Photo: Tulips garland Mt Daisen. Credit: Palitha Kohona - Photo: 2019

Are the Japanese Really Different? Maybe

Viewpoint by Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer was on an extended visit to Japan recently. He returned from a four week trip in April 2019. Some his observations might provide some clues for their phenomenal success despite being devastated by War. There might be useful lessons for other countries following the path to development.

TOKYO (IDN) – Arriving in Japan after a long and tiring flight is such a pleasure. Polite immigration officials in neat uniforms are there to guide you and to organise the orderly rapidly moving immigration queues.

The reception at the counter is refreshing. The usual unfriendly, stern and gruff welcome that one is used to in Western countries is absent. No one asks you how long you plan to stay in the country. Instead a soft friendly voice greets you and the processing is quick.

Despite my many visits to Japan, a question continues to pop up. Are the Japanese really different? Are they special?

The Japanese people are socially disciplined, orderly and meticulously punctual. The country, its cities, villages and roads are free of rubbish and graffiti and remarkably clean. Perhaps with the exception of a handful of other countries, the Japanese sense of beauty and the way they incorporate it in to everything in their lives, including their homes, gardens and food is amazing. Their preference for the simple and their respect for nature is a model. Now, almost a religious attachment to nature conservation dominates Japan’s thinking. Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Japan has revised its targets downwards for nuclear power generation. More can be said. And I will. But are these what makes them different? And so successful!

Japan also consciously isolated itself for centuries from European advances but a factor that made Europeans militarily dominant also worked in Japan. The constant warfare among competing war lords encouraged the development of military technology and techniques in Japan which made it a difficult prey for aspirant European empire builders. A rigid martial spirit inculcated in the Sumurai class with their code of Bushido. The Samurai, with their spartan lifestyle, dominated society and they battled each other for position and privilege.

It is said that a glum Samurai smiled only once every two years. Japan also was largely unified under the Tokugawas around the time that the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in Japan while the Emperor remained the nominal head of state. Japan was not going to be cheap and easy to be manipulated by the Europeans unlike other Asian countries.

Furthermore, a technique that was used elsewhere in Asia, that of exploiting rivalries among indigenous princes and inserting themselves in to the local politics did not work in Japan. The divisive incursions made by missionaries were quickly thwarted when the early converts were massacred and the Portuguese banished from Japan. Simultaneously, under the policy of Sakoku, initiated by Tokugawa Iemitsu through a number of edicts from 1633 to 1639, the Japanese people were prohibited from leaving the country for over 220 years. All Europeans were excluded from trading with Japan during the period of exclusion except the Dutch whose primary focus was trade, not religious conversions or territorial acquisitions.

This isolation ended only after 1853 when the AmericanBlack Ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to American (and, to Western) trade through a series of unequal treaties starting with the Convention of Kanagawa. The Koreans and Chinese were exempted from the ban and enjoyed continued access to trade. The Japanese belief in the divinity of the Emperor and their own perceptions of superiority contributed to their ability to exclude European incursions till 1853.

The European colonial powers may also have recognized the high cost of organising successful colonial expeditions to such a distant and unwelcoming country. Their success in keeping foreigners away and defeating the Russian fleet in 1905 in the landmark Tsushima Sea battle, inculcated a sense of uniqueness and superiority in the Japanese psyche.

The principles of their traditional religion, Shinto, has and continues to influence the Japanese character and a visitor begins to notice this immediately. Shinto is a critical element contributing to the Japanese feelings of  uniqueness. To be punctual, clean, polite, respectful, honest, non ostentatious and to respect nature springs from Shintoism. The Japanese are polite to a fault. Hotel, restaurant, and shop staff greet guests noisily (iraisamasen) as they enter with a bow and when they leave. Genuine happiness is expressed at the opportunity to serve guests. Bowing is second nature to the Japanese but a well established protocol is observed. It is not a bow of servility but one of respect, even towards perfect strangers.

Tired of raucus disrespectful behavior, especially of Westerners, the Japanese have begun to exclude foreigners from certain restaurants and other establishments. One notices the difference in attitude among shop staff in the West immediately. Punctuality is ingrained in the Japanese character. Trains and buses arrive and leave on the dot. Profuse appologies are offered even if a slight delay occurs. The shiny and spotlessly clean Shinkansen which achieves average speeds in excess of 325 km, and has been in service since 1964, stops dead in front of the arrows marked on the platform. Commuters wait in neat lines to board the train.

While there is pressure to keep to the scheduled time, there is no visible breaching of road rules. No impatient sneaking in and out of traffic lanes. And, of course, all road users practice polite regard for the other users of the roads. To arrive late for an appointment is inexcusable. The absence of graffiti in Japanese cities amazes visitors. Honesty is so deeply ingrained that visitors are regularly advised not to leave items which are normally discarded (eg, disposable razors) in hotel rooms as they are likely to be mailed to the original owners

Intense loyalty to the Emperor continues to be a key factor in conditioning the thinking of the people of Japan and carries religious undertones. This was clearly evidenced during the enthronement of His Majesty Emperor Naruhito in May 2019. Before the war, the Emperor was the divine Shinto spirit of the land. Now, as the symbolic head of state, he does not even own the palace he lives in. It is government property.

But the people adore him. On the accession of Emperor Naruhiti to the Chrysanthimum Throne, a new era, the Reiwa Era, dawned in Japan. Continuing a historical duty, the emperor officiates at three Shinto shrines located in the palace grounds. One dedicated to the sun god, one to his ancestors, which is a long line that goes back over 2000 years, one to all ancestors. Reflecting the agricultural roots of Japanese society, he performs the annual rice planting ceremony. He is a symbolic farmer. The Empress is required to culture silk worms.

Tokyo has been the imperial capital since the Shoganate moved to there in the early 17th century. Today, the Edo castle is the home of the Emperor. In 1867, Shogun Tokugawa, surrendered his power to the Emperor who had moved from Kyoto to Edo. Tokyo with almost 14 million inhabitants, spreads forever, but it has managed to retain a surprising amount of greenery.  

The commitment demonstrated by the Japanese, whatever the task, is almost unique in Japan. Trash collectors go round picking up stray leaves and the odd wrapper that may have blown in the wind. In many other places in the world, these may just be ignored by trash collectors. But not in Japan. This is all the more significant as there arn‘t many public bins and people carry home their rubbish to be disposed of at home!!! Even villages isolated in the mountains display a cleanliness that is mindboggling. Road edges are neatly trimmed, flowering trees are carefully maintained and the smallest house displays a bonsai’d plant or a flower pot or two.

Japan in the Spring – Clouds of Pink Sakura

Travelling in Japan in early spring is a unique treat. No other people seem to care for flowers as much as the Japanese. Pretty banks of different flowers blossom everywhere competing to overwhelm ones senses, most having been planted with particular care to provide maximum sensual satisfaction. The countryside is awash with masses of cherry blossoms, apricot, apple, azalea, camellia, wisteria, kerria and other flowers.

Flowers and trees are an essential part of Japan and the Japanese culture. This sensitive and unique relationship that exists between the Japanese people and flowers, trees and nature is not to be found anywhere else. Whether in the arrangement of trees and flowers in the smallest garden, in large parks or in ikebana flower presentations, great care is taken to cause a subtle embrace of the senses and the inner self.

The sense of beauty so much a part of everything in Japan has to be experienced to be appreciated. Beauty is everywhere. Japanese gardens are a work of art, from the odd one square metre patch in front of an urban dwelling, or a few pots placed on a door step to the massive 17th century Kenruoken garden in Kanazawa. Meticulous care is taken to present the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the trees and bushes so lovingly nurtured, the ponds and streams so carefully constructed and the footpaths maintained with subtle attention to detail, with no weeds.

The trees are supported and trimmed with care, including branches overhanging artificially constructed ponds. The shiny and delicate moss covered landscapes are protected by restricting pedestrians to pathways of painstakingly arranged stone slabs or rocks. Impressively, Japanese visitors to the gardens faithfully observe these restrictions. It is a part of their culture. Spaciousness, seclusion, art, antiquity, waterways, panoramas are considered to be the attributes of a Japanese garden.

I watched with admiration as a team of tree pruners busily engaged in trimming high branches with secateurs in pouring rain. It was a job that had to be done and they were doing it with loving care, come rain or shine.

Temple gardens, of which there are many, invariably contain a water feature along with carefully arranged rocks and the trees are tended with scrupulous  attention to detail to facilitate meditation and contemplation. In an eternally active society, the provision made to facilitate quiet contemplation is impressive. It is the attention to the minutest details that makes Japanese gardens so special. Many of these gardens have been in existence for centuries. The message to the wondering visitor is, wabi sabi, savour the present in its simplicity and elegance.

Religion continues to exert a subtle influence on Japanese life and society and is a clear factor in its attitude to natural beauty. The serene tenets of Buddhism and the deep respect for nature embodied in Shintoism have obviously had a deep impact on the Japanese. The Zen concept of Ichigo ichie, this moment will not come again, Savour the moment, the impermanence of all things material, is all too prevalent in temple garden design. Like the brief but beautiful Sakura period which is a constant reminder of life’s ephemeral nature.

Buddhism which was introduced to Japan in 552 from Korea, remains a key factor in shaping Japan and the Japanese. Very soon after its introduction, Buddhism was adopted as the state religion by the Emperor. As a reaction to Christian proselytization efforts, about 350 years ago, the Shogun, required every individual to register at a Buddhist temple, further strengthening its position in Japanese society.

Today, there appears to be a temple at almost every street corner and some have been in existence for centuries. The temples in Nara were built over a millennium ago. Buddhism has become intertwined with traditional Shintoism  and is an essential element in funeral ceremonies.

The Shinrenza Temple garden, a small gem, has been carefully restored and is a wonderful location for relaxation and contemplation. Shinto shrine gardens are also impressive with delicate water features.

The Bodhisattva Amitabha is venerated while, curiously, the Hindu deity Saraswathi, also features in some temples. Both belief systems, Buddhist and Shinto, have influenced the Japanese sense of propriety, their aesthetic perceptions, their social interactions and their character.

Most grave stones in cemeteries have some Buddhist symbolisms. Cemeteries, though tightly packed with polished granite tomb stones, are beautifully maintained. The uniformity of the Japanese is reflected in their cemeteries. In the cities they are bigger but are neat and well cared for. Villages and communities have small ercemeteries. But the grey tombstones look the same. Kobo Yama Matsumoto is not a hill but a tomb from the 2nd century – the oldest tomb in Matsumoto. Its slopes are covered by 4000 cherry trees. 

There are 13 sects of Buddhism in Japan. Three are Zen sects. The state is no longer linked with Shintoism but influenced by it.

Amazingly, there are almost 70,000 centenarians in Japan. Some believe that the diet contributes to their longevity. Raw fish, kelp, and tea. Brown tea is believed to help digestion. Green tea is an antioxidant.

Weddings are solemnly celebrated in Shinto shrines with the couples in  traditional kimonos. The traditional kimono is an expensive family heirloom.

The Japanese love affair with cherry blossoms has to be experienced with the Japanese. The Sakura season gets into full swing in early to mid-April. The pink blossom covered cherry trees are everywhere. Streets and embankment are lined with blossom laden cherry trees. Hillsides throw up colourful sprays of wild Sakura blossoms. The petals float gently down in the breeze to lay a dainty carpet on the sidewalk. The Japanese, however busy they might be, and they seem to be busy always, find the time to savour the delicate beauty of the Sakura flowers during this season (Hanami). The Sakura time means much to the Japanese. Admiring the prolific cherry blossoms is part of the popular culture. Families get together under their favourite tree to eat and drink sake and express joy at the arrival of spring. Many women pull out their gorgeous kimonos for the occasion. It is an auspicious time, the time to get engaged, the time to get married.

The Sakura viewing, hanami, is so important that the first Sake of the day is given to the tree. The tree is believed to have a spirit of its own. No one would tread on the roots of the Sakura tree, in case the surface roots get damaged. 

Where fresh flowers are not a feasible option, like at the airport, crass commercialism creeps in and pink plastic flowers are substituted to adorn public places. Restaurants, and shops greet you with a profusion of pink blossoms, some dainty plastic. Hotel foyers display magnificent flower arrangements.

There are over 100 varieties of cherry blossoms, including the wild varieties and the many hybrids. Cherry trees may live up to a hundred years. Trees are not cut if they could be saved at all. Cherries will blossom with least pruning. The Japanese say that if you cut down a cherry tree you are a fool. If you do not cut and prune a plum tree, you are a bigger fool. 

Today, cherry blossom festivals are celebrated in Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines and China. A national cherry blossom festival is celebrated in Washington DC in the spring and an international festival takes place in Macon, Georgia, USA.

It is not only the Cherry blossoms that get the flower crazy Japanese in to a tizzy. They also swoon when the plum, apricot, the apple, the tulip, the azalea, peony, wisteria and other flowers bloom. Flowers tend to burst out in all their glory at regular intervals and progressively along the length of the country in the spring. 

Taking the love of flowers to a different dimension, the Nabano no Sato garden with its different blooming plants is illuminated with 1.2 million twinkling lights on spring nights with two 200 metre tunnels of massed LED lights being the highlight. The Shiratori Garden tells the story of the Kiso river as it meanders its way to the sea in a scaled down version of 3.7 hectare garden. Tattori Hanakairo is a blaze of flowers, especially tulips, in the spring against the backdrop of beautiful Mt Daisen.

The blooming of the Sakura heralds the period for rice to be planted. Rice has been at the core of Japanese culture for millennia. The countryside is dominated by neat rectangular rice fields the cultivation of which is now largely mechanised. Seedlings are planted in neat rows by machine and the water supply is well regulated along canals or pipes to avoid waste. Rice fields exist even in between city blocks. Japan maintained a policy of excluding foreign rice from the country for a long period to protect its rice farmers. The Gassoh-Zukuri Folk Village nestles in mountain valley and its traditional houses are protected under a UNESCO World Heritage listing. Its rice fields are the same as elsewhere.

Despite their reputation for austere severity and their strict code of Bushido, the Samurai, the warrior class of Japan, also constructed elegant residences and well maintained gardens. Their attachment to beauty was no less. The Samurai were also well trained martial experts, literate, poets, and enjoyed the theatre. They were very much influenced by the Chinese culture. Their residences reflected these refined attributes.

Kanazawa still boasts a few of these impressive residences and gardens and the influence of Buddhism and Shintoism is quite evident. Kanazawa was a stronghold of the Samurai. 

Japan used to produce large quantities of gold and silver. This was a reason for the Portuguese and the Spanish to eye Japan greedily. Not any more. But the gold and silver, plus the bountiful rice crop in Kanazawa, made the Shoguns wealthy.

Many of the castles built by the Samurai are surrounded by beautifully laid gardens. Most were destroyed after the end of the warring period but some have been meticulously restored. Matsumoto castle’s cherry trees are as old as the castle. Kanazawa castle built in the 16th century, is one of those restored along with its ancient garden, Kenrokuen. The hoary old cherry trees are laden with blossoms and the ground covered with shiny moss. The cherry blossoms in the garden are lit up at night and looks like a fairyland. The Gyokusenen garden commissioned by Naokara Wakita, a chamberlain, is impressive for its charming simplicity by the side of the larger Kenrokuen. The Tokugawaen family garden in Nagoya, originally constructed in 1695, destroyed during WW11 bombing raids, is now restored and is again fit for a Samurai. The Osaka castle is a beautiful gem.

Not to be outdone by the Samurai and the aristocracy, the recently rich have also followed the tradition of building impressive gardens. Rags to riches millionaire, Adachi Zenko, created an impressive gallery and unique garden with his millions. 

Seiji Osawa, the conductor has a festival of music named after him in Matsumoto which is also the original home of the Shoganate. The Matsumoto castle was built of timber in the 16th century and is now owned by the city. It has survived earthquakes and the WW2 bombing and is a stunning representation of Japanese architecture. 

Like everything else, Japan’s wasabi is also cultivated in beautifully maintained fields. Sparkling clean streams of water, essential for wasabi, flow through the fields. Located just outside of Nagano, is the biggest wasabi farm in Japan. Like any Japanese garden, this commercial farm is maintained with aesthetics uppermost. Wasabi originated in Japan and the people started using it as a condiment from the 17th century. The use of wasabi increased with the popularity of raw fish in large coastal cities among workers looking for a quick meal. Raw fish was the original fast food of Japan and wasabi helped it to be eaten. It is believed that wasabi kills any germs in raw fish. 

Even Japan’s forest covered hills and mountains which burst into brilliant colour in the autumn exude beauty. Sixty five per cent of Japan is mountainous and forested and the forests are preserved with great care. This is impressive for a relatively small country with 126 million inhabitants. Thick bamboo groves with drooping canopies and pine forests cover the mountain sides with the odd wild cherry tree or azalea exploding in a spray of colour in the midst of the greenery. The Japanese protect their forests with a pious intensity. The villages cradled in the valleys tend to their fields with exquisite care but do not spread at the expense of the forested hill sides. 

The bamboo tree matures in about 50 days and grows in difficult terrain. A Japanese proverb states, “The taller the bamboo grows, the lower it bends”. In a country prone to regular earthquakes, the bamboo roots help to keep the hillsides stable. Bamboo shoots are a delicacy and are harvested in the spring. The wood is widely used for making furniture, panels, curtains, mats and now for producing fibre for textiles.

Impressively, almost every river bank is protected by fortified bunds designed for flood control. Many also display clouds of Sakura during early spring.

Japan’s close relationship with beauty extends to the preparation, presentation and the consumption of food. Almost every dish is a work of art. The delicate mix of colour in a plate of sushi, entices even a novice to taste the raw fish. Beef is not simply a meat to be eaten to the Japanese. Bred with painstaking care, delicately marbled wagyu hida of Gifu prefacture’s Takayama now commands the special attention of the aficianados. Whether it is traditional Japanese fare or food influenced by the outside world, the presentation is aesthetically pleasing. The French chef, Paul Bocuse, has set up shop in Japan.

Japan, following the devastation of WWII, recognised the importance of good transport links to facilitate rapid recovery. Snuggling inside the protective security umbrella provided by the USA, and shielded by its defensive constitution, since the 50s, Japan concentrated its economy on improving its roads and railways and developing consumer items. Japan became a leader in camera production, innovative mass produced moror cars, electronic equipment, Noritake and Oneioda table ware, among others. Japan is a consumer electronics heaven. 

The Toto factory has produced the toilette seat for the future. With Japanese production costs rising, most companies have located outside. More motor cars of Japanese brands are now produced outside Japan. Noritake’s biggest factory is in Sri Lanka. The US forced Japanese motor companies to produce in the US. Neat well maintained highways and railway lines criss cross the country. Tunnels pierce through endless mountains as different communities are linked to each other by road and rail. Travelling in Japan is easy, despite the mountain ranges and the tightly packed population.

The Shinkansen was the pre-war brainchild of two engineers who had dreamed of a high speed rail network that would one day link Japan with Europe. It was eventually introduced in 1964.  France’s TGV was commissioned almost a decade later. The Shinkansen achieves average speeds of around 320 km/h. (Today, China is implementing the dream of connecting the Far East with Europe through a rail network). For a while, Japan had the largest number of industrial robots in the world. 

Completely devastated by the Second World War, their cities consumed by massed fire bombing raids, factories, especially those contributing to the war effort, totally destroyed by relentless bombing, Nagasaki and Hiroshima flattened by nuclear bombs, and millions of civilians killed, Japan amazingly recovered rapidly and surged economically to the surprise of many. Their work ethic, social cohesion and pride in themselves and everything Japanese, among other things contributed to this miraculous recovery. Japan became the second biggest economy in the world until recently overtaken by China. Japan was the main development aid giver in the Asian region for years, including through the Asian Development Bank. Japan hosted the Olympics in 1964 and will do so again in 2020.

As Japan continued to recover from the devastation resulting from WWII, it also became the second biggest provider of development assistance in the OECD after the USA. 60% of its funding was directed to East and South East Asia. In the 1990s, Indonesia, China, Thailand, the Philippines and Bangladesh were the major recipients of Japanese development assisatance. Today China is an aid donor in its own right. Japan’s foreign aid programme began as part of war reparations payments. A considerable part of Japanese development assistance was also chanelled through the Asian Development Bank.

Today, recognising the challenge of global warming, and with a view to reducing its carbon footprint, Japan taxes large motor cars heavily forcing people to use small vehicles. Energy has always been a challenge to Japan. The sanctions imposed on Japan by Western powers were a key factor that forced Japan to enter the Second World War. In more recent times Japan opted for nuclear energy. Now abandoned following the Fukushima disaster of 2011. Every village appears to have solar energy production facilities.

The Japanese really are different!!!! [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 May 2019]

Photo: Tulips garland Mt Daisen. Credit: Palitha Kohona

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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