Robert Fulford's column about Japanese identity

(Globe and Mail, November 5, 1997)


After we rode the train west from Tokyo for 40 minutes, into the hills that lead eventually to Mount Fuji, we arrived at a town called Okutakao. From there a bus took us further uphill, to Ukai-Toriyama, a restaurant where style and setting come together as an expression of everything that is exquisite in ancient Japan.

Ukai-Toriyama consists of one big building and a couple of dozen little huts, hiding in the forest. The five of us were to have dinner in one of them. It was lightly raining, so elegant women in kimonos held umbrellas over our heads as they led us through the trees and over bridges across carp ponds to our hut. A man inserted two charcoal braziers into the centre of our table. A kimono-clad waitress, her every gesture a ceremony, began delivering vegetables, fish, and meat, which we slowly cooked over the charcoal. In the forest around us, blazing, gas-fired torches lit the paths. Time stopped. It was one of those other-worldly occasions, a Japanese specialty. It occurred to me that you could have convinced almost anyone--me, certainly--that people had been doing just this sort of thing, perhaps even on this very spot, for centuries.

That would be far from the truth: this restaurant's specialized ritual is a recent creation. It's younger than the American steakhouse, but it has acquired the solemnity and stateliness of antiquity. It takes its place within that national obsession, nihonjinron, the discussion of Japanese uniqueness. Among the Japanese, the quest for an understanding of their authentic selves is so obsessive that it makes the Canadian desire for national identity appear, by comparison, no more than a passing whim.

What is authentic is not necessarily old. While good at maintaining traditions, the Japanese are even better at creating them; and often it's hard to distinguish between the ancient and the freshly minted. The standard Shinto wedding ceremony for prosperous Japanese families of the 1990s involves three distinct costumes for the bride: aside from the going-away outfit, there's the elaborate Japanese kimono, used at one point in the ceremony, and the equally elaborate western-style white wedding dress, used at another point. Many young Japanese follow this custom in the sincere belief that it's been handed down for generations; in fact, it was concocted only in the last few decades.

The Japanese know how to "sacralize," as academics say, the everyday--even in the construction business. On the 37th floor of the Ark Mori Building, in the core of commercial Japan, in a place called the Xsitehill Gallery, the Inax corporation makes extravagant attempts to spread an aura of the sacred over the bricks, cement blocks, and plumbing it produces. The reception area has a mud wall constructed (a brochure tells us) according to eighth-century Japanese technique. Then, beside the cafe with its magnificent view of Tokyo, there's the Material Road, a hall whose floor is made of baked soil dug in eight different Japanese regions, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, each meticulously labelled. There's also a kind of library of sands, stones, bricks, and tiles gathered from towns and villages across Japan. The implication is clear: each tiny fragment of Japanese soil is precious.

From there the visitor in search of the Japanese aesthetic might go to Nihon Minka-en, an architectural park at Kawasaki City, near Tokyo, which has brought together 23 historic buildings, from 17th-century farmhouses to 19th-century inns, all of them immaculately preserved and organized. Each of these refined and astonishingly simple wooden buildings, with their moveable panels of wood or rice paper sliding in grooves and their endlessly interior flexible spaces, amounts to an architectural lesson. In front of one of them I found an architecture class doing a kind of slow-motion dance that would, they told me, help them to form a bodily relationship with this ancient aesthetic.

Everywhere in Tokyo you can find signs of Americanization, from McDonald's and Wendy's to the punk haircuts of the kids who turn the Harujuku commercial district into a kind of vast teen village on the weekend. Across the city, American popular music comes pouring out of loudspeakers; American stars and styles enrapture the public. And yet the Japanese remain a long, long way from being Americanized.

In fact, this consciousness of Japanese identity may have made them less American than they were a few decades ago. In their view of themselves in relation to the world, no two countries differ more sharply than the U.S. and Japan. While the Americans believe that inevitably the whole world will be American, the Japanese imagination cannot encompass the idea of anyone else ever turning into a Japanese. Donald Keene, who has been writing about Japan and its culture since the 1950s, said in a recent lecture in Tokyo: "The Japanese tend to think foreigners can never understand them. But Americans believe that all educated people understand American culture. They want to believe that the whole world is becoming American---they're pleased to see Kentucky Fried Chicken on sale in Tokyo." How does one understand Japan and its ability to maintain its unique quality? Keene advises us to try, but not to expect success: "Not even the Japanese can understand Japan."

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