Finding the Old in the New
One of Japan's most enduring traditions is to reinvent those traditions again and again
By PICO IYER
When Rudyard Kipling first landed in Japan, as he wrote in a travel book published exactly 100 years ago, he couldn't conceal his shock. The first man he met, a customs official, almost made Kipling weep "because he was a hybrid-partly French, partly German and partly American"-and the international port city of Kobe looked "hideously American in externals"-like Portland, Maine, he thought. The cleanliness, the courtesy, the exquisite scale of Japan-all the qualities he'd hoped to find in a dollhouse "Fairyland"-duly ravished him, but their very loveliness made him all the sadder to note that the country was doomed. Traveling to Kyoto with another foreigner, he concluded that foreign tastes would corrupt the nation irreparably, that Japanese politeness would "disappear in another generation," that Japan would one day be nothing but a "button-hook manufacturing appanage of America."
I look around my home near the old imperial capital of Nara-where girls with green hair clomp along the streets in 20-cm platform heels and cowboy hats, tiny Internet-linked mobile phones clamped to their ears-and repeat the eternal litany. What Japan is increasingly famous for around the world-Pokémon and anime and karaoke boxes; robotic cats and Astro Boy and virtual idoru-seems startlingly new, entirely ephemeral and not very Japanese. The Buddha appears most often these days on television ads for a long-distance phone company, and the last geisha I saw was peddling Sky PerfecTV (a channel in Kyoto). To one who was drawn to the country by everything associated with the old-poems rich with silence, paintings that spoke through empty space, above all a sense of simplicity and stillness that seemed a corrective to the clutter and agitation of most cultures-the chirping toys can make me feel as if I've fled California for a mechanical, ersatz California.
But look closer. If Japan has taught me anything, it is to think again about my easy assumptions of what is old and what is new, what synthetic and what real. The whole country, in fact, all but explodes one's reflexive notions of East and West. Most of the inventions chronicled in these pages have won over the world through their smallness, their precision and their elegant design-the very qualities that originally drew me to haiku and tatami rooms. The Tamagotchi "virtual pet," to take a classic example, seems inalienably Japanese in its emphasis on protection, its beeping celebration of the cute and its use of technological ingenuity to control a smaller being. The most modern TV set I've ever seen-wafer-thin and cool as a laptop-was in a 300-year-old inn in Kyoto (and hidden in an antique chest).
A foreigner, surveying all this, talks of contradiction or inexplicable self-erosion. A Japanese, looking at the same, sees Japan-an ongoing, adaptable mix of native forms, borrowed traditions and a marriage of the two. If a robot can cry out "Welcome!" to every customer who steps inside a video store, why complain that it is not human (especially if it frees the employees to work more efficiently themselves)? If the bamboo flute heard in a Zen garden is only a recording, how does that diminish the way it complements the scene? If a machine can help us more effectively realize quietude and calm, why not embrace it?
The deeper question is how much the latest gizmos-and the accelerating fascination with "human machines"-are really changing the people of Japan, who will make up the culture of the next generation. Certainly, the "Yankee" boys who crouch outside my local convenience store, wearing surfer gear and roaring off into the night in blood-red Corvettes, do not seem particularly attuned to Basho's Buddhist poems or Hiroshige's elegant woodcuts. Their parents complain, as parents always do, that kids today have lost a sense of selflessness and propriety. In the historic city of Kyoto (birthplace, thanks to Nintendo, of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and the Super Mario Brothers), it is mostly foreigners who work to preserve the old.
Yet I wonder sometimes whether concern about the imminent demise of the "old Japan" may not be one of Japan's most distinctive and evergreen traditions, especially as the country has always embraced the new and the foreign so eagerly that it seems about to become something else. Even 100 years ago, after all, it was the "spiritedly mechanical" nature of its arts that struck Kipling as unique to Japan. And the carrot-topped boys outside the 7-Eleven remain, by international standards, strikingly polite and unaggressive, while their sisters at a nearby post office still calculate sums with an abacus.
Keep things new, Japan seems to tell me, and they'll always stay the same. Novelty is our oldest tradition. Much as the Japanese 1,000 years ago imported Chinese landscapes and artifacts and made them truly Japanese, now they do the same with video games and cartoon cats. Even the shrine at Ise, the spiritual heart of traditional Japan, is torn down every 20 years-and rebuilt to remain always in the same state of decay.
Quick Scroll: More stories from TIME, Asiaweek and CNN
|Back to the top||
© 2000 Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.|
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.