Despite a relatively small land mass and an ethnically homogeneous population, Japan’s influence has made its way around the globe. From sushi to Zen, automobiles to electronics, Japanese ideas and ingenuity are everywhere. This is an ancient civilization that also happens to be one of the world’s most technically advanced and sophisticated nations. It is a place where time honored traditions ride alongside the rapid pace of modern life.
I have to admit, I’m fascinated with many aspects of the Japanese way of doing things. For instance, the use of ritual to elevate the routine into the sublime, as in the Japanese tea ceremony. Or the harmony and equilibrium of a Shinto temple where silence, simplicity and the spareness of the natural world are venerated. Even something simple, such as the aesthetic concern given to the arrangement of household detritus around the yard, can surprise and astonish.
The Japanese see no contradiction in their affinity for tradition and harmony with their embrace of modernity. Here, bullet trains travel from Tokyo to Osaka at over a hundred miles an hour; people squeeze into tiny living spaces in impossibly dense cities; pachinko parlors buzz night and day, flashing with their gaudy neon.
When visiting Japan it’s helpful to understand a bit about its long history as a feudal society. For the better part of two millennia, feudal systems defined the way Japanese society was ordered. This included a hereditary monarchy with powers that have waxed and waned over the centuries and still exists to this day.
And, of course, Japan’s warrior tradition, as it’s been romanticized in Western culture, is another window on the Japanese soul. Think shoguns and samurai. The long tail of Japanese warrior culture spawned the strident nationalism that got a bit overcooked in the 19th and 20th centuries and led to the pacifist posture of the past seventy years.
Today it is a profound graciousness of character and manner that define the Japanese persona in the popular mind. Acting honorably and respectfully in all matters is indeed central to the Japanese character. But it can often result in an indirectness when it comes to sensitive or difficult matters, and this confounds westerners at first. Understanding some of this and ‘rolling’ with it, is one of the things that make Japan such an endlessly fascinating place to visit.