Random thoughts regarding my visit to Japan

This is my last post about Japan, and it contains a few random thoughts tied to my visit to Kyoto and Osaka. And when I say random, I do mean random….

Japan Golden Temple Kyoto Kinkaku-jiJapan is exquisite — and its people compulsive. There are a few obvious things to say about Japan. It is an exquisite country on every level. It’s rich in natural and historic beauty, of course, but the exquisiteness transcends that. It’s the people who make it the unique place it is. And about those people. . . .

I have never seen a greater collection of people with what I can only characterize as “obsessive compulsive disorder” (OCD) and I mean that in the nicest possible way. To begin with, they are obsessively clean. I never saw a speck of litter anywhere. This was true not only in the shiny tourist areas, but also in the rundown area we walked through in Kyoto to get from one shrine to another or in the insanely busy, bright, noisy Osaka food and shopping district. There are almost no public garbage cans (I believe their absence is to avoid terrorist bombs and chemical attacks), but the Japanese do not litter. Like conscientious hikers who make sure to pack everything out of the backwoods, Japanese citizens make sure to leave nothing behind on public streets.

My favorite aspect of this OCD cleanliness is the public bathrooms. Whether you’re at a minor shrine, a major temple, a train station, a bus station, a shopping area, or anywhere else, the bathrooms are always immaculate. The toilets are clean, there are no scattered sheets of toilet paper littering the floor, the counters are dry and clean, and everything works. Most of the bathrooms have the awesome hi-tech toilets one quickly comes to love in Japan, complete with warmed toilet seats, sprinklers for cleaning oneself, and music for those too shy to do their business around others. When the bathrooms are located in a temple or shrine that mandates people take their shoes off, the public restrooms have slip-on shoes so people don’t have to walk in their socks over public bathroom floors.

I’ve always believed one can measure how civilized a country is by the state of its public restrooms and, by that metric, Japan is the most civilized country in the world.

The Japanese are also obsessively polite. When we were at the Osaka airport on our way out of the country, the waiting area for our plane was very large, with more than a hundred people hanging about. When it came time for the airline employees to ask people to line up to board, I happened to glance up at the employees making the announcements . Every time one of them announced something (e.g., “People in rows 25 to 50, please line up to the right”), when that particular announcement ended, the two employees bowed deeply to that room full of busy, distracted people.

That same extraordinary respect showed up in other places too, of course. Whenever we entered a hotel, men and women rushed to try to help us with our luggage, opened the doors for us, brought us tea, and generally fell over themselves to provide us with good service. Now I admit that these were fancy hotels (thanks to Mr. Bookworm’s travels, he has enough points to make us “elite” travelers in one of the major hotel chains), but outside of Japan I’ve never seen this level of attentiveness, so matter how fine the hotel.

This reverence for polite interactions infuses everything. Whether at a tourist stand near a temple or at a fine department store or at a busy train station, people bow, people say “thank you” repeatedly, and try so hard to be helpful. It’s quite amazing.

In some ways, this obsessive politeness is exhausting, because it demands such a high level of engagement with people, but on the other hand it explains how a tiny, overcrowded country can function so well. When one compares the Japanese response to urban intensity with that in other locations (such as North Africa or Italy, where chaos — sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile — is the norm in crowded situations), heck, I’ll take the Japanese way every time.

American corporations in the 1980s got it all wrong. Those of you old enough to remember the 1980s may remember that a big American fear back in those days was that it was losing economic ground to Japan. The Japanese turned out amazing products, especially when it came to cars and electronics, and Americans wanted those products, all of which worked better and were more reliable than their American counterparts. American corporations responded by concluding that what made the Japanese products so great was the Japanese “team ethos.” Suddenly, in America, open floor plans became the norm and everything was forced into a “team” mold. But Chevy still made mediocre cars and people still wanted Mitsubishi products.

What the corporations didn’t get was that, while Japanese definitely like work in concert (you seldom see fewer than three people working on any construction or maintenance project), that’s style. The substance is that same OCD/exquisite quality I’ve described above. Whether one person is doing something or three or one hundred, each person is dedicated to doing that task to his or her utmost abilities. Products are exquisitely (and excessively wrapped); i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed; paperwork is completed; fragrances are included; etc.

In some ways, the whole thing reminds me of one of Maria Montessori’s rules, which is the every project has a beginning, middle, and an end. Children in a Montessori school may not simply push their chairs away from the table and walk off. Instead, pushing the chair away from the table is the beginning. Standing up is the middle. And pushing the now-empty chair politely back to the table is the end. That ethos permeates a good Montessori school and it also permeates Japanese culture. Another way of putting it is the old expression that “if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”

Japan does nature one better. Allow me to digress a moment to England. Before the mid-18th century, English gardens were like gardens that developed on the continent during the Italian renaissance — meticulously controlled formal landscapes that reflected man’s heavy hand and intentionally distinguished themselves from natural growth:

That changed in England when Capability Brown began designing gardens. He believed that gardens should have a natural look, although one in which man took a directing role. I call these gardens “nature, only better”:

The Japanese approach is the Capability Brown approach on steroids. It’s not just “nature, only better,” it’s “nature perfected.” The gardeners don’t just prune a tree, they literally (and I use that word in its literal sense), clip it leaf by leaf and twig by twig. At one temple, we watched a gardener do just that, while his assistant crouched on the ground below him, picking up each fallen leaf by hand, because to have raked them up would have disturbed the moss beneath the tree. Things are not just planted in visually satisfying locations; they are rigorously controlled so that they manage to look simultaneously natural but perfect in a way that never occurs in nature:

These highly cultivated natural landscapes are extraordinarily appealing.

The Japanese shift from simplicity to excessive materialism. The classic notion of Japan involves simplicity. Think of classic Japanese flower arrangement (Ikebana), as seen in this 1820 painting:

Or imagine a classic Japanese interior with its paper walls, tatami mats, and not much else:

Modern Japanese people, though, are all about material things. I don’t mean to say that they are crass or materialistic. They simply like stuff. They seem to buy, and buy, and buy: furniture, clothes, cookware, cups and plates, gadgets, make-up, and so, so much kawaii — or cute — stuff. Think manga, Hello Kitty, and every other cute design or doodad that you’ve seen come out of Japan.

The pictures I took the last night in Osaka illustrate the overwhelming “stuff” of Japanese life, all of which is so far removed from the classic austere tradition. This video gives a hint of the design excess in Japan, showing as it does the garish decor outside a restaurant that serves octopus dishes, complete with an audio track that plays an endless loop of an ode to eating octopus (tako yaki):

This is a culture that effortlessly went from classy to charmingly kitschy.

Have selfies replaced graffiti? This is not an observation, so much as it is a question. As ancient graffiti shows, humans have a deep impulse to leave their mark. It’s important to them, when they see a place that resonates emotionally to say “I was here.” One of the things to see when visiting Pompeii is the old graffiti (which, incidentally, may cause scientists to re-date the Vesuvius eruption). If you visit the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it’s covered with 19th century graffiti. Here’s just one example:

Nowadays, though, people don’t have to use graffiti to prove that they were at a memorable site. They’ve got selfies.

And oh — my gosh! — were people taking selfies like mad everywhere we went. Often, it looked as if people were not even interested in the site itself. They were just interested in taking a picture of themselves at whatever site we visited. I never take selfies and, indeed, avoid photographs generally. I tell myself that I simply don’t have the kind of bone structure that photographs well, but I always have a sneaking suspicion that the photos are accurate and that I simply don’t like the way I look. Memorialize myself in and at everything? You have got to be kidding!

But back to all those selfies. . . . I doubt anyone in Japan would dare to commit the crime of graffiti in any event, but I also couldn’t help wondering whether selfies make graffiti unnecessary at tourist attractions.

I loath UNESCO’s imprint. Many of the sites that we visited in Kyoto are UNESCO “World Heritage Sites.” I hate that designation because I hate anything to do with the UN, which is an utterly corrupt anti-American, antisemitic, anti-freedom, anti-capitalist, anti-free market organization that unduly elevates an endless variety of tyrannies, tin pot dictatorships, and Islamists.

Other than that visceral UN hatred, I also hate the designation because of its “one worldism.” While I definitely appreciate the original instinct, which was to use the leverage of the UN to encourage member states to preserve their own heritage, the whole “world heritage” thing actually turns that notion on its head. Kyoto’s treasures have nothing to do with the world. People in the Americas, Europeans, Africans, Fijians, Russians, etc. — none of them had anything whatsoever to do with the unique treasures in Kyoto. They are absolutely and completely Japanese. Pretending that they belong to “the world” is silly.

I know that this is a semantic matter, and I’m wrong to get ruffled about it, but ruffled I am. Despite my deep distaste for all things UN, I could tolerate the whole thing better if the initiative were called “The Treasures of the World” or something like that. The pretense of one-worldism behind the notion of “world heritage” bugs me out of all proportion.

A word about restoring sites. In 1987, when Czechoslovakia was still part of the communist bloc, I went to Prague. In the historic district, the Prague government had really shined things up, so that old buildings had fresh coats of paint and everything was in good shape. Indeed, it was in better shape than any building several hundred years old ought to be, or so I thought. My idea of purity was to make sure historic sites had that patina of age.

I was wrong.

I first got an inkling about how wrong I was when I saw the fully restored Sainte-Chapelle Cathedral in Paris. This gem was constructed in the mid-13th century and has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world. Beginning in the 1980s, France embarked on a vast renovation, which went far beyond restoring the faded stained glass. Instead of just touching up whatever remained in the Cathedral of its original art work, the French decided to restore the Cathedral’s interior so that it looked as its original builders wanted it to look, complete with painted walls and ceilings:

As far as I’m concerned, this is one of the most beautiful interior spaces in the world. And I don’t care that I’m not looking at tastefully gray walls with tiny traces of the original coloring. I appreciate that I am seeing the original builder’s vision.

It’s the same thing with old paintings. For so long, we’ve assumed, quite wrongly, that the original painters used subdued coloring in a quiet, classy way. In fact, that subdued coloring comes about because of yellowed varnish and centuries of dirt and smoke. In reality, painters for hundreds of years saw the world in the same bright colors that we do and they incorporated those brilliant colors into their paintings. If you follow Philip Mould’s twitter feed, you can see examples of this. One of my favorite examples is no longer on his feed, but this Telegraph story reports on it, complete with a short autoplay video.

I mention all this because one of the really amazing sites in Kyoto is Sanjūsangen-dō, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto dating to the 13th century. It’s not only the longest wooden building in the world, but it also houses one thousand Kannon statues, which pretty much all look like each other, as well as 28 individually carved deity statues.

The latter statues are fabulous, because each is an individual, with unique facial features and clothes. Although they’re now just darkened wood, if you look closely, you can still see bright red paint in their open mouths, as well as faint traces of color on their carved clothing. In addition, a sign says that the wooden interior was once brightly painted from stem to stern, both walls and ceiling. It was intended to be a magnificent riot of color, but now, age, dirt, and incense mean that everything is a monochromatic dark sort-of color. I think it would be marvelous if the temple could be restored to the builders’ original vision. I can’t imagine that those medieval architects, sculptors, and painters would be happy were they to see that sad, grim, dark interior, given that their original vision was so brilliant and dynamic.

Japanese self-satisfaction. I recall reading somewhere that, behind the manners and humility, and behind the lessons they took away from their mid-20th century disastrous attempt at regional domination, the Japanese still harbor the belief that they are a superior culture. I have no idea whether data supports this half-remembered contention, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it weren’t true.

Japan is such a high functioning society. It’s clean, well-organized, hard-working, polite, beautiful, productive, safe, and harmonious. In each of those ways, it really is an apex of civilization.

There are downsides, of course: A stifling conformity (or at least stifling by American standards), a high suicide rate, the seemingly sad and almost desperate lives of salarymen, the weird sexlessness of Japanese life, and, perhaps as a consequence of that sexlessness, a dramatic population decline. Still, comparing these problems to the poverty, dirty, despair, crime, violence, etc., found in so many other parts of the world . . . well, I think Japan comes off looking pretty darn good.