There can be few countries that are as provocative as Japan, that mystical land in the Far East. The country was not visited by Europeans until 1543 and soon after locked its doors to the outside world for almost three centuries. In forbidding its people to travel abroad it created the unique culture and society that has become such an enigma to the western world. As a result, it is a place that has been tagged with clichés and fallacies. One thing that is sure: it is a country full of contradictions.
Ironically, as a land that was plagued for centuries by civil wars and dominated by a ruling class that exercised its laws with arrogance and ruthlessness, Japan is now a pacifist nation. The Japanese are peaceable and gentle, few question authority, and as a result its cities are some of the safest in the world.
That same ruling class, who took the craft of war to such a degree that the sword is still considered a sacred object in Japan, also created some of the most refined arts and crafts the world has seen. It was the art of war that also helped to form Japan’s business strategies. It is these same strategies that have foxed and frustrated western businesses for decades and led Japan to become one of the world’s biggest economies.
It’s a place where all things western are coveted and widely emulated. Japan is open to many new ideas, but it’s also a nation confined and restricted by a complex system of duty and obligation to the family and work that few outsiders can comprehend. At times the self-imposed isolation of the past is still visible just below the surface.
In Japan, harmony of the group takes priority; expressing an opinion is considered bad manners, avoiding the truth is expected, and convenient untruths are plentiful. However, in other respects, the honesty of the people is striking. Lost wallets are handed into the police with the cash still inside and trying to leave a tip can cause staff to run after you in an attempt to return your ‘forgotten’ change.
In a few short decades Japan has risen from feudal isolation to become a modern urban society. Its cities overload the senses with a mass of neon, bustle, and noise that few other metropolises can rival. In contrast the temples and shrines are the epitome of peace and tranquillity, standing virtually unchanged for hundreds of years.
Japan has touched the lives of people around the world in so many ways. Buddhism and Zen spirituality has inspired us, as have the unique minimalist aesthetics. Modern Japan has brought us cutting-edge technologies and a popular culture of manga, animations, and music that make the senses swirl.
During the economic bubble of the 1980s, prices were so high that all but a few foreigners were deterred from venturing here. These days Japan has become far cheaper to visit than many of its western counterparts and is energetically cultivating international tourism.
It’s because of all this that it is still one of the few places left in the world where a traveller can really feel like they are venturing somewhere strange, exotic and unexplored.