text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
It is a staple in world news every time Apple brings out a new iPhone or iPad model: a week or ten days before the device’s launch, several dozens of people start camping on the sidewalk in front of the company’s stores in Shibuya and Ginza, hoping they will be the first to buy it. And even though the scenes of huge queues of fanboys/girls outside Apple stores in the first day of sale are not a privilege of the Japanese, a wait of a week or more even in defiance of a typhoon (as was the case this year) is something I haven’t seen anywhere else. And something that illustrates perfectly a description the Japanese often use for themselves: “atarashii-mono-zuki” (新しい物好き), i.e. “people who love new things”.
At first this sounds very trivial –who doesn’t like new things? But atarashii-mono-zuki means something more than that: it is a wish bordering on obsession (yes, I know I have used this word often –the Japanese have quite a few!) for something because it is new, sometimes even regardless any other virtues or benefits. And this “something” doesn’t necessarily need to be something tangible: it can be a word a tendency, an idea or anything else that puts a blip on their perceptual radar making enough noise to grab their attention. What is more important is that this “neophilia” extends to almost everything: arguably the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, the Ise Jingu, is being demolished and rebuilt every 20 years with no apparent practical need to dictate such action (other, maybe, than keeping alive the memory of the traditional architectural techniques).
Perhaps the leap from the shikinen sengu (式年遷宮), the reconstruction of the Ise Jingu to the new iPhone sounds somewhat unorthodox –sacrilegious even- but I am almost completely convinced that the need behind the 20-year cycles of renovation of the shrine is the same that drives the Japanese towards everything and anything new: it is the belief that constant renewal keeps away decay and death; a commonly repeated motif in Shinto. And even though the fear for this natural course of events and their inescapable ending is certainly not exclusive to the Japanese, I suspect that their constant reminding by the elements of nature has played a part in the creation of a further aversion to everything related to them; in that respect, it doesn’t matter if the new thing is actually new or a rehashing of an old thing or even what the new thing is. What really matters is the very idea of renewal.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.