>Getting under the Japanese skin

>Someone commented that going to Japan is like seeing Singapore from a different perspective. I thought I caught a whiff of a sneer in that comment. It did make me think though, why I was so fascinated with the place.

Well, first I think the comment is not invalid or unfair. I think Japan had a big influence on Singapore when we were growing ourselves into an economic miracle. The whole ‘productivity’ and ‘courtesy’ campaigns we had in the early days certainly had some root in Japanese work ethic and culture. Our efficiency, while still at very high levels, is not honed to an art which the Japanese have – the way they run their trains and the way we run ours is testimony!

The Japanese view of the end being more than justified the means is also not dissimilar as well – witness our ruthlessly relentless pursuit of new and modern and ‘better’ at the cost of sacrificing the ‘older’ or ‘shabbier’ eg our approach to building conservation (case in point the sacrifice of the old brick National Library building for a road tunnel that cuts travel time by less than 3min!). Practicality wins over sentiment most of the time. In Japan too, there has been a price to pay for relentless modernization, for endlessly building and building and this is discussed in Alex Kerr’s book Dogs and Demons. In many places, the Japanese landscape has changed beyond recognition thanks to over-enthusiastic construction work and almost everywhere, some degree of environmental degradation has set in.

But yet, there is a lot more to the picture. I am fascinated by their mindset of community before self. Despite the flamboyance of the geisha and the cosplayers in Harajuku, the sense of individuality is very much subdued. I read somewhere (in “Lost Japan” I think!)that while the cosplay kids revel in the attention they get, once its sunset, they pack up, change into their ordinary clothes and ride the train back home to their usual lives. And while expressions of fashion like this is tolerated and indulged, you will find that most, once out of school and wearing the mantle of adulthood, will just conform to the usual social order and social norms. In this sense again, I wonder how different we are from the Japanese.

The Japanese code of bushido, or the way of the warrior, is another fascination. The sense of honour (and shame) that they have, in the old days to commit seppuku and today, to resign in face of disappointment or scandal, is interesting to read about.

I am no Japanese scholar and I am probably scratching the skin of the surface only and can never hope to do justice to this topic. But I remain a curious bystander and observer of these issues. When I go to Japan, the things I read – good, bad and ugly – all help to give a deeper depth and breadth to my travel experiences. So while I can appreciate the architecture of a gassho-zukuri house or a machiya, I can equally lament the loss of a changing landscape in preference for ‘modernity’ and efficiency.

Hence to me, when I research a destination, its not just about where to go and which train to catch and what to see. I like to go beyond the travel guidebooks to books that try to penetrate the Japanese skin. Alex Kerr’s books “Dogs and Demons” and “Lost Japan” are staples on my bookshelf. Right now, the bio of Saigo Takamori gives insight into the mindset of the last samurai and the way of the warrior. “Hitching A Ride with Buddha” sketches caricatures and portraits of the average Japanese in his Honda picking up a hitchhiker and letting him glimpse a peek into their lives. Lafcadio Hearn’s writing on Japanese supernatural tales give shivery insight into one aspect of Japanese folklore.

All these books are but pieces of a gigantic puzzle I am trying to piece together. Bits and pieces of clues to a larger picture. I don’t think I can ever get there, but it sure is fun to try!

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