This is Life

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Land of Contradictions

The past month I have witnessed the most dramatic changing of seasons of my life. Spring in Japan is anually carried in on the winds that strip the cherry trees of their astonishingly beautiful blossoms. Beginning in late January in the far southern islands of the Japanese archipelago and culminating in late May in Hokkaido, the blossoms are a signal to the Japanese that Spring has arrived. Each year, families and colleagues alike gather under the shade of the sakura tree for hanami (flower viewing) parties. It is a truly festive atmosphere and a lot of fun, but the cherry blossoms themselves very much stand alone as the stars. I don`t think I know of anything that so easily lends itself to poetry. Every blossoming tree I saw captured and held my attention. It is truly spectacular. I am glad spring is here, but unfortunately, it won`t last long and I will soon be at the mercy of the Japanese summer. Oddly enough, we still have some snow on the ground (try and remember how much there was to begin with).

You might get the impression that Japan is the most beautiful country on earth. Indeed, the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa are stunning and the wilds of Hokkaido are not unlike the mountains of British Columbia, while the charm and cultural wealth of cities like Kyoto are immensely enjoyable. All things being equal, I am confident that Japan could give any place on earth a run as the most beautiful country on earth. Having said that, Japan may very well be the ugliest place I have ever been and is most certainly the ugliest place I have ever lived. The problem is that Japan has destroyed itself.

Blessed with remarkable natural beauty, the landscapes of 150 years past must have been breathtaking. Since then, however, this land has undergone constant transformation and those that were responsible for planning clearly never had time to step back and look at what was truly happening. Sure, Japan embraced the modern age and metamorphosed from an archaic, backwater nation into the second largest economy in the world (China will overtake them any day now), but what has been the price?

The countryside is at times more concrete than coniferous and even the conifers are ones that have been planted by man in neat rows and have supplanted much of the natural vegetation. The hillsides are covered in fences, rails, retaining walls, and the bane of everyone who has ever taken a picture in Japan - powerlines. In fact, Japan is the only industrialized nation that does not bury its powerlines and consequently, the are completely ubiquitous on the Japanese skyline. Many films that are set in Japan are actually filmed in countries like New Zealand because it is nearly impossible to find a panorama that is free of powerlines, particularly on the mountain ridges, where it can be seen from everywhere. Other countries will at least put the powerline below the ridgeline or paint them green to reduce their visibility, but not Japan. One of the most shocking statistics I have ever seen is one that was published in 1991, so it may have changed since then (not for the better, I imagine). The statistic is that of the 30,000 rivers and streams that there are in Japan, only 3 of them are not damned. That is not to say that they are completely unincumbered by concrete irrigation walls because no river in Japan is immune to this, but only 3 do not have a damn. That is .01%. That is shocking!

Now, I am not one to go on a big environmentalist rant because I do not consider myself an environmentalist, but as someone who loves the beauty of nature I had to say something about it. Before I came to Japan I had the impression that many of you do. That is, that Japan looks like it does in the pictures - peaceful, natural, and beautiful (and usually covered in a plush carpet of moss). Well, there are a couple places like that, but I imagine it is also less than 0.01%. Unfortunately, I think I have perpetuated this myth with my photographs. I take great care with which photos I choose to post on my photo site and I must admit that it is not in the least an honest reflection of what Japan really looks like. I have learned to live amidst pretty ugly surroundings (even though I am in an area generally considered to be quite beautiful) and this is how I choose to represent Japan to you. I guess it is a cup half full mentality, but I try to only allow myself to see the beautiful things.

One other thing I would like to address before I am finished is Japanese architecture. When I first came to Japan for the World Cup in 2002 I was witness to what seemed like an endless number of attractive and innovative buildings. Granted, I was in Tokyo and saw only the best of what Japan had to offer, but I left with a great impression of Japanese architecture. When I came here last year it took me about 5 minutes before I realized that all was not as it appeared. Japanese residential architecture can best be described as functional hideousness, although I am not yet convinced of its functionality (please see the January blog entry about my toilet freezing solid). The traditional wooden buildings that you have seen in the movies are virtually nonexistent. These buildings had a habit of burning down (funny how wood does that) or being torn down, in favour of cheaper, yet monstrously ugly housing complexes. There is rust everywhere. There is concrete everywhere. Everything looks and feels like a rusty, concrete, institutional building.

In the senses I have described above, I am deeply saddening by what this country has become. It is a true shame. It is easy for me to say these things, but I do understand some of the reasons behind Japan`s current appearance. First, they industrialized much more rapidly than did Europe or North America and needed to take some shortcuts in order to catch up. Second, Japan is a land frought with many natural disasters, including flooding, so measures to control nature are inevitable. Third, Japan is not blessed with the natural resources that we take for granted so it has done what it can to get energy from the land. So, I understand, at least a little. Nevertheless, I have little hope that it can or will change for the better.

On another more disturbing note, there is a growing undercurrent of racism and discrimination. A comic book that discriminates against Koreans sold over 300,000 copies last year and this is just one example. The recent Prime Ministers have gone on anual pilgrimages to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which enshrines Japanese war dead since 1850 (I think), but its most infamous dead are the convicted war criminals who are also enshrined there. It is extremely controversial here in Japan and despite the fact that between 70-80% of the Japanese public disapprove of these visits, the PMs still go. This single issue has ground Japan`s relations with its neighbours to a halt (particularly with China). Personally, I am thinking that you don`t want to be pissing China off. The Asian concept of saving face is a big factor and pride is also, although the two concepts are most definitely not mutually exclusive. Japan needs to show its neighbours that it is still a power and doesn`t have to bow to anyone else`s wishes. Sounds pretty childish if you ask me. I don`t like where things are headed.

Having said that, I have been greeted with almost universal kindness since my arrival over 9 months ago and haven`t even seen a hint of the bigotry that I just discussed. It is here is this country somewhere, but I am just thankful that I have not see it here in my corner of Japan. In fact, what gives me hope in the future of this country is its people. My students fill me with joy everyday and I don`t need to be away for long before I begin to miss them. My colleagues are among the best I have ever worked with, depsite the language barrier and cultural differences. My Japanese friends are fantastic and everyone exudes warmth. Perhaps my situation is unique. I think it may be to some degree, but at least it has given me some hope in Japan`s future.


At 4:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was on JET stationed on Sado from 1994 - 1996 and then transferred to Niigata in 1997.

I found the Niigata Jet Blogs by accident one day and enjoy reading them as they take me back to my days when I lived in Japan.

Anyway, I digress. I saw your comment about your toilet freezing and all I can say is, I had the water feed to my hot water heater freeze a coule of times and even woke up to ice on my shower floor one morning. I fully empathize with you on that subject.

I enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the posts.


At 12:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

300,000 copies of a racist comic against Koreans eh...I wonder how many were bought by our group of friends and how many of those friends thought of me and laughed as they read the comic...jerks!!

June Duk

At 12:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On another note, I couldn't get over your writing, as I was reading it, I kept hearing an English accent...maybe it's just me...nope it's everyone.

June Duk

At 1:36 AM, Anonymous Crustytuna said...

hey. Sounds like you're really bonding with Japan, so much so that you're starting to talk about its future, its politics, and praising it with so much lyricism you really almost *can* hear the English accent.
Will not be going to Asia this summer as previously hoped. No $$$. And still need to find a place to live for next month...right down to the wire.
have a great summer in the sticky Japanese heat. =)

At 1:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome to be able to keep up with your life and how things are. Cheers!!!

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in Naha. Very nice.


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