Japan - A Society in Transition


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A presentation which explores contemporary Japanese culture. Includes working notes rather than a transcript. There is a resource list at the end. Enjoy.

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  • Japan is a society in transition. The old and the new constantly contrast with one another. They very rarely clash, however. Both are accommodated in Japan’s broad, yet distinctive society. Japan has been changing at some pace since its official policy of isolation from the rest of the world ended in 1853, when the American naval commander Perry sailed into Uraga Bay. Japan was a feudal state up until this time. The Japanese readily understood the real power of Western technology and adopted it readily and willingly. Some of Japan’s cultural traits I can read, some just mystify me! This title artwork, eg, can be read by any Japanese person instantly. I had to have it explained to me. The print is very traditional but it hints at the changes that are taking place in Japan today. How? The earring!
  • Japan is different. Everything is done in a slightly different way. Industrialisation, trade and above all, urbanisation changed the physical and socio-economic landscape of Japan. The Japanese adopted western style high rise living out of necessity but also with great enthusiasm and panache. They improved on skyscraper designs, particularly with regard to earthquake proofing.(earthquake stories)
  • Japan deliberately chose to adopt some of the attitudes and skills of the advanced economic powers of the West, while retaining her independence as well as much of her cultural identity. In other words Japan was choosey about what was adopted and incorporated into its culture. Japan’s urbanisationeventually ended up with a very distinctive Japanese character. At the same time Japan also clung on to its traditions and heritage.
  • In 1853 most Japanese urban centres looked like this . Wooden, low rise buildings, with stone built administrative buildings, a grid network road system and a central business district situated inland from a port. (Every major city apart from Kyoto was a port.) By the year 2000, Japan’s urban areas had changed dramatically….
  • By western standards Japanese cities are extremely concentrated and none more so than the capital, Tokyo. (pictured here)Tokyo accounts for a fifth of the national economy. The cities are crowded but successful. When Scott Ridley was looking for his vision of Los Angeles in the late 21st century, it was….
  • Tokyo that he looked to for inspiration. He just made the skyscrapers a bit larger and improved the communications a bit! His street diners and markets were just a straight copy from Japan.
  • Tokyo is the richest city in the world. It has to be to cope with typhoons, earthquakes, flooding and subsidence. It’s transport system is a miracle. Eg the train services operate on a narrow gauge that the rest of the world’s railways would not take seriously and yet they carry the world’s greatest commuter volumes at astonishing frequency and with total reliability. (Above all, they are clean – there is no litter problem on their trains.)
  • Japanese cities are distinctive with high urban densities and low transport costs. CROWDED and EFFICIENT
  • So, lets take a closer look at some of the results of this habit of adopting elements of foreign culture. “Adopting” or copying? The Japanese are often accused of just copying western technology. This might have been true initially but is not generally the case today. (British Leyland story)
  • The first time I visited Japan, squat toilets were universal, but in the course of the last twenty years they have become very rare indeed. This is the Japanese take on the water closet. As usual a few improvements to the original design have been made (and patented, I should imagine). The seat is heated. Music plays when someone sits on the pan (to obscure any awkward noises). There is a built-in hot water bidet.As far as I know, no-one has been killed with one of these yet but they do have a record of emitting smoke and catching fire. 200,000 were recalled in 2007.
  • The first time I visited Japan, squat toilets were universal, but in the course of the last twenty years they have become very rare indeed. This is the Japanese take on the water closet. As usual a few improvements to the original design have been made (and patented, I should imagine). The seat is heated. Music plays when someone sits on the pan (to obscure any awkward noises). There is a built-in hot water bidet.As far as I know, no-one has been killed with one of these yet but they do have a record of emitting smoke and catching fire. 200,000 were recalled in 2007.
  • The warrior class in Japan , called bushi or samurai, held politcal power and leadership from the 12th century to the end of the 19th.In the Edo era, they were ranked the highest of the four classes and former samurai were actively engaged in the modernisation of Japan at the end of the 19th century. Bushido therefore played an important role in moulding the …the changes in Japanese culture which accompanied the modernisation.
  • A huge number of films have been made glorifying martial spirit and skill with weapons. (not all as bad as the Last Samurai.)
  • “Bushido” has infiltrated our culture via the medium of movies. Some are culturally derisory, some very accurate. The Magnificent Seven remains the most successful translation of “the way of the warrior” into western culture. The film also marked the start of more complex multi-lead narratives, where ethics sits centre stage with the action.Harrison Ford’s scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” where he pulls out his pistol and shoots the arab swordsman dead is just not bushido!
  • Bushido is about absolute loyalty, personal honour, devotion to duty, and the courage, if required, to sacrifice one’s life in battle or in ritual seppuku. The most important samurai movie is Akira Kurosawa's 1954 feature, Seven Samurai, which not only impacted the way the genre was viewed, but elevated its status. The baddies have three guns and “bushido” goes out of the window as the samurai try to steal at least one gun to even the odds a bit. Kurosawa’s take on the way of the warrior is that the farmers are the only group that wins. The movie is really about the importance of the group (another deeply important characteristic of Japanese society) and Kurosawa emphasizes this by including all of each group in as many shots as possible. This film was the basis of the Magnificent Seven.The film was copied by Holywood’s “Magnificent Seven”. These are films where the ethics of the main protagonists are equally as important as the action.
  • Bushido however became less and less important as Japan’s military aspirations grew. Yes, there was unquestioning loyalty to the Emperor and superiors but this led to excesses and war crimes rather than honour and glory. (The Russo-Japanese War story)
  • By the time of Japan’s entry into the second world war, it was bravado rather than bushido which was the real driving force. The spirit of bushido is very difficult to find today, but some characteristics still can be found in the martial and aesthetic arts.Also it is bushido loyalty that has led to the Japanese overworking, which sometimes ends in death (karoshi). Bushido may now be viewed only as an individual trait rather than one of society as a whole.
  • Also it is bushido loyalty that has led to the Japanese overworking. This is 9.00pm in a Tokyo tower office. There is even a word for death from overworking in Japanese - karoshi. Bushido may now be viewed only as an individual trait rather than one of society as a whole.
  • In Japan the emphasis on the the group is extremely strong. It creates a sense of belonging and defines an individual’s status and identity. The group identity in turn is reinforced by concepts of harmony within the group, competition between groups within accepted limits, conformity with accepted patterns of behaviour, and a clearly defined hierarchy within the group. These attitudes are responsible for a particularly strong national identity.
  • Human relationships in Japan can be classified into vertical and horizontal hierarchies. The vertical includes relationships between parents and their children, while the horizontal involves classmates or colleagues. In Japanese society vertical rankings of human relationships have developed to a great extent and a seniority system is prevalent in Japan.Roger Davies and Osamu Ikeno believe that the vertical rankings are the most important groupings. I’m not so sure as it is horizontal rankings which appear to dominate the social landscape.
  • At the end of each working day the salary men go out on the town. Dinner is taken with their peers rather than their family. These are horizontal groupings. (Why not go home?)
  • Horizontal groupings dominate the womens’ world as well.
  • White hair in Japan means respect. (Tokyo station story).
  • A wedding party – two families unite.
  • After WW2, the US occupation dissolved the “zaibatsu”, the great family financial empires in Japan such as Mitsui.Although the names were revived in the 1950s, these postwar corporate groups were not owned exclusively by a single family. These new groups or “keiretsu” are characterised by mutual shareholding and consultation among their constituent firms. They are, however, much looser groupings than the pre-war “zaibatsu”.
  • The Japanese sense of beauty is…well….different.Very different. I get the hair and the clothes but I don’t get the masks – either modern as with the “harajuku` girl on the left or traditional as with the white face of the geisha on the right. And as for the black teeth which you occasionally see… Well it’s just not logical – is it?
  • The Japanese sense of beauty is…well….different.
  • And that is precisely the difference between the western and eastern attitude to beauty. The japanese focus not on what is logically considered beatiful but on what people feel is beautiful – a cocept known as “mono no aware”. Eg we appreciate flowers in full bloom whereas the Japanese are more moved when the flower wilts and withers.A moon partially covered with clouds is is regarded as more appealing than one which is full. And so on.
  • Weddings in western style chapels are increasingly common. This one is in the foyer of a hotel in Osaka.
  • The eyes are not Japanese.
  • Just like the kids hanging around Bathgate Steelyard!
  • Sakura.
  • “Empty” space is prized in this crowded island.
  • They have the same drink but totally different uniforms, reading matter and attitudes. Traditional Japan meets (or rather doesn’t meet!) Otaku Japan on the bullet train.
  • Japan’s “baby boomers” were called the “solidarity generation” – Dankai no Sedai . Their children constitute the second largest proportion of the population after their parents. They have yet to make their mark. They were unlucky – matriculating just as the economic bubble burst. They were not allowed to join the “jobs for life “ brigade. So they temped and when the Lehman Bros debacle struck it was the temporary workers who were fired first on the pretext of downsizing.Tabaimo sees her own generation as being quite capable of doing things for themselves. They have had to! The group is not as important to this Cross cut generation as it was / is to Dankai no Sedai.
  • The cross cut generation however, has little if any political power and Tabaimo never actually draws the people within their flats. They are the invisible generation. Each person is a slice of society rather than part of the whole. Is she suggesting that the importance of the group is lessening?
  • Tabaimo bases her sections on a typical danchi housing estate.This is wabi-sabi at its most eloquent.
  • Gambari is under attack. The suburbs appear peaceful and … but the economic downturn is testing the resilience of the young. The future is something most kids would rather ignore.
  • The five day school week was introduced in 2002. Working and studying hard is still seen as a virtue – but change is on the way. The spectre of karoshi hangs threateningly over education.
  • In crisis, gambari is certainly seen as an asset.
  • Wabi-sabi is a compound expression composed of two distinct though related elements…Wabi is both an aesthetic and moral principle which emphasises a simple austere type of beauty, and a serene transcendental frame of mind yet also points to the enjoyment of a quiet, leisurely life, free from worldly concerns.Sabi also developed as a medieval aesthetic, reflecting qualities of loneliness, resignation, tranquility and old age while also connoting that which is subdued, unobtrusive, yet tasteful.
  • It was with regards to gardens that I first came across the term. Sabi is associated with the beauty of silence and old age.
  • The first person to employ sabi related expressions as a form of praise was Fujiwara no Toshinari, one of the major poets of the Kamakura period. He used images such as “frost-withered reeds in the seashore” in a positive way to suggest aesthetic qualities involving tranquility and desolation.
  • Old buildings are also accredited with wabi-sabi.
  • The poem is famous in Japan as a description of nothingness as an ideal form of beauty because in describing a deserted winter scene, the poet creates an image of its opposite in which cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the leaves are multicoloured.
  • This notion of mu, “non-existence” or emptiness”, a quality that is central to Zen, therefore played an important role in the evolution of wabi-sabi.Nb Zen does not regard “noyhingness” as a state of the absence of objects but rather affirms the existence of the unseen behind the empty space.“Everything exists in emptiness” The following poem by Fujiwara no Sadai has often been cited as exemplifying the essence of the relationship between “nothingness” and wabi-sabi…..
  • Japan does that to you. It is a real head spinner – full of surprises and changes of form and pace.
  • Japan’s culture will always have a mixture of old and new, traditional and modern with new hybrids arising and fading all the time. Whatever new traits become popular, they will always have a distinctive Japanese feel.My favouite example of wabi-sabi?
  • Mixed tempura and beer! Ye canny wack it! Bril.
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