- there’s just nowhere almost anywhere like it.
I’m not sure what it says about me but as I’ve got older I’ve definitely realized my happiest (and most mischievous) moods are when I’ve been drinking the night before. As in Korea alcohol is very much the social glue which holds Japan together and feel like I’ve been living the dream a little bit recently. Thanks mainly to my friends the 3 Ss: soju, shochu and sake (and some very friendly expats) I seem to have been in a blissful semi- permanent drunken haze for the last effortless couple of months. Japan is an amazing place to be on so many levels, whilst for financial reasons I couldn’t stay any longer I was still there for over a month and I do feel very, very privileged to have had the opportunity to visit. I certainly intend to return in the future.
Now it’s time to return to the Big Red One as I take the slowboat to Shanghai.