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international musings on identity / 日本

Thursday December 5, 2013

The spirit of profound, collective identity is perhaps best witnessed through travel to foreign countries. Through outsider observation or comparison to one’s own culture, ‘another way of being and doing’ is only really understood when abroad. The old cliché of being a traveller and not a tourist, is well-realised through cultural reflection both on where you are and where you’ve come from. The differences allow insights into the very notion of identity.

Nations with traditions of isolation, when accessed today, offer outsiders observations of uniqueness in identity and some historical perspectives frozen in time. In an ever-globalising world, Japan embodies a rich history of unique spiritual idealism and practical perfectionism, now, strangely underpinning the ultra-embracement of Westernism and consumer excess. From a country that just over a century ago was closed to the outside world, the eagerness of the Japanese to (at least on the surface), personify with the ways of the west is indeed baffling to a casual observer. This bizarre marriage of supposedly conflicting methodologies, is surely part of the reason why so many visitors have such strong opinions of Japan.

Japan: Tokyo New Fire Truck / Imperial Palace Gate

The uniqueness in the Japanese way has developed over many centuries, but at the root is a heritage of fierce individualism which until relatively recently, resisted much external influence. A mentality which favours hard work, and selfless dedication to any task, has produced an intricacy to the façade of a culture based on aesthetic excellence. Even the most mundane tasks, the Japanese seem to transform into artform. Service is hence amongst the highest in the world; even at late-night convenience stores from awkwardly gangly teenagers who would surely rather be playing computer games behind closed shoji screens.

For those interested in deeply understanding what makes a people tick, there are some ardent lessons to be learnt from Japan. There is no question of cultural identity inconsistency. For anyone interested in how a nation can forge such a distinct identity through its unique character and communicate it with unwavering certainty, the Japanese are amongst the greatest teachers. Their style is perhaps one of the most easily recognisable and at times also one of the simplest. A culture which deeply understands and displays beauty — often mysterious, understated and intricately encased — can be a great inspiration against the bombardment of others, shouting, exploding and forcibly blaring their way to you attention. But of course, Japan also has these in-your-face manifestations, in case you need some amplified exaggeration to remind you of what you’re missing from the TV.