Japan: The Cultural Jigsaw of Old and New

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Tradition and Etiquette

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Still a powerful symbol of the transience of our own existence and continuing to epitomise Japanese tradition- from ancient poems to wedding ceremonies- over 600 varieties ofさくら Sakura (cherry blossoms) play their starring springtime role in numerous aspects of Japanese culture, much as they did 1000 years ago.

A little more than 2000 years ago, the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang, concerned by assassination plots and treachery from his subjects and wildly consumed by his own mortality, commanded his people to set to work creating an 8000 strong army of terracotta warriors that would accompany him into the next world; this however, was far from his first attempt at ensuring eternal sovereignty. Some years before, emperor Qin had ordered alchemist Xufu to set out on an intrepid odyssey across exotic faraway lands in order to secure the Elixir of life- a sacred blade of enchanted grass that held the secret to immortality. Legend has it that Xufu began his journey with 3000 young virgin girls and boys who were to be sacrificed in exchange for the Elixir; together they journeyed for many months and eventually drifted upon a fertile island where the inhabitants were said to have worshipped Xufu for his wisdom and modern knowledge of medicine, agriculture and textiles.

Today, that mysterious land of the rising sun is most commonly known as Japan. Whether or not Xufu did in fact settle in Japan is still disputed; many believe that Xufu’s fleet did not account for the first Chinese descendants to have settled on the island and that the Sino-cultural influence on modern society was not down to Xufu but rather widespread overseas travel by Japanese citizens to China during the Tang dynasty. Whatever the case, each year celebrations take place in Japan to commemorate Xufu as a great ancestor and despite Japan’s global reputation for modernity, traditional aspects of Chinese culture have been preserved perhaps even more faithfully than in China itself.

Just as during the Chinese Tang dynasty, respect, manners and politeness are pillars of Japanese society; even the non-Japanese visitor to Tokyo or Osaka may easily remark the absence of roadside snacking and eating on the go (particularly on transport such as the tube), which is highly frowned upon or the frequency with which すみません ‘sumimasen’ and ありがとう ‘arigato’ (the words for sorry and thank you) are uttered from the lips of  hurried apologetic or grateful passers by on a day-to-day basis, while bowing お辞儀 ‘o-jigi’, removing one’s shoes indoors, gift giving and being respectful of others by not raising one’s voice in public are all aspects of Japanese etiquette that have been inherited from imperial China.

Traditionalism evolves into modernity in japanese culture- the ancient practice of  hanami (picnics beneath cherry blossoms) is enthusiastically undertaken by japanese youth every spring and has even been given a lick of modernity in contemporary literature and manga comics.

Japanese cultural identity evolves as traditionalism melts into modernity- the ancient practice of Hanami (picnics beneath cherry blossoms) dating back to the Nara period in 710 A.D. when it first appeared in the Tale of Genji, is enthusiastically undertaken by Japanese youth every spring and has even been given the much sought-after seal of approval from pop-culture- appearing in online games, animated films, contemporary Japanese literature, modern art and manga comics.

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Ancient culture threads seamlessly into modern life- graduation from school and coming of age continues to be a significant rite of passage for Japan’s fashion conscious youngsters who still prefer to clothe themselves in traditional Kimonos to celebrate.

As an island, fish and oceans of sea animals and plants are a rich natural resource for Japan, a country where they can be seen eagerly plated up in homes and restaurants- perhaps Xufu was not so mistaken and Japan holds the revered key to longevity of life after all? A great source of nutrition, Japanese cuisine is not only one of its kind but one of the healthiest in the world- a veritable modern Elixir of life as Japan boasts some of the oldest citizens to have lived- such as Jiroemon Kimura who died this year aged 116- yet, at the same time is also crumbling financially under the pressure of holding up the most ageing population to date.

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Conventional table manners have been passed down from antiquity- proper implementation of chopsticks (such as avoiding clasping chopsticks together as one, picking food up using stabbing actions, passing food using chopsticks or placing chopsticks in rice at the end of a meal), not dropping food in sauces, never pouring alcohol for oneself first and saying a formal thank you upon conclusion of the meal are all practices commonly part of modern Japanese dining etiquette.

In western Europe jet black cats leaping beneath ladders may quite possibly instil  a sudden surge of sleepless superstitious fear in its onlookers; one man's phobia is another man's fortune however, travel 9000 km across the globe to Japan and you may very well find that same creature re-modelled in shrine-like fashion and collected with zeal by Japanese entrepreneurs believing in its auspicious charms. Feline figurines known as maneki-neko raise their enticing auspicious golden arms outside asian shop windows and restaurants, their left raised paw, like some sort of natural fortune wand is said to bring wealth and good fortune as it entrances customers into establishments.

In western Europe jet black cats leaping beneath ladders may quite possibly instil a sudden surge of sleepless superstitious fear in its onlookers. One man’s phobia is another man’s fortune however, travel 9000 km across the globe to Japan and you may very well find that same creature re-modelled in shrine-like fashion and collected with zeal by Japanese entrepreneurs believing in its auspicious charms. Feline figurines known as 招き猫 Maneki-neko originating from the Edo period in Japan raise their enticing auspicious golden arms outside countless Asian shop windows and restaurants; their left raised paw, like a kind of natural fortune wand is said to bring wealth and good fortune, entrancing customers into its owner’s establishments.

The thousand year old Japanese art of paper folding has not lost its charm for many origami-enthusiasts, to whom origami is still a modern magic enabling its practitioners to somewhat magically transform paper into birds, stars, planets,  ships and even palaces.

The thousand year old Japanese art of paper folding has not lost its charm for modern day origami-enthusiasts to whom origami is still a modern magic enabling its practitioners to somewhat magically transform paper into birds, stars, planets, ships, palaces or whatever imaginative construction their creative fingertips can conjure.

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Reality becomes art as road weary vagabonds revel in the comfort that rest brings, recuperating from the toils of their journey at the foot of a mountain.

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‘Who can say that we should not live like dogs?’ The prolific work of the eccentric Shuji Terayama challenges human perception of reality, seeking to decipher the real through the irreal.

Inventions and Technology

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Paving the way for developments in housing, navigation and even the music industry, bamboo has been Japan's ultra-light natural golden nugget throughout history.

Paving the way for developments in housing, navigation and even the music industry, bamboo has been Japan’s ultra-light natural emerald nugget throughout history.

Highly developed eco-ships set sail, singing and dancing robots whip out their best moves, sweet modern melodies echoing from magnesium violins reverberate against one’s eardrums, the fastest levitating bullet train on earth flies past whilst the latest black-hole reaching rockets shoot into the enigmatic depths of outer space- these high-tech objects are all likely to drift through the minds of young I.T. enthusiasts and nerds everywhere in an elated daytime reverie, they are also equally likely to pass along the conveyor belt of a Japanese factory, for the development of hi-tech goods is still one of  Japan’s proudest assets. The innovative Japanese continue to dominate the technology industry with their cutting-edge ever-advancing ever-evolving inventions.

Perhaps it is the copious amounts of Omega-3-filled freshwater fish that filter through their stomachs on a daily basis that is the secret formula to stimulating their synapses, transforming their brains into high-speed creative machines? Maybe it is their advanced education system (dramatically reformed after world war II and modelled on the American system) that- unlike many of its communist Asian counterparts- fosters innovative creation, or could it be parental pressure, inter-peer competition and overwhelming personal ambition and determination that drive the Japanese to advance human technology in a fashion quite unlike any other nation? Or rather, is Japan losing its edge and impetus on the global economic stage as Japanese education remains focused on discipline, listening to one’s teacher and learning by rote rather than on original thought and revolutionary teaching methods?

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Adjust your seat temperature, control the angles from which you desire to spray or blow dry your derrière, choose the genre of music you wish to play as a soothing soundtrack to the emptying of your bowls, place your finger on the ‘flush noise simulator’ button to save embarrassment & spray a waft of musky eau de toilette to finish off proceedings- the range of services that Japan’s high-tech toilets offer are a mark of the country’s futuristic levels of technology and precision.

Commercialism and the Corporate Bubble

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Following World War II and the suffering that the nuclear explosion brought, Japan quickly heeled its war wounds and through educational and economic reforms, advancements in science and technology and world wide exportation of reliable high quality goods, transformed itself into a developed country with one of the fasting growing economies. In record speed Tokyo evolved into an urban glow worm pumped with commercialism; in all its neon glory, flashing billboards and sky rise buildings began to invade its increasingly illuminated shell, brands such as Sony, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Canon, Nintendo and Panasonic became international household names while many Japanese citizens thought they had gleaned  lifetime job security with such companies.

Japan’s unprecedented economic boom lead to a rise in house prices, spending power, investments and bank loans; unfortunately by 1989 the stock market was facing a crash due to a plethora of complex economic issues, bank loans were unable to be paid and government loans from other countries were a necessary plaster to the country’s economic lesions, augmenting Japan’s international debt. This has been compounded by large scale earthquakes and a Tsunami causing damage to residential areas, nuclear plants like Fukushima and thousands of business infrastructures, poor Sino-Japanese relations, a grave imbalances of the sexes in the workplace characterised by conservative views of women as stay-at-home wives and a young ‘smart-phone generation’  lacking the motivation of their parents, more concerned with purchasing material goods than becoming part of the corporate wheel themselves. In spite of its high calibre exports, original inventions and unique international marketing campaigns, Japan has been facing a slow recession for the last 20 years.

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Skin becomes the new paper as billboards are exchanged for thighs in Japan, where Thighvertising has been introduced as the latest of the country’s imaginative marketing campaigns. Young Japanese girls with over 20 followers on social media networks sell thigh space to advertising companies, posting photos of their newly decorated commercialist thighs on the internet in exchange for as much as 10,000 yen a day.

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A leading player in the technology industry, food, beverages and animal products made up just 8.9% of Japan’s exports to the E.U. in 2012

Sadly, the recession has been a significant springboard for Japan’s most lethal killer: suicide. The loss of Japanese lifetime job security in conjunction with a national pessimism has lead to the trend of more than 30,000 Japanese citizens taking their own lives each year. Buddhism is practised by some but religion is not as widespread as in Christian, Hindu or Islamic countries, freeing many from the moral harness that religion brings to self-extinction, while many students in a race against time to secure a position in a reputable company, upon graduating from university find no other way to resolve the shame of unemployment than letting the final ounces of sand fall in their own hour-glass of life. ‘Finding a job is difficult as there is so much competition here in Osaka, many of us have to have attend as many as 20 interviews before finding a job’ explains An Yonglan [pictured above in a Kimono].

Suicide has been an element of Japan’s cultural jigsaw as far back as the Samurai, who classed suicide as honourable when having fallen into enemy hands or who were forced to conduct self-slaughter through Seppuku 切腹 ,an excruciating gorging of one’s own stomach followed by a beheading after having been shamed. In modern day Japan, suicide is depicted often in Manga comic strips and popular literature while bullying and depression have also seeped their acid claws into the skin and minds of Japanese children with 245 child suicides reported in 2005.

What can be done to decrease the bullying and suicide rate, bestowing upon the Japanese a much-needed pair of rose-tinted glasses? Is inequality of the sexes a significant factor in Japan’s low satisfaction levels? Do advertising campaigns such as Thighvertsing further the country’s imbalance of the sexes? Governed by commercialism and trapped on the outside of a corporate bubble their parents long for them to enter, are the Japanese youth as unhappy as we perceive them to be? Is self-destruction truly an epidemic in Japan or has western media in its ever-increasing hunger for superlatives exaggerated the scale of Japanese melancholy?

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Interested in learning more on the land of the rising sun? Have a flick through some of these tantalising articles on all things Japanese from the blogosphere: Taste of Japan, Quirky Japan, Let’s Japan, The good and bad of Japan, Tokyo Times and 365 Awesome things about Japan

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62 thoughts on “Japan: The Cultural Jigsaw of Old and New

  1. Pingback: Japan: The Cultural Jigsaw of Old and New | Zillaprecious

  2. Pingback: Japan: The Cultural Jigsaw of Old and New | Moments of Awareness

  3. Thank you for following me .Your blog is cool. I have seen the suicide Forest long ago .I was looking for Japanese ghost stories and Had finished watching the Grudge and I thought that was a ghost story (Suicide Forest)it wasn’t but I stilled watched it.. I know how frustrated it can be to unemployed .But that’s not the answer.. I feel for those such sadness .lost souls and their families have to have their hearts broken.. I hope this heals in time.. Ok now on the cat moving it’s paw. I thought that’s Chinese culture it isn’t?. I am confuse. Well you blog is very interesting. and colorful.. Thank you Have a nice day.

  4. Very good post! I visited all too briefly once, spent only one night, two full days though, walking around Kyoto and then Kagoshima. I definitely got the same impression of the presence of both traditional and very modern in evidence simultaneously.

  5. I loved this blog. Brings back memories of my visit to Japan last year. I hurt for the society which collectively has so much to offer and yet experiences such gloom, not unlike America or other western countries. The Japanese are longing for more. They were made for more. I believe the were made for the good news. GoodNewsNow. offers an alterantive.

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