Yesterday I wrapped up our latest Diplomat arts and culture series, this one focusing on the Japanese aesthetic and what qualities make the country’s contemporary landscapes so distinctive.
One of my chief consultants for the series, architect and author Julian Worrall, emailed me afterward to share some additional thoughts on the topic. He made the interesting point that when speculating on a topic like ‘Japaneseness,’ it’s important to avoid the temptation to let observations about certain Japanese behaviour or traits ‘morph into claims about essential and hence unchanging features of Japanese people and culture.’ He said the tendency of many commentators to do so can end up making the country ‘inaccessible at some fundamental level to non-Japanese people.’
Simply put, while taking an in-depth look at a particular aspect of a country’s culture often requires referencing specific examples and observations from everyday experiences (e.g. ‘Japanese people increasingly live in highly securitized high-rises so they can live closer to the city—this might reflect their phobia for crime’), doing so also risks generalizing and polarizing the people both in and outside the culture in question.
It’s a valid point, and probably the reason why so many scholars often carefully hedge their responses, especially when speaking with the press, when approached for their expertise. This can make for frustrating work for journalists, who typically need a clear angle to allow them to ‘sell’ their piece to an editor.
Of course, the danger of an angle, as Worrall notes, is that writers and publications can go too far with their broad brushstrokes, which in Japan’s case can mean that facts become ‘not only logically invalid and historically ignorant, but also reinforce many of the most unproductive and unhelpful aspects colouring too many conversations here: insularity, ethnocentricity, the “us-them” divide,’ and so on.
He went on to say that for him, the ‘urgent task for our generation and the ones coming after’ will be to focus on resisting ‘ethnically exclusive forms of nationalism or culturalism, which have been so destructive in the 20th century, and pioneer forms of both trans-national and sub-national cultures that are deep, rich, emotionally vibrant and open to others to bond with.’ These are ideas I agree with wholeheartedly.
On another note, we also discussed previously the challenges Japan’s urban planners will meet as they adapt to the many pressing environmental situations that face us today. So it was interesting to note a Yahoo News article published today that named Tokyo one of the top 10 greenest cities in the world. It says:
‘One of the world's most densely populated cities, Tokyo still manages to keep things remarkably clean and green. The Japanese capital was recently selected to participate in a billion-dollar project, spearheaded by the Clinton Global Initiative, to increase the energy efficiency of city-owned buildings in an effort to reduce CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, 200 hectares of green space and more than 200,000 roadside trees will be added to the city centre over the coming years.’
This certainly seems like something Japan can be optimistic about as it moves into a hopefully greener and more innovative future.