September 07, 2004

Perceptions Of Japan

Sometimes, I have difficulty in believing that eight and a half years have past since I first arrived in Japan from Britain. Where does time go? As I travel throughout the world, I have become aware of how perceptions of time vary within each culture: It seems that in Japan, time passes as rapidly as a Kyoto-bound shinkansen. However, my time here has been both rewarding and challenging, as well as being the manifestation of a childhood dream.

As far back as I can remember, I have always had an innate curiosity about this country. For a child in England, geographically, Japan holds the mystique and exoticism of being the furthest Asian country in the East. What first drew me to Japan, at the age of twelve, was a developing interest in Zen Buddhism that evolved from a curiosity about my uncle’s own Thai Buddhist beliefs.

There was something uniquely attractive in the design of Zen temples and the teachings; a freshness and crispness only found here on these shores. I remember being highly drawn to the beauty of Ryoan-ji temple, in Kyoto, whenever it was shown in one of the multitude of documentaries or books about Japan. The style and form of the famous rock garden seemed to capture my imagination. I became so enraptured by its design that I had a picture of it on my bedroom wall, next to a 1950’s photograph of the Great Buddha in Kamakura.

As is the way with Zen, intellectually the garden’s meaning still remains a mystery to me. But, intuitively I sense its aesthetics, and perhaps this is the correct way to appreciate its magic.

My interests in Japan broadened, as I became more maturely aware of the influence that it has had on both the ancient and the modern world. My mind had become filled with the clich├ęd visions of past Japan: Samurai, Geisha, the Tea Ceremony, mystical Fuji-san, the narrow wooden streets of the Edo era, Bushido, Karate and Judo, Kendo and Kyudo, Kabuki and Noh. And from present day Japan: busy trains, video games, cramped apartments, tired salary men, Shinjuku at night, neon lights, Pachinko, state-of-the-art technology, wealth and low crime. These were things that I dreamed of seeing with my own eyes. They seemed so removed from my life in England.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson gained from living in a country that has held so much personal interest, is the rapid debunking of stereotypes and myths. I am by no means a tall Englishman, but naively, I had thought that maybe I would be a towering giant in Japan, as I had the inaccurate belief that Japanese people were short. How wrong I was. On my first day, I remember passing through Shinjuku station during rush hour, only to find high school students towering above me!

I am always interested in hearing Japanese people’s images of Britain. Often, these have very little basis in reality. For example, it is assumed that all Englishmen are gentlemen (if only that were true) and that we always carry umbrellas - something I did not own until arriving in Japan.

When I watch Japanese documentaries about my country, I am amazed by the narrowness of the topics on which the programmes are based. This made me reflect on the content that I had seen on British television about Japan. I realised how necessary it is not to rely upon forty-minute snippets about a specific culture.

More likely than not, the development of such programmes is influenced by budget and market appeal. The bottom line is that foreigners want to hear about temples, Samurai and Geisha, as do the Japanese about Big Ben, the Queen, the Beatles and cream teas. However, Japan is a far more complex society than the television programmes portray, as is England, and while a person may get a good understanding of hackneyed subject matter, it is by no means the whole picture.

After experiencing life in Japan, I now have a more accurate idea of the country. By this, the ordinary lives that most Japanese people have, are now the dominant image that comes to my mind: The daily routines, which do not make news, but are vital to the society. Images of Samurai and Geishas have now been replaced by the multitude of unknown faces I see each day on the train, as well as observed family interactions, people’s concerns and frustrations, gossip and so on.

This is by no means a declaration that I have unravelled all the riddles of this enigmatic place. Japan will always remain a glorious jigsaw puzzle that can never be completed in one lifetime: Just when you think you have all the pieces, it comes apart and alters rapidly into something new.

- El-Branden Brazil -

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