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Thoughts on Japan

Kingaku kara no omoi - 金額からの思い

Thoughts on Japan from the National Institute of Japanese Studies. University of Sheffield

July 01, 2010

Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part One)

A couple of months ago, I was speaking at a conference entitled New directions: how languages promote research and internationalisation in higher education organised by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, in conjunction with the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies – which is a Language Based Area Studies Centre focussing on Russia, and central and eastern Europe, just as the White Rose East Asia Centre does on East Asia. The event was an opportunity to bring together people working in languages in higher education in the UK and discuss the best way to promote the languages agenda in the face of increased pressure on resources and ignorance about the importance of language learning as a part of degree programmes. You can find the full programme for the day here.

My own talk was about why learning the Japanese language was vital for engagement with, and study of, Japan and in the next few columns I’m going to go over some of the same ground, starting with the same quotation which gives them their title:

In the oceans to the east of Cathay lies a large island. The natives have white skins, and their behaviour is most elegant, following strict rules of decorum. They worship, however, idols with the heads of beasts, such as oxen, swine, hounds and sheep, and on occasion eat the flesh of enemies they have captured in battle. They think, moreover, that human flesh is the most delicious of all meats. Of even greater note, however, is the fact that their palaces are all plated with gold. The roofs are tiled with gold, and the floors have gold two fingers thick spread upon them.

This is my own translation of a Japanese account of the first ever description a European gave of Japan – by Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), in fact. Polo famously visited China, then under the control of the Mongols, and worked for Kublai Khan, and it is most likely from them that he got the information on which he based his description. The Mongols were hardly the most objective describers of Japan, attempting to invade the country twice, in 1274 and again in 1281, while Polo was in China, only to be defeated by a combination of military readiness on the part of the Kamakura Shogunate, and a freak storm which sank much of the invasion fleet – the famous ‘divine wind’ kamikaze 神風 which was to become such a symbol of the defence of Japan in desperate straits that the term was used to refer to the Tokubetsu Kōgeki Tai 特別攻撃隊 (‘Special Attack Group’) suicide pilot squadron during the Pacific War.

Given this, it’s not surprising that the image that Polo conveys bears little connection to reality – only the reference to Japanese decorum seems to have any resonance – having as he did no opportunity to visit Japan or speak to a Japanese person. Even today, however, despite the benefits we enjoy of fast, relatively cheap intercontinental travel, and the instant communication of text, image, sound and video worldwide, it strikes me that non-Japan specialists are confronted with a range of conflicting and often contradictory images of Japan, and so it is unsurprising that they often have difficulties in determining the complex reality of the nation and its people.

To give some examples of common images of Japan, there’s ‘Japan: the ultra-modern urban environment’, familiar from films such as Lost in Translation (2003) or Black Rain (1989), or pictures of the shinkansen 新幹線  bullet train, or the latest robot. Equally, there’s ‘Japan: the bizarre’, where buildings such as love hotels shaped like The Titanic are commonplace, or the people spend their time watching game shows like Za Gaman ザ・ガマン ‘Endurance’. Then there’s ‘Popular Culture Japan’ represented first by monsters such as the mighty Godzilla – incidentally one of the few fictional characters to be granted a statue in Tokyo. You can find a picture of it here (although the caption wrongly positions the statue in Hibiya Park), and also here where my colleague, Graham Healey, faces off against the King of the Monsters. Later incarnations of ‘Popular Culture Japan’, of course, are represented by anime and manga characters, such as the ultra-cute, sailor-suited heroine, Sailor Moon, or even the Akihabara Majokko Princess character played by Kirsten Dunst in a recent video for artist Murakami Takashi’s contribution to the recent Tate Modern exhibition ‘Pop Life’.

Then, finally, there’s ‘Traditional, natural Japan’ represented by images of places like Lake Ashi (Ashinoko 芦ノ湖) in Hakone, with its pine-forested shores, shrine gate (torii 鳥居) and proximity to Mount Fuji. Seeing the photograph in the link you could be forgiven for thinking that Hakone was some kind of natural wonderland, whereas, without discounting the undoubted beauty of the area, anyone with any knowledge of the place knows that a pirate galleon cruises the bay providing sightseeing trips for tourists, and one of the major attractions is the Hakone Garasu no Mori Bijutsukan 箱根ガラスの森美術館, the ‘Hakone Glass Forest Venetian Glass Museum’, which displays all of Maria Callas’ costume stage jewellery, among other things. There’s even a popular culture connection, as Hakone is famously the site of the fictional Tokyo-3 in the classic anime series Shinseiki Ebangerion 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’, and an Evangelion-themed convenience store opened there recently had to close when too many fans of the series congregated to visit it.

Faced with all of these conflicting images of Japan, is it any wonder that there’s confusion and uncertainty about the nation, its people and culture? And, if we want to find out the truth, or truths, about the place, how can we do it unless we can access information about it? The answer is, obviously, that we can’t.

Next week: can we get information on Japan without knowing Japanese?

« You will talk proper! | Main | Idolatrous Cannibals in Golden Palaces (Part Two) »


There is also the sandwich generation mother.

She is a working mother sandwiched between her own decaying mother who is in and out of hospital and her young son in the baseball team in the weekends who has to be placed somewhere between the time he finishes primary school and she finishes her teaching job. The husband of course is doing real work and so is unavalable to help.

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