How late I met you Japan. This article is the story of how a candy in my box turned into a precious stone in my jewel box.
It is always exciting for me to visit a new country. Curiosity keeps me energetic and my hand in hers, takes me to an adventure. Your perception widens and you want to discover the place you have gone, make comparisons to digest ever flowing data around you. You use your knowledge as a reference in comprehending new things. You get an idea about the country you have gone.
If you are going to Japan, forget everything you know and lose yourself to the flow of the safe, clean, systematic, complicated and sophisticated country.
To me, Japan is a country of surprise, contradiction, and delicate balances. I am mostly impressed by the culture in the country. Japanese evoke admiration and curiosity in me. I went to Japan with a sheer number of questions; however, I came back with still more questions. Japanese take life for serious. They cultivated a gentle culture and became an impressive society imbued with contradictions. The main reason of this is that they were a closed book for centuries. When countries started to improve diplomatic relations among each other, they also forced Japan’s door and though they were expelled at first, they insisted tenaciously.
Ottoman Empire even sent Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul to Japan so that the ship’s crew can gain experience but the frigate sank after being exposed to a storm on its premature way back due to epidemic cholera. Thereupon, after belongings of the ship’s crew had been found in the sea, they were sent to Istanbul together with the survivor personnel. This naive gesture also established the start of Turkish-Japanese relationships.
Partly because of obligation, Japanese gradually began to open to foreign countries; they recognized that as a result of living introverted, they fell behind the other nations technologically and they leaped forward. This move laid the foundations of developed Japan. Their social codes have not changed and there is an impressive synthesis they put forward.
There are such simple rules in the foundations of Shintoism, their official religion, which means “the ways of Gods.” Besides, Buddhism is also effective in the country which sprang from China, and interestingly they all live in a harmony.
Simplicity is deeply felt in their houses and arts. Japanese people are very polite and smiling people; they are incredibly honest and virtuous. Sometimes one wonders whether the basis of Japanese morality is religion.
Bozkurt Güvenç explains this situation; “Actually, morality is based on ‘a feeling of shame from environment, not on a sense of fear which results from sin or an understanding of sin.’ Western people prove their existence with their reasoning. However, a Japanese person senses and lives his or her existence as a part of a family. For Western people, the reasoning of an individual and for Japanese, a sentiment and cognition of “we” ness are necessary and are conditions for existence. The feeling of “we” arises from a unity of the family, evolves among relatives and neighbors, and is continued among colleagues and coworkers.”*
One of the essential principles of Shintoism is “Do not forget that the world is a big family”. Thus, the sentiment of “we” minimizes individualism and conflicts, the risk for the safety of societies, are not seen among societies and you do not meet people who fight each other.
Then you might think whether this situation put them into a category of happy people?
Of course, it is hard to comprehend this in such a short time but I could not observe that they are so happy. It is as if their trust in the system and their devotion arising from their belief system outweigh. The rules which are the result of their overdeveloped social structures helped them to advance this much on the one hand, and on the other, since their individualities are restricted, created a feeling of being stuck in an environment.
They live simple lives in small spaces. Besides, they are fond of design: they have a severe degree of the shopping spree.
It is as though this feeling of being stuck fulminates at certain points; for example, Harajuku youngsters in Tokyo turn themselves into anime characters and thus respond to the social rules they live in. It is a kind of expression.
Actually, in Harajuku, where they go to have fun, young people created a subculture which attracts the attention of the whole world. They meet on Sundays and socialize, and these youngsters create a world of their far from their families claiming that the class discrimination among them is demolished and that now they can quickly make friends with other people. When one sees that there are many of them with luggage in their hands, one thinks they are about to travel. In fact, they are changing their clothes when they go home. In some neighborhoods of Tokyo, there are baggage lockers in which they can place their suitcases.
As a result of the generation gap between parents and their children, young people happen to be running from their families who dictate “Obey the rules, keep silent.” I learn these from a field research made by Chris Perry**, a sociologist, and it satisfies my curiosity to a degree.
Japan is a country where various discrepancies take place at the same time in balance.
Sometimes, the strongest side of a person may be the weakest one. When we improve one side of us, we lose its opposite and it appears as our deficiency. Is not life a state of keeping balance?
Eastern philosophy of life is based on simplicity, naturality, devotion, acceptance and respect towards nature. It is not possible for a person who comes from a Neo-liberal culture not to be moved from the minimalist perspective based on “The less is, the more”.
For Japanese people, who live in small spaces as a result of the high population in a small country, the places of recreation are gardens and nature. They are sensitive to nature and change of seasons. They can bear long efforts for years patiently to grow a bonsai. Bonsai is having a tree grow little thanks to pruning techniques which would grow normally under normal conditions. It is not stunning anymore to me to hear the news that an 800-years-old bonsai is being exhibited in Tokyo. Patience is a virtue which is permeated into people nationwide.
When we look back the history and examine the lives of samurais, we see that the soldiers who killed people wildly spent their times at home on garden works and attended long tea ceremonies. Refining their souls, this lifestyle made samurais who did not fight in long periods of peace to turn their attentions towards art. It was not startling for them to write poetry who were committing hara-kiri for their honors after a time without even reconsidering. It became suitable for a samurai to read haiku before he committed hara-kiri. In other words, a samurai had to use both his sword and his tongue sharply.
It was an old tradition to observe fireflies on boats on summer evenings and not without sake. Basho, a great poet of haiku, the shortest form of literature known in the world, once expressed a reminiscence of him thus:
Hotaru mi ya Watching fireflies
Sendo yote drunken boatmen
Abostu kana drunken boat
In Japan, it is easy and enjoyable to be a ganji, a short time stranger, because they are considerate and helpful people in every aspect. I can even say that Japan is the country in which I could take photographs most comfortably. They never object since they are polite and are used to, but you have to hurry up since they leave immediately for their shyness. Asking for permission is a good method; it is so scarce that I have been rejected. It is a strange case to be a ganji for those who stay for longer periods in the country.
You cannot become Japanized in case you were not born in Japan as a Japanese. This fact does not change even though you marry with a Japanese or you stay there for twenty years or walk around with kimono or internalize the culture like Japanese.
The simple language of Ozu, the most eastern director of the East, in reflecting daily affairs affects the whole world. The sophisticated culture in this rare geography has moved me deeply. As a sign of respect to their simplicity, this time, I wanted to use black-and-white photographs purifying Japan from its blinding colors. Then, let’s finish with a haiku from Orhan Veli:
You may see the sea
Do not be amazed
*(Güvenç, 1992: 173).Güvenç, Bozkurt, Japon Kültürü, Dördüncü Baskı, İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası, 1992.