Another Day on Danger Island

ear N.,

This is my finally writing to you from Japan. I apologise it has taken so long. Whilst the last four months I have enjoyed that deep feeling of freedom you get from breathing new air and looking over previously only imaginable frontiers, it has also been a relentless struggle to build from scratch that which back home was carefully cultivated over many years.

Whenever I arrive in another country–it doesn’t matter where–I find myself breathing a sigh of relief for having made it out of Britain. I think there is something about its size I find oppressive. Despite the first feeling of boundless possibility moving somewhere new, the horizon quickly recedes; the borders of our new lives creep closer and closer until is clear what the limits of our small existences will be. In my panicked search for the exit, it seems I have escaped one stifling rock in the middle of the sea for another.

Nevertheless, I do not feel any of us are qualified to judge this nation, for we truly have no idea. When travelling, I am often disconcerted by the startling lack of culture shock: nowadays you can go to any developed place in the world and live an almost identical life to the one you left behind. But Japan is still a country shrouded in mystery, and the more you see, the more you realise what cannot be seen.

1- Gaman

Peering down our long noses one can see Japan is, at best a nation in happy retirement, at worst, a totally passive society sleepwalking into the void. Indeed, it is hard to argue that Japan is not past its peak, but I think the caveat is that they bear this with relative dignity. It can be hard to distinguish between apathy and putting on a brave face, but their attitude towards the future can probably best be summarised by their pervasive adage, shouganai, which essentially means, ‘it can’t be helped’ or ‘it is what it is’. Of course, given the severity of the approaching storm, Japan is going to have to do more than simply take it, but, so far, she has yet to flinch.

There is something about Japan’s willingness to walk into the darkness, that I find truly impressive. I suppose they are a people generationally familiar with crisis.

Of course, I will only be able to judge whether this admiration is warranted when given a point of reference. Severe population shrinkage, uncontested materialism, and the widespread phenomenon of young people checking out of society (and even life) are problems that all nations will soon face. When it comes to societal crises, Japan is again simply ahead. The doggedness that the Japanese have in dealing with a ruthlessly demanding work and social culture is impressive. How far their sacrificial nature and stoicism will stretch is not yet clear, but perhaps better than us, they are well-equipped for the new world into which we are headed.

Japan’s culture is often blamed for her widely acknowledged decline, but let us not forget that this very culture helped make Japan. As Simon Kuznets wryly alluded to with his infamous quote, ‘There are four kinds of countries in the world: developed countries, undeveloped countries, Japan and Argentina’, Japan has nearly no natural advantage.

Perhaps the inflexibility of Japan’s institutions is its strength. I have parroted the warning ad infinitum that Britain’s institutions are the singular pillar upon which she precariously balances. With our wealth and graces stripped away, the true identity of Britain has nothing to hide behind. Our instinct for self-preservation was abolished long ago and we have proved ourselves rather pliable when it comes to our so-called values. Conversely, harmony, self-restraint, and brave-faced perseverance (gaman) are deeply rooted in Japan, often casually invoked in daily conversation and, for better or for worse, will, evidently, hang on stubbornly.

2 - In praise of book covers

Beyond the many now-infamous aspects of Japanese material culture, there are many subtle mundanities which you see when you have a look around yourself. One thing I recently noticed was book covers. Looking around at people on the train, I see many buried in these beautifully cloth-bound tomes. Upon prying, it is clear that the content of these books can vary greatly, from elegant Japanese prose to bawdy manga.

There are many reasons the Japanese might have for covering their books. One is to protect them. Besides simply being resourceful due to their generational awareness of scarcity, Japan is not a dualistic culture where the divine lies separate from the physical world. Consequently, the Japanese take meticulous care of physical objects. But to me, it seems clear that the primary purpose of a book cover is simply to hide its contents.

You can make a fairly good judgement about a person by the books they read, but the Japanese seem to prefer not to expose themselves to this judgement. Many know that displaying one’s individuality in Japan is looked down on, but experiencing it for oneself can border on eerie. Witnessing the unsettling ease with which the Japanese switch gears when picking up the phone makes you wonder what layer of their person is being revealed to you. Sceptics of British sensibilities often accuse us of being two-faced. Well, the Japanese have perfected and codified two-facedness. All social interaction takes place within the paradigm of honne, true feelings, and tatamae, which can only be described as façade, or even public persona. The Japanese are experts in covering things. This is both an aesthetic choice and a defence mechanism. The book cover is one more way, a physical barrier, between a stranger and what is happening inside your head.

The beauty of the Japanese aesthetic, is, as Tanizaki points to, the unseen, the inferred. We tend to think of the dark as oppressive, but in Japan, the opposite is true. The light, exposing the ugliness of our banal lives and perversions, is shamefully hidden away. It is the shadows off the walls in which we can find beauty. As the lights of modernity grow ever brighter, those looking to escape it must find ever smaller crannies in which to find shelter. It is true, that the mystery of Japan has receded, but it still exists, and that is more than we can say for our own countries. We may shine bright lights into the faces of the Japanese, but I still do not feel like I have been granted a view to their soul, and the brighter the lights shine, the darker the shadows are cast.

Chargé d'affaires - Depuis 2020