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Japan: a close-knit society rich in cultural heritage

In the early 1930s, Japan, whose government was then controlled by its military, undertook a policy of intimidation and aggression that led to conflict with the United States. Seeking to remove the U.S. from the Pacific power equation, the Japanese Navy launched an unprovoked attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.
The vicious war that followed raged across Asia and the Pacific Ocean for more than 3-1/2 years. It ended with the United States dropping two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. We then occupied Japan for seven years under the tough but fair Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Thus one would hardly call the 1940s an auspicious period in relations between our two nations. Still, out of these difficult years has come one of our most solid and enduring alliances with another country. There are, of course, occasional stresses, but there are no indications of long-term trouble between us.
It is a fascinating alliance not only for the historical conflict it grew out of but also because of the inherent nature of each country. Superficially, Japan and the U.S. appear much the same: vast economic engines with modern cities, huge educated and productive work forces, a worldwide economic presence and democratically elected governments.
Take a deeper look and you find two very different countries whose alliance might be called the odd couple writ large.
I have just returned from two weeks in Japan, the first time I’ve been there in almost 50 years (U.S. Navy last time). I’d like to share a couple of my impressions and do a bit of comparing and contrasting.
While Americans are willing and ready to strike out in new directions, witness Barack Obama’s election as president, Japan is in many ways a most traditional society. Virtually everyone in Japan has been there for uncounted generations. There are few lumps in society, and almost everyone agrees on what needs to be done. There is a saying in Japan that the nail that sticks up is pounded level with the rest.
America, on the other hand, is the most heterogeneous society in the world. We are composed of people from virtually everywhere, and we frequently argue loudly about which direction we should take. We are forever concerned about being fair to everyone. Our population is constantly being replenished by immigration, both legal and illegal. Few things ever appear to be finally settled. Japan, however, is immigration adverse and is in many ways a closed society.
Now while the U.S. has a continuing level of conflict, we also have lots of space where we can get away from one another and perhaps work things out. Japan, by contrast, is a small nation with not a great deal of land and most of it mountainous. This combines with lots and lots of people to make things very crowded. There are numerous theories that come together in the basic conclusion that the Japanese national character is the product of the interaction of a small amount of rough land and a large number of people.
Unlike the U.S., where we pride ourselves on our informality and openness, the Japanese are formal, polite and a bit distant. The idea being that these things are essential in personal relations or everyone will end up grating on one another and perhaps even become violent.
Bowing and ritual greeting are everywhere. As we left the Tokyo airport on a shuttle bus, the three men who had loaded suitcases on board stood shoulder to shoulder and bowed deeply. In many ways, daily life seems be a subtly choreographed ballet in which the participants carefully mask their true feelings.
While the surface appears very modern, interior life in Japan is most often quite traditional. In the city of Kyoto, the ancient capital, I estimate 1 to 2 percent of the women and something less of the men wore the traditional kimono and platform wooden shoes. In modern Tokyo, I passed an imposing man who was sharply dressed in an iridescent green kimono and platform shoes carrying a small package exquisitely wrapped in the traditional Japanese manner. He seemed to have stepped out of an old painting and gave an air of defying the modern world to interrupt his tranquil focus. I have the feeling many Japanese look inward to the old ways to give them calm in the face of an ever-changing world.
At the same time, we need to remember things such as the fact many Japanese teenagers adopt the Western hip-hop lifestyle and large numbers of Japanese people remain fascinated by that most American form of music, jazz, with its free-flowing improvisation. No ideas about something so large as a nation are ever completely consistent.
Still, I got the feeling Japan had become an economic giant at such a rapid rate that many people worry this very power threatens to tear the nation from its ancient moorings. Order, formality and control give the society a kind of centered calm. I saw this especially in the attitude toward nature. While their record of maintaining true wilderness is spotty, the Japanese do gardens as well as or better than anyone else in the world.
Since space is limited, Japanese gardens tend to be small, carefully planned and maintained within an inch of their lives. Odd limbs coming off of a tree are not lopped off but carefully supported with timbers so they can continue to grow for the life of the tree. In public gardens, silent men and women in rubber boots and pagoda-shaped straw hats are forever trimming trees and cleaning up leaves ‘ even individual leaves ‘ so the view is perfectly formed. The result may be a bit contrived but it is also beautiful, especially in the fall.
When we visited the home of a gentleman who also happened to be a district governor of Rotary International, he proudly showed us his beautiful, small garden which had a huge number of plant species and must required significant expenditures of both effort and money. The view of it framed in the large living room window was a delight.
Thus, Japan, while a vital part of the modern, economic world, is also a close-knit ancient society which frequently looks inward to find itself. This means if we wish to have any real understanding of it, a bit of extra effort is required. But given Japan’s rich and singular cultural heritage, the effort is amply rewarded.