Now and Again

September 27, 2009

Here is another paper I wrote at the end of my college days, summing up my experiences and thoughts after visiting Sado island this June.  I wanted to get it up online, because it’s only been published on Facebook until now.

Japan – Continuously Discontinuous

Quill Anderson

PACS 355 – Japanese Society and Atomic Weapons

Japan – a nation with a history and traditions that spread back thousands of years. It has only been a little over sixty years since the end of World War II. It is indisputable that Japan has undergone many changes and seen much growth in these last sixty odd years. Yet, it seems to me that historians often lose perspective by focusing in too closely on the rebuilding of Japan after World War II. In fact, although some choose to call it the Post-Bubble Economy era, modern Japan is still often referred to as Post-WWII Japan. In other words, the end of WWII is considered to be a key transitioning point for Japan. This is as it should be. However, Japan has experienced many transitions in the past, in the period prior to WWII, and it is this tradition of change which should not be overlooked. The Meiji Restoration, the Warring States period, even as far back as the Heian period, the tradition of incorporating innovations while protecting and maintaining elements of the past is perhaps the most “Japanese” characteristic of Japan.

World War II was incredibly destructive, there is no doubt about that. Conventional bombing, fire bombing, atomic bombing; almost all of the major cities of Japan were completely flattened through one form of aerial attack or another. The major cities were unrecognizable, smoldering ruins. The entire Japanese navy lay destroyed on the bottom of the ocean. Millions and millions of lives were lost, not limited to military personnel but incurring hefty casualties in the civilian sector as well. How does one move on from that without completely starting over? Reconstruction was a daunting and nearly impossible task. However, rebuilding was inevitable. Japan has a tradition of facing extreme destruction, picking up and starting over. Earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, foreign invasions of angry Mongol hordes; time and time again, Japan has taken a hit, cleaned up, and carried on with life. The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 brought Tokyo to its knees as fires raged and destroyed the majority of the city. Yet the dead were buried, the rubble was cleared away, and soon the reconstruction was going full force. Japan, as a nation on the Ring of Fire, is no stranger to disasters, and the Japanese have figured out how to live with the constant threat of disaster looming over them. Disasters will happen, as they have happened before, but the Japanese will be ready to deal with the consequences and move on.

Japan is no stranger to wars, either. This includes civil wars within the borders of Japan as well as wars between Japan and an opposing nation such as the Mongol invasions of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). During the Meiji Restoration, it was mainly the samurai, including the powerful shogun and daimyo, who became the politicians of a modern-facing Japan. It is perhaps not surprising then that the military gained so much control over the government during the beginning of the twentieth century and leading up through the end of World War II. Building upon a tradition of conquering and subservience, the Japanese military began missions of conquest throughout the Pacific, spreading out and increasing the sphere of influence that Japan wielded. Even the Japanese military strategy can be seen to mirror elements of the past. The traditional way to set up a castle is to have the strongest defenses on the outer perimeter. This defense system is made up of layers, and these layers become successively weaker as one moves in towards the middle. This was how the Japanese military spread out during World War II. These martial traditions and the tradition of picking up after disasters are two of the factors that helped Japan spring back into action after its defeat in the war. In other words, the martial traditions took Japan to the very edge of total annihilation, but the aptitude for dealing with cataclysmic disasters helped Japan to spring back and move into the position of one of the most powerful nations on the modern globe.

Another thing to take into account when looking at the effect of WWII on Japan is that Japan has a tradition of incorporating foreign-derived objects and customs, changing them slightly to fit into the fabric of Japanese society, and carrying on; the new interwoven with the old, a tapestry of Japanese tradition and Japanese innovation. It is fair to say that when customs or techniques make their way into Japan, they undergo a transformation and become somehow Japanese. Take baseball, for example. Ask a Japanese person about baseball and it is very likely that person will tell you that baseball is a Japanese sport. If you take a close look at American and Japanese baseball, they are really quite different. The rules are the same, the equipment is the same, the stadiums are the same, yet the whole feeling of the game is different. Japanese baseball moves at a different pace and different strategies are employed. Japanese baseball may have started out with foreign roots, but there is a distinctive flavor that sets it apart from baseball around the world. As in the case with baseball, there is no questioning about the respective origins of these imports, and it is not strange that they were not here before, because now they are Japanese. Perhaps the quickest way to incorporate something into a culture is to accept it as one’s own custom. Does a custom need a history? Perhaps rather than, “This is how it has always been done” it is more often and maybe even more natural to say “This is how we do it now.” Indeed, this may be the way ancient Japanese traditions are viewed, as well. This is how we do it. It is just how it is done. This is why it is so difficult to just say, “These are the changes that have been brought about in Japan since WWII, and these are the traditions that survived the war and remain today.” The Japanese tradition is ever evolving, growing, and cycling back to pick up from where it began.

Which has more traditional value – a giant festival performed at one of the major shrines or a small festival performed at a relatively unknown community on the outskirts of the country? The major festivals are performed for the benefit of tourists (or, at least, to benefit from the satisfied tourists’ wallets). Small, local festivals are performed for the community. Kodo, a professional taiko drumming group based on Sado island, tours and performs for audiences across Japan and around the world. In contrast with that, an onidaiko (demon drum dance, native to Sado island) is performed only in a particular community and members of the community volunteer their time to keep the tradition alive. It is a tradition of sharing and celebration, bringing not just the performers but all the members of the community together. The members of Kodo make their living by performing and passing on their cultural and artistic traditions. The members of an onidaiko group, and the citizens of their community, all take the day off from their various respective jobs to take part in the celebration of the community spirit. Isn’t that what tradition is all about – maintaining the spirit of the past?

Japanese castles, a symbol of “old Japan,” have almost all been destroyed many times and rebuilt again and again. The location has remained the same, but the buildings are hardly historic. They can be said to be historical, in that they are accurate recreations of the originals, yet the actual history of the buildings dates back only to the last reconstruction. These castles, as museums or portals to the past, house countless relics from bygone days, an astonishingly high number of valuable and beautiful items considering how many times fires, earthquakes, and now bombings have destroyed the original buildings containing the items. Yet, when one rides an elevator to the top of a castle and the inside of the castle is a modern museum, it is hard not to feel that this cultural relic is nothing but a facade to keep the spirit of tradition alive. Looking out from the top of Osaka Castle, it is difficult to imagine what the plains looked like hundreds of years ago when seen from the castle keep. This is a modern building, as modern as some of the skyscrapers soaring in the distance. Yet perhaps the very foundation of the castle, the giant stones that were hauled in and have remained no matter how many times the wooden castle burned to the ground, provide the necessary base for keeping the history and tradition alive inside.

In contrast to that is the infamous city of Kyoto. Kyoto conveys the stereotypical image of Japan – the Japan that tourists want to see. Is this really traditional Japan, or is it like Noh, where it has been so refined and gentrified that it almost hides the actual tradition behind a gaudy costume and mask? On the roads to temples and shrines, merchants beckon and beseech, and offer up cheap and tacky souvenirs that almost scream out “JAPAN!” – or at least, that is to say, the image of Japan that people have come to see. Geisha, samurai, romantic Japan, intriguing Japan – people come to see the characters and locations that populate period dramas and historical novels. These are the symbols of tradition, not the tradition itself. The first time I visited Japan, I was captivated by the magical aura surrounding Kyoto. “Aha! This is it!” I thought to myself. “This is the magical Japan I’ve been dreaming of!” But now, the more time I spend in Japan, the more I realize that it was just that – a magical dream. Kyoto is like Disneyland. It artificially keeps an expected image alive. People go there and they see what they want to see. They have a good time, buy some souvenirs, and go home happy with the feeling that they have witnessed the traditions of Japan and therefore understand the atmosphere and historical makeup of Japan. Indeed, it is makeup, like the thick white paste that covers the faces of the geisha (although technically geiko, if we’re talking about Kyoto). With the makeup on, the true nature is hidden, and yet for the expectant patrons, that is exactly what they want to see and is all the more beautiful for what is not shown.

Nara, although an even more ancient capital than Kyoto, is nonetheless visited less frequently. This could be due in part to how easy it is to get to Kyoto, even as a foreigner. A major stop for the bullet train, with a service industry ready to cater to the special needs of foreign visitors, Kyoto serves as the tourism hub of Japan. Nara, on the other hand, is a little more detached from the main drag. It takes more effort to get there and it is less easy to get around without some basic understanding of the Japanese language. Consequently, if one moves away from the most well-known tourist locations such as Todaiji, one can perhaps gain an appreciation of the traditions of Japan. Nara-machi, the old town of Nara, contains narrow streets and traditional-style shops and there is an array of artisans practicing and selling traditional crafts. Inside one of the small museums of the area is a collection of the largest ceramic plates in all of Japan. They are in a protected display, but I couldn’t help but wonder how these could survive a major earthquake. But this is the way of things. If a treasure is destroyed in a disaster, a replica will be made and take the place of the original – as a symbol of tradition.

Compare this to Sado island, a small community in the Japan Sea off the harsh coast of the back of Japan. This is a place that, as of yet, is relatively unvisited and unknown to foreigners. It is here that one can find Nichiren buddhist temples, with no pomp or flair but housing important historical treasures. I was lucky enough to visit with a monk at one of these temples and, as we were having tea, he casually brought out a box. Inside this box was a set of handwritten scrolls, depicting the Lotus Sutra. These scrolls were over 1100 years old. He spread them out carefully on the table and then invited me to peruse them at my leisure. There is no special security, no special exhibit for these scrolls. They are just sitting there, stored in a box at this small temple on Sado island. I asked him if there wasn’t a need to better protect these and to make sure that they were not stolen or vandalized. He replied that almost nobody ever came to look at them and he felt fine just storing them in a simple box in an unlocked temple. Nearby, a Noh stage in the rear of a Shinto shrine contains a many hundreds of years old backdrop for Noh plays. It sits in the shadows behind the stage, barely protected from the harsh elements of rain, sun, and snow. Anyone can freely enter the stage at any time, there is nobody around to watch what one does there, and it would be incredibly easy to deface or vandalize, or even completely destroy this culturally and historically significant relic. Yet it just sits there, untouched, a remnant and reminder of the past. A reminder, and yet nearly forgotten, like a distant memory. What will become of this? Eventually, it will probably be destroyed or gradually wither away. Yet it stands now, not merely as a symbol but as an actually historically significant and valuable piece of traditional art. It is just there, not cordoned off in a special section of a museum and not highlighted with lights and informative displays for eager tourists. It is perhaps because of this that it is so important as a cultural relic of the past.

Compare this to a city where not only is the focus of history on the last century, but where the vast majority of the city is only half a century old. Hiroshima, a modern and industrial hub of Japan, is surprisingly clean and beautiful. This is a city where history is alive, where history is an absolutely vital part of the city’s identity. Not surprisingly, perhaps, that living history is almost completely focused on the events of one day in 1945. On that day, Hiroshima became the first city in the world to experience the horrors of an atomic weapon. Today, the city is a thriving urban center; economically rich through industry and tourism. It may seem a bit insensitive or even morbid that the industry of tourism is so important. But this is tourism with a purpose. People do not go to Hiroshima to stare vacantly at destruction and death. The focus is on peace and the message is of dire importance – don’t ever let this happen again. It is a collection of pain and sadness, used to bring people together, not tear them apart. The monuments, the relics, the pictures, the stories – all are absolutely vital to the preservation of the story of Hiroshima. This is a city that could not have come back from the ashes without a strong sense of identity and that identity is rooted in the common pain and struggle that the people of Hiroshima have had to face every day in looking back at where they came from and, rather than turning that pain into hate, turning it into a desperate plea to make sure the world knows what kind of place Hiroshima is. Hiroshima is not a place of death, but rather of rebirth. It is not a place of anger, but instead a place of peace. It is a relatively modern and short history when compared with the greater overarching history of Japan as a whole, and the two are not exclusive of each other by any means, yet the history of Hiroshima, the history in the making, is important, not just for the people of Hiroshima, or even just those of Japan, but rather it is a history that must be spread throughout the whole world. This is in order that a new tradition may be established – a tradition of peace.

One thing that will always remain in Japan is the spirit of Japanese people. As an island nation with a long history including a period of extreme isolation, Japanese people still maintain a mainly homogeneous society. Consequently, a strong sense of the unity of the Japanese community has developed. I have been told countless times, “We are Japanese. We share an understanding. You are not Japanese. It is impossible for you to understand.” These are not uneducated people who tell me this. They are well-educated and many of them have spent time studying or working abroad. Perhaps this is related to the almost indoctrinated system of Nihonjinron or the concept of a “Japanese-ness” that is circulated and shared subconsciously with children from as far back as they can remember. History, tradition, culture, national identity – these are not bad things in and of themselves. In fact, it may be said that the strong sense of unity and the solidarity of the Japanese people is one of the key factors for the quick recovery after World War II. Moreover, this sense of unity may have been strengthened because of the tough situation facing the Japanese in the rubble of defeat. It is good to have a solid sense of where one has come from and what that means in the spectrum of the world. This is why preserving traditions can be very important. However, getting too locked into unquestioningly repeating the actions of the past can lead to problems. This is why a mixture of past traditions and new innovations is so essential to the progress of a society.

Japan today is a society of the world. There are new ideas and traditions working their way into Japan from around the world and, at the same time, Japanese traditional arts and culture have never been so popular as they are today worldwide. Postwar Japan, in the great Japanese tradition, maintains elements of the past along with newer elements of the modern global culture. In a recent documentary about hip-hop dancing competitions (Planet B-Boy), the Japanese team was heralded as the most creative, winning the prize for the best choreographed dance of that year’s international competition. It had that distinctive Japanese flair for molding a custom that began in another part of the world, and an expert in the field commented that the Japanese are always the most creative with their routines. Looking towards the future, it does not seem like Japan as a nation needs to worry about the disappearance of its cultural traditions. They will remain, evolve, and join the traditions of tomorrow.


One comment

  1. Still a great paper. If you want I can E-mail you the one I wrote.

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