Back in October 2017, I was fortunate enough to be selected as University College Dublin’s representative on the “MIRAI Programme”. This is a Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) funded one week study and cultural exchange program. The MOFA run the programme as part of a much wider “Friendship Ties Program” whose overall aim is help all participants understand as much as possible about Japan’s economy, society, history, culture, politics, and diplomatic relations whilst also breeding mutual-understanding between participants’ nations and Japan. Another purpose from the MOFA’s perspective was that participants would return home and share their experiences with friends, family, and the wider world.
If I was to use one word which can consistently be used to describe what I encountered in Japan, it is “unified”. Japan is a complex country, which obviously I could never hope to comprehend in an intense seven day visit. However from what I saw, in diverse ways, Japan is fixated by unity in both its internal and external attitudes.
A quick glance at a map will tell you that Japan sits in an interesting position from a geopolitical point of view.. Russia, China, and the Koreas are her closest neighbours and all of these countries naturally generate intrigue to any Westerner.
At Keio University in Tokyo, we were given a fascinating lecture on the relationship of the country with both Koreas as well as China. China’s expansion of its core interests to include islands in the South China Sea has been met with alarm in Japan, where public opinion has slowly turned sour towards their neighbours (a study we were shown claimed 83.1% of Japanese people hold a negative opinion towards China). It was explained to us that whilst Japanese people have a positive opinion of South Korea, the converse can’t be said as legacy issues from history continue to affect Koreans. However paradoxically, Koreans’ embrace of Japan’s culture and people is only growing as can be attested to by tourism numbers and other metrics.
From a foreign policy point of view, Japan’s ultimate goal is to strike a balance with China where both countries can coexist peacefully to help bring stability to the region. This means eventually coming to a unified position with all the unilateral actors in the region – China, Russia, and the United States and her allies. It remains to be seen how this can be achieved, though what is certain is that Japan will have to help China whilst also negating and effectively deterring their current moves. China’s military spending accounts for over 50% of the whole region’s expenditure in that sector, which perhaps highlights just how tall an order it will be to bring unity.
However, Japan’s foreign policy is not solely focused on building bridges with local powers. Amongst a plethora of initiatives that were explained to us, the most pertinent one was Japan’s strong stance on denuclearisation. As the only victim of a nuclear attack in a war, Japan considers itself to have a responsibility to the rest of the world to push for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. For the last 24 years, Japan have forwarded an anti-nuclear motion to the UN to highlight their crusade and create momentum towards a nuclear weapon free world. Whilst we were visiting, the MOFA were in the final stages of drafting their 2017 edition of the motion. Whilst it passed in late October, as it has done every year since they started the annual proposal, the decline in the number of countries who supported it and controversy which forced the wording to be watered down highlights the Sisyphean task that Japan has undertaken. This reality of this is of course not lost on MOFA diplomats, who spoke of the responsibility of the country to persevere in their effort, even if progress towards denuclearisation has slowed in recent years and the threat of nuclear war occurring has research a level not seen since the Cold War.
The physical embodiment of Japan’s anti-nuclear status is naturally in Hiroshima – a city’s whose very name evokes images of mass devastation. It was surprising to me when I got home how little people knew about Hiroshima’s current status – completely rebuilt, certainly habitable, and home to over a million people. In the city centre lies the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a large green area which was a bustling downtown district before the bombing but which is now a collection of monuments and symbols which commemorate the effects of the A-Bomb on the city but also advocate for world peace. When you walk around the park, the sounds of bells tolling echoes across the clear expanse constantly. One of these “peace bells” stands beside the Children’s Peace Monument, which is dedicated to the memory of the children who died in the bombing.
On the top of the monument stands a statue of a girl named Sadako Sasaki who died of Leukaemia aged 12, a decade on from the detonation of the A-bomb. Incidences of cancer were much higher than average amongst survivors and Sasaki was one of many people whose illness developed years after the initial attack (in her case eight years after). What made Sasaki’s case particularly heartbreaking was her belief that if she folded 1,000 paper cranes, she would have her wish to survive granted – a belief which has its origin in an ancient Japanese legend.
After Sasaki’s death, her story gradually spread throughout the world and today, people deposit paper cranes at the monument as a tribute to her death and many others’ whilst also giving their support to an end to nuclear weapons. I was particularly taken by the vibrant colours of the origami cranes which were hung in batches of 1,000 in a number of glass cases. The optimistic bright colours of the cranes contrasted deeply with the sad story of Sasaki and thousands of other children which motivated the construction of the Children’s Peace Monument in the first place. Hiroshima’s local government estimates that 10,000,000 cranes are offered at the monument each year.
During our short visit to the park and the adjoining museum, we were fortunate enough to meet and talk with a Hibakusha. This title literally translates as “explosion affected people”, though it is used to allude to surviving victims of the A-Bombs which fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was an honour to listen to his memories of the day the bomb dropped and how citizens reacted in the aftermath of the attack to the arrival of American soldiers on the ground there. Fascinatingly, he claims he holds no grudge against the American government for carrying out the attack and instead lays the blame with the leaders of his own country at the time for prolonging the war which it was clear Japan would eventually lose. Between his presentation and our ensuing visit to the museum, we saw a huge volume of pictures and art depicting the death and devastation, and relics from the bombing. Two items in the museum struck a chord with me. One was a torched tricycle, upon which a young boy died when the bomb detonated in August 1945. The father of the boy buried his child with the tricycle, which now hauntingly sits on display in the museum. The other item which is burned in my conscience is a watch, stuck forever with its hands indicating that it’s 8.15 – the exact moment that the bomb went off on August 6th, 1945.
I have only one comparison for the emotional effect of visiting the Peace Park and museum, and that is the feelings I experienced when I visited a former Nazi concentration camp. The hurt and death caused at both sites is commemorated in very different ways, yet both envelope a visitor in the brutal reality of what occurred there. The visit to Hiroshima made the words of the diplomat at the MOFA make sense to me – Japan is in a unique position to educate the world about the effects of a nuclear attack, and they shoulder this great responsibility admirably and resolutely. A “peace flame” continuously burns in the park to memorialise victims of the tragedy and concurrently symbolise the dangers presented to the world at this very moment from the nuclear arsenals of countries around the world. It will only be extinguished when the world unites to destroy all nuclear weapons on the planet so that the threat of nuclear annihilation fades into the history books.
As a full-time “people-watcher” back home, travelling around Japan watching people and hearing anecdotes from tour guides and lecturers was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I obviously expected to notice differences, but the extent of those differences still surprised me. What had stuck out to me was the unified nature of people in how they respected each other, conformed to norms, and viewed outsiders.
I’ve done a bit of reading into this since I got home and found some interesting theories which explain the “collectivist” nature of eastern populations compared to the “individualist” mentality which exists at home in the west. One scholar, Thomas Talhelm, posited research a few years ago suggesting that these contrasting psyches have their foundations in the grains which predominantly fed people in the different culture. In short the suggestion is that eastern societies who relied upon rice became more collective in their outlook because paddy fields require cooperation to irrigate and harvest whilst growing and harvesting wheat is a process which requires far less interdependence.
Immediately upon arrival in Tokyo, the three of us who arrived on the same flight were brought to a Buddhist Temple in time for an elaborate daily ceremony. Our fantastic guide, Kei-san, explained to us how Buddhism and Shintoism co-exist together, so much so that people usually practice both and the two are often represented at the same sites such as the temple we visited.
Shinto is Japan’s native religion, but isn’t really a religion as we know it in Ireland in that it has no book, no holiest place/monument, nor holiest person. It involves the worship of kami (spirits) which can be something physical like a mountain or other natural feature like a waterfall or a more abstract thing like growth. Overall though, following the religion is to carry out certain rituals and interact with others in a certain way, which is broadly based on love and respect. In this sense, the religion focuses on fitting in to life as opposed to maintaining purity for an afterlife.
As noted, Shintoism exists alongside Buddhism, which was imported from China into Japan in the 6th century. This religion will be much more well-known to western readers. Buddhists practice their faith in a bid to achieve Enlightenment to escape a cycle of life, death, rebirth, and suffering.
It’s pretty amazing given how divisive religion has proven in other parts of the world, how Japanese people have found a way to marry the two together within their own lives without conflict or contradiction. Some Japanese people will live by Shinto values and celebrate Shinto festivals, have a Christian or Shinto wedding, yet finish their lives with a Buddhist funeral.
Later in Kyoto we visited a fine example of a Buddhist temple, which had some of the most spellbinding architecture that I have ever seen. The scale and intricate beauty, both outside and especially inside, rivals a Renaissance-era cathedral in Italy.
A little outside Hiroshima, we took a boat to the island Itsukushima Shrine which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an awe-inspiring complex. As you approach the island, a great orange Torii Gate signals your arrival at the shrine and signals that you have crossed the boundary from the human to the spirit world. The shrine sits on stilts over the sea so that it appears to be floating when the tide is high as it was when we visited. What impressed me most was how the island successfully blends human creations with the natural beauty of the hilly forested island – very reflective of the beliefs of the dual-religious people.
The collectivist mentality of the Japanese populous has both pros and cons.
The positives are pretty visible and tangible to a visitor to the country. The need to be fair and help thy neighbour is one reason why Japan maintains comprehensive public services like transport and health services and why everyone has a good chance in a fair education system. Furthermore, the human relationship-centred approach to life contributes to Japan’s high ranking (10th of 163) in the Global Peace Index in spite of its large population – this index basically measures how safe and peaceful a country is. Murder and homicide rates are low and people do not own firearms, but what stood out to me was that there is a distinct compassion prevalent in society. I saw it with how overly apologetic people were when they walked into you in a train station. A great stat I encountered which backs up this perception further is that people handed in about $32 million in cash to lost and found at police stations in Tokyo. Apparently, it’s also common to reserve a seat whilst you order in a café by leaving your phone on a chair.
It was hilarious to contrast the discipline of locals at train stations to our rowdy pan-Eurasian bunch. Whilst waiting for our bullet train (Shinkansen) journeys, our group would clump up on the platform, completely failing to notice or adhere to the queuing lines set out on the platforms. On the metros in Tokyo, natives had a very particular way of arranging themselves in a packed carriage. Every time I was in a carriage where people had to stand, I would see it – people would sit, facing inwards, as you would expect, but those who were on their feet would stand back to back, uniformly facing the people in the seats, seemingly never speaking. It’s a stark contrast to the randomly arranged sardines you encounter squashed against each other in carriages in London, Paris, or Berlin.
However, there are cons to the psyche too, from a western perspective at least. One social norm dictates that a worker should never finish their working day before their boss, which means people can have less time to spend with their families. Another symptom of Japan’s extremely unified society is their tough immigration laws, which allows for the preservation of the extremely humble and respectful society. In one of our lectures we were told a telling anecdote relating to this. A restaurant kitchen was becoming overburdened by prep work and so a solution needed to be found. In any country in the west, a manager would immediately look to the labour market and hire cheap labour, perhaps a student or migrant. However, in Japan, neither of these options were possible. No student would be suitable for the hours but few migrant workers would be permitted entry to fill low-pay jobs like this – so they just purchased a robot instead.
The unity of MIRAI
Japan is certainly the most interesting country I have ever visited. Her people and her history are unique and the latter especially easy to engage with as there are so many sites to visit. Coming to Japan, I knew, like everyone does, about Japan’s incredible integration of technology, right down to dials which allow you to set the temperature of your toilet seat but also in public utilities, transport and daily life. Perhaps what I hadn’t quite the same knowledge of is the incredible natural beauty of the country which is mixed so well with human developments. The shrine on Itsukushima was the peak of this for me, though the Golden Pavilion outside Kyoto was another shining (literally) example of this.
For me, it was a joy to share my first impressions of the country with the other 84 students who formed part of our group. In the evenings after action-packed days of sightseeing and adventures, all of us who came from extremely diverse backgrounds and cultures would share stories and information about our homeplaces, with Japan acting as a catalyst to bring us together. And so for me, whilst learning about the united country that is Japan, I came to appreciate the unity of Europe and her close neighbours too.
Two moments in particular stand out to me. By day seven of the trip, exhaustion had finally caught up with me in Tokyo, and a visit to the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills gave me a much needed chance to sit down and reflect on what I’d experienced whilst staring out the window at the Eiffel Tower-esque Tokyo Tower, the port, and the frenetic city. I walked around a corner to find six other MIRAI participants gazing out the window, watching the sun set in to the west of the city near Mount Fuji. It was a surreal experience to sit there in silence with friends, watching the blue sky turn crimson, blush and rose as the sun slowly crept beneath the distant mountain.
In a similar vein, a group of us successfully made our way to the 52nd floor New York Bar of the Hyatt in downtown Tokyo, home to a number of famous scenes from Lost in Translation. It was far above our price point, but the staff were good enough to humour us and give us a quick tour of what must be the most beautiful restaurant I’ve ever seen, high in the clouds above the city. As a live jazz band and singer soothed the ears of diners in the dimly lit room, their eyes could look out over the great city with wonder through the floor to ceiling windows which followed the circumference of the tower.
All of us who were brought to Japan to represent our countries and our colleges received the opportunity of a lifetime to visit an incredible country, one which I am determined to eventually return to. I want to finish by thanking UCD, especially the UCD Japan Group, the Japanese Embassy in Dublin, and Japan’s MOFA for granting me such a chance – it’s one I’ll never forget nor will I ever stop talking about it!
Anthony O’Shea – Features Writer
Photo Credit: Joana Lopes