Sunday, May 20, 2012

Reflections of Japan

I recently enjoyed my first trip to Japan, where I spent four days in and around Tokyo (en route to Australia for a longer holiday). I have wanted to visit Japan for a such long time and was so pleased that the reality exceeded my expectations. Despite being there only a short time, there were a number of things that struck me about Japanese culture that I have been reflecting on.

The first thing is the level of respect and courtesy that the Japanese have for others. I saw this in the unfailing politeness of hotel staff and the smiling faces, greetings and bows of shop staff and transport workers (one of whom pointed out, with great care, that I had a mosquito on my cheek... is that great service or what?). Most of all I was taken with the care and respect that the Japanese show for their dead.

There seemed to be many small cemeteries in Tokyo and they were all impeccably maintained. Near the entrance to each cemetery was a cleaning area, with water, wooden ladles and wash rags, all neatly hung out to dry. It seems that there is regular visiting of family graves involving burning incense, washing and carefully arranging flowers or gifts for the deceased.

Beautifully maintained cemetery with wooden 'sotoba' name sticks

Space is at a premium in Japan even in cemeteries, with the ashes of many generations added and the graves butting up against each other, giving quite a crowded neighbourhood feel, which contrasts strongly with neglected equivalents in other countries. In Japan, a deceased person is given a new Buddhist name during the funeral ceremony and this is written on a wooden stick called 'sotoba', which can been seen in the picture.

The second thing I have been reflecting on is the excess of consumer goods and services on offer. Shops are almost like neon temples to be worshipped at - shrines of immaculate consumption. The ubiquitous Hello Kitty has whole shops devoted to selling her products. This kind of an excess is a feast for the eyes and part of popular culture in Japan.

Hello Kitty and her crystal encrusted pink bicycle

My final reflection is on the crowds of people in Tokyo. I went to the famous Shibuya crossroads, which features in the film ‘Lost in Translation’. The video shows what happens when the lights turn red and the people start walking. The fact that this can happen without incident every few minutes, day and night, is a testament to the planning, thought and attention to detail reflected throughout Japanese culture.

There were so many other things that delighted me on my first trip. When I got back, a colleague remarked ‘They say when you go to Japan, you see the future’. I’m not sure I’ve seen it but if I have then I definitely want to go back to the future. I’m a Japan fan.