Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Υesterday, I read a blog post by a Briton living in Japan for the last ten years; in it, the author was having a go at one of the most popular subjects of the non-Japanese Japan commentators: deriding other commentators for their unimaginative (or taken another way on their very imaginative) articles, for their constant repetition of stereotypes and for their attempt to portray Japan as something extraordinary and, consequently themselves as the selected few who have been blessed with the ultimate fortune to partake of its sacrament. One of the platitudes he was scoffing at was the obsession with the juxtaposition of old and new that amateur Japanologists repeat with almost religious fervour; to him, these contradictions are not a privilege of Japan and its over-emphasizing is nothing but another symptom of the adolescent outlook characterizing those who are using it to speak about the country.
He is right, of course: all countries with a civilization older than 500 years can demonstrate various aspects of this counterpoint. But I can’t but side with many of the recipients of his critique by saying that, at least in my experience, there is none that can manage in a better way this interchange between tangible and invisible elements from the past with their counterparts from the present. With “manage” I don’t mean just their simple exposition in the landscape like the ancient monuments in Egypt, Greece or Italy but their living coexistence in the people’s consciousness and their participation in the formulation of aesthetics, politics, ideologies as well as everyday practices. And with “better” I mean that the Japanese succeed in balancing out these elements in their head without feeling nausea and without slipping to extreme attitudes; or at any rate, that their majority doesn’t.
It’s really hard to distinguish how many of the elements defining the present of the people of this country come from the past; even more so, it’s almost impossible to discern from which exact moment of the past they originate. If I can understand their way of thinking (and this is a big “if”) the myths and the history have been tied together so tightly with the present and they have become so inseparable a part of a flow that started thousands of years ago and is still going on that few take a break to contemplate when each piece was added to this continuum, how it was modified but yesterday’s present, how it modifies today’s and how it sets the foundations for tomorrow’s. As for the causes of this, they might be traced to what I’ve written before: in the realization, here more than anywhere else, of the evanescence of things –or, as my esteemed British colleague suggests, they are completely absent and it’s is just the preconceptions of all of us who write about Japan.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.