Japan, I was there, on the ground for 15 days, and there would have been a time, in the not so distant past, where I would have attempted to delve deep and go a little Gonzo with my write up about the vacation. There was a time when I would have thought I could have probably done it justice too, but the story of this country is too rich, too deep, and too long for a little blog post that I've been pondering for the last month since I got back. I did it for Hong Kong a few years ago, and time spent in New York, Acapulco, San Francisco, Cairo, Berlin, Marrakech, and a host of other places over the years have all produced a bit of that commentary, but Japan is something different. I'll just stream a few thoughts and provide a few pictures for now.
In Japan you have a country that's at polar opposites with itself. It's a contradiction in terms, it's a perplexed child that's stuck in a panicked worry that if she goes out for ice-cream, something catastrophic will happen to the beautiful doll house she has spent so much time and effort putting together. It's a country wide with opportunity yet almost completely impenetrable to the outside world. It's for these reasons I think I enjoyed my time in Japan more than anywhere I've previously visited on earth. I felt a certain affinity with the throb of their collective.
I arrived in Tokyo slightly bleary eyed and lighting up a cigarette, one of the first things I noticed was 'No smoking on this sidewalk' embezzled on the ground. Ignoring this like any good westerner, I proceeded to cross roads when the red man was showing, drop my cigarette butts on the ground and look up and around whilst walking, not really paying any attention to who was coming the other way, expecting them to move. A typical tourist, a member of an individualist society, a western slob, I recognised a city scape and treated thusly, the same as any other city I'd visited across the globe.
This place, with over 30 million people in its greater metropolitan area is almost unimaginable in scale, it's the cultural and economic capital of the third largest economy in the world, but upon first inspection, it's just like any other city you'll visit. It's with time that the true nature of Japan begins to solidify before you, and no, it's not tentacle rape and weird subjugating game shows, it's a race of people that at their root, know better than anywhere else I've visited on the planet, how to get things done.
The collectivist nature of Japan, steeped so heavily in tradition, a feudal past, stoic and strong, based on honour and respect is at first unnoticeable, it's invisible to the western eye exactly because it's so very different. And this, in my own humble opinion is where it all begins. There's a tradition, an old nation, an ageing generation that exists and massively outnumbers the youth, their dictation is the otherwise overwhelming presence that goes unseen, but that, after time on the mainland, I began to slowly figure out. My untrained eye, my western eye at first saw the bars, saw the Starbucks, saw the Macdonalds and restaurants and H&M's and fashion districts and strip clubs and so on and so on. The Neon City that's there, in front of you, the vast sea of light that builds and builds and throbs and from the 55th floor of Mori Tower in the district of Roppongi seems to go on forever. It's the front, it's the facade of such a nation that to the vast majority of the people that I know seems to be 'one crazy place', but it's not what I consider Japan to be having been there. It's exactly the opposite, it's the collectivist nature, the stoicism that really represents Japan. It's what pulled them from utter devastation after the WWII but also unfortunately, what got them there in the first place.
At approximately 08:15 on August 6th 1945, the temperature of Hiroshima rose instantly from a balmy 20oc to as hot as the centre of the sun, 60,000 people perished in under 60 seconds as the the atomic bomb 'Little Boy' was dropped on the city. A warring nation that had been in conflict with itself and with other nations as far as its history dates gripped in fear, stood proud and refused surrender in the face of the unparalleled devastation. Nagasaki was hit next, which prompted the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allied Nations and so ended the Second World War. The intense firebombing of 67 other Japanese cities by the Allies saw a nation turned to dust. Faced with this, with a new found humility yet retaining their powerful resolution, the people of Japan built and built, industry at first, then technology, then services, and within 30 years they were the second largest economy in the world, following the USA closely. A completely renewed nation, 30 years to build a country, to modernise, house and put to work roughly 120 million people.
So, understanding and appreciating this modernisation, and the resolve that produced it, I believe is fundamental to understanding the cultural climate of Japan. Now a nation in divide. There is a generation who has built a country from almost nothing, you have cities older than those in Europe, yet they are block based like new American cities, that look so 80's in their scope and architecture it's almost uncanny, they exist in their modern form, they were re-built from dust in the last 70 years, peaking 30 years ago and look thusly. They're cities as they should be built, without the western 'infection' of individualism, they're neat, without litter, well maintained, and with such low levels of crime and homelessness, you wonder just what the hell is going on. And then there is the fun, their rich culture of fun, of booze, of partying, of letting lose, of an affluent, rich, fun seeking youth who adopt western culture and place upon it their own imitable Japanese twist. There's an inventiveness and richness that surpasses anything the hipsters of Shoreditch or Brooklyn could ever hope for. And it's at a continual loggerheads with itself, the older generation who hate it, who re-built their nation who are intrinsically racist, but also so proud that it rarely shows, and a youth that wants to absorb you and everything you come from and mean to them, the West.
The nation needs change, it's GDP is dropping alongside there their ageing population, which outweighs any other nation on earth. The 'demographic time bomb' is apparent and getting worse, they have virtually no immigration, and because of this, Old Japan needs to reach toward New Japan before such a beautiful nation simply grows itself into nothing. By 2055 at current estimations, 40% of the population is expected to be over 65, and that is worrying.
I talked to a lot of people whilst I was there, I experienced a lot of incredible sights and sounds, I meditated alone in a buddhist temple at an elevated position on a mountain on Miyajima Island, smelling incense whilst listening to the world and trying to forget the idea of self. I ran amok with the youth of Shibuya and Shinjuku late into the night, downing ChuHai and absorbing their thoughts and joys and troubles. I stood at ground zero, Hiroshima, where 60,000 lives were instantly vaporised and reflected on the tragedy of war. I did too many awesome things and engaged with too many amazing people to ever do it justice, and by some way of conclusion, I'll say this. Japan is as rich in heart as it is in money, its people were always distinguished, and polite and as classy as I could have imagined and hoped for, the culture, the art, the architecture, the nightlife, the food, the drink, the religion, all impressed me more than I could have imagined, but it is at odds with itself. A society and civilisation that requires change, which only the outnumbered youth can try to enact, and I'm not sure how much they want it or believe they need it. As seemingly perfect as it is, and as hard as I am finding it to define the downside to their way of life, it does exist, and it'll creep up on them and the world faster than we might think. I'll be back again, to explore all of this further, there's a strong part of me that knows that is necessary, when that might be I'm unsure, but expect me Japan, and thank you for the time you gave me already.
Full size images are available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ricgalbraith/
Some video I took whilst out there is below: