The Spirit of Japan in Six Photographs

Ok. make that Eight Photographs.

My recent short visit to Japan was a rich experience on a number of levels. It left me marvelling at a country that has adapted so well to western culture while keeping its own traditions and heritage intact. Not many countries have managed to do that anywhere near as well.

It seems to me as if the Japanese might have beaten us at our own game. They have borrowed what they want from us, adapted it, turned it on its head, pushed it to the limits, and sent it back to us sometimes only barely recognisable. Manga culture is a case in point.
 
The neon garishness and hi-tech extravaganza of Tokyo and other larger cities is part of modern Japan, but it is not its soul. There is a much more subtle and noble spirit in Japanese culture that has nothing at all to do with brashness and materialism. It is that spirit which continues to pervade Japanese culture; a spirit the West has largely lost, and is now sadly utterly alien to mainstream western minds. It is that spirit that has left a deep impression on me and, I hope, a life changing one.
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Unlike the culture of most western countries, especially my own, Japanese culture is a deeply religious one. Shinto-Buddhism and its variants remains very much part of life in modern Japan. Family ties seem to be stronger than they are in the West. I haven't consulted any research on that but it seems obviously true to me, even after a short visit. From what I saw, older people are shown respect and children are nurtured lovingly while being trained in courtesy and responsibility.
 
In my country, we worship youth and have thrown away our traditions. Older people are not looked to for advice, but are treated as nuisances. We think it is a regretful, even shameful, thing to be growing old, and we try all manner of strategies to avoid the reality of ageing, not to mention the inevitability of death.
 
The denialism we cling to in such matters is sad, even pathetic when looked at from the outside. We have middle aged and older men dressing like boys on skateboards, and middle aged and older women dressing as if they were in the bloom of maidenhood. Neither group fools anyone except themselves. Both groups embrace the lie that tells them their value is tied up with their appearance and diminishes with age. Wrinkles and saggy muscles are the ultimate taboo in western culture.
 
I sensed a very different attitude and outlook among Japanese people. I am not sure I've got this absolutely correct but it seemed to me their value was tied in to their family, traditions and religious beliefs. These things do not change with the ageing process. An old person has just as valid a place in Japanese society as a young person. It might be a different place, because biology dictates what we can and cannot do physically, but it is nevertheless a place of honour.
 
I found myself thinking about death as a Japanese might. Or perhaps I should say, I found myself thinking about ageing and death from a very different perspective from that which surrounds me in my own country. Here, we avoid mentioning death. When we can no longer avoid it, we talk about 'passing away' or some such ridiculous euphemism.
 
I read somewhere that someone described people in western culture as 'living as if we will never die, and when we come to the point of dying, dying as if we have never lived'. Not an edifying image? Maybe I should google that to check its source, but I can't be bothered. You get the point I hope. The contrast between our western attitudes to ageing and death and those in Japanese culture, cannot be starker.
 
 
Theirs is a gentler accepting approach, knowing they are in the bosom of family, in synch with ancestors, and in harmony with nature. Ours is an adolescent approach out of synch with our companions and with nature, where it's all about us and we are never going to die; except of course, we do.
 
The superficial materialistic way we live our lives in the West seems to me beneath contempt. It is just sad. My visit to Japan confirmed this for me, if I needed reminding.
 
The Japanese way of dealing with grief also left a strong impression on me. My visit to the Hiroshima atomic bomb site and Peace Park taught me a lasting lesson in the space of an hour or so. Initially I felt anger and sadness at what had happened here seventy years ago. As I've said earlier in another blog entry, I understand why the bomb needed to be dropped. I am just so relieved I wasn't in the position of having to decide to do it. I do not think I could have carried that responsibility.
 
 
I'm not sure where I read it, but apparently people who were in Hiroshima on that day said the explosion sounded like the low, deep, resonant gong of a temple bell. Ever since then I have not been able to hear one rung without imagining myself on the ground in Hirishima in 1945, hearing that sound and looking up.
 
Anyway, the sense of peace and acceptance together with undaunted optism for the future that was evident everywhere in and around the Peace Park in Hirishima will, I hope remain with me as long as I live. Not for Hiroshima a grief that is held close and left unresolved to simmer. I did not sense any residual resentment. Yes, there was sadness, but I saw serenity and a preparedness to go forward in hope. Surely this is a lesson to all of us, if we want to hear it.
 
I left Japan with a profound sense of well being and calm. I am not a Buddhist and have no plan to change to become one, but I have learned some things from that tradition. If anything, the Japan experience is working within me to help me become a gentler, more accepting Christian; a Christian more aware of, and at ease with the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
 
For that I am grateful.
 
 
 
 
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