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Culture Smart! Japan
By Paul Norbury
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2016 Paul Norbury
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LAND & PEOPLE
The Japanese archipelago, situated in the North Pacific to the east of Korea, consists of four main islands — Hokkaido, Honshu (the largest, with 60 percent of the landmass), Shikoku (the smallest), and Kyushu — which together make up 98 percent of the country's territory. The remainder is made up of a number of small islands, including the Ryukus (of which Okinawa is one), which lie strung out in the Pacific between Kagoshima in southern Kyushu and Taiwan; in addition, there are some 3,000 tiny islets that surround the coastline and extend southward.
Overall, Japan is slightly smaller than France or Spain, but slightly larger than Italy or the British Isles, and accounts for 0.3 percent of the world's landmass. The "arc" of its primary archipelago extends from 30°N in southern Kyushu to 45°N in northern Hokkaido, a latitudinal range comparable to the Atlantic seaboard of the USA from Maine to Florida, or in Europe, from Venice to Cairo; if we include the string of southern islands (such as Okinawa), which reach as far south as latitude 20, the distance covered is 2,362 miles (3,800 kilometers).
The Tsushima Strait (known as the Kaikyo Strait in Korea), which separates Japan from Korea, is 112 miles (180 kilometers) wide, while some 500 miles (800 kilometers) of open sea lie between southwestern Japan and the nearest point on the coast of China.
Running through the center of Japan — endowing it with a rare scenic beauty — are six chains of steep, serrated mountains that are studded with volcanoes resulting from her geological location within the Pacific "ring of fire." There are over 100 volcanoes, some seventy-seven of which are designated as "active" (although few really are), especially Bandai and Asama in central Honshu, Aso, Unzen, and Sakurajima, which is currently in an active phase, in Kyushu. The highest is Fuji (known as Fuji-san), standing at 12,388 feet (3,776 meters), which last erupted in 1707 but is still on the "active" list. In central Japan, dense mixed forests of oak, beech, and maple blanket the slopes up to an altitude of 5,900 feet (1,800 meters).
Land shortage, particularly during the period of spectacular economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century, concentrated minds on the potential for land reclamation. This hugely expensive and painstaking process took place in many parts of Japan (and continues to do so), adding valuable new building land (approximately 0.5 percent) to Japan's main landmass of 143,660 square miles (372,070 square kilometers); it included vast areas around the modern industrial cities of Tokyo (especially Tokyo Bay) and Osaka. Most remarkable was the creation of Port Island and Rokko Island, and other adjacent islands, off the port of Kobe, as well as the new Kansai International Airport (which is known to be sinking at the rate of 2.5 in (7 cm) per year) involving the removal of millions of tons of earth and rocks from the tops of neighboring mountains — a solution that underlines the pragmatic Japanese approach to life and its challenges. On the other hand, all of Japan's coastal areas are at risk (the Inland Sea less so) from storm damage and tsunami — the giant waves generated by earthquake activity which the people of northeastern Japan (Tohoku region) learnt to their terrible cost in the great earthquake of 2011 (see page 17).
CLIMATE AND SEASONS
Many people have found it ironic that the refined aesthetics, the exquisite art forms and cultural elegance of Japan (consider, for example, the manicured beauty of her formal gardens!) should have been created in a group of islands that straddle one of the world's most dangerous tectonic regions — four tectonic plates, the North American, the Pacific, the Eurasian, and the Philippine, meet under the Japanese archipelago — and in one of its most hazardous climatic zones. Japan's climate is the outcome of two competing weather systems, one from the Pacific and one from Continental Asia, involving, at times, ferocious annual weather changes from deep snow and low temperatures to devastating typhoons and unbearable levels of humidity. These physical facts heighten interest in what can generally be called the "Japanese achievement" throughout history.
The Japanese themselves regard such notions of "achievement," however, as transient and very fragile, likening them, as with life itself, to the brief flowering of the cherry blossom (sakura) in spring. They celebrate this natural phenomenon with outdoor events, public and private "viewings," and the writing of poetry. As the countryside warms up, the blossoming fans out in an extraordinary six-week flourish, initially from southern Kyushu in early March, then on through Shikoku and Honshu to northern Hokkaido, along a 1,100-mile (1,800-kilometer) journey.
Seasonal changes, therefore, are well defined and vary considerably from east to west and from mountain to plain. In Tokyo, which sits on the Kanto Plain, the biggest of the coastal plains, the average temperature is 77 °F (25 °C) in summer with high humidity and 38 °F (4 °C) in winter. The sunniest months are December and January; the wettest June and September. Spring (March to May) and fall (mid-September to end-November) are considered to be the best months because the days are generally clear and sunny with sharp blue skies — the fall, like New England, having the added attraction of the leaves, especially the maple, turning to red and gold. Like the cherry blossom viewing, the fall colors are also celebrated with outings and excursions.
Seasons apart, it is worth remembering that Japan is often "wet" and, like the UK, is an "umbrella" society! Indeed, umbrellas are to be found everywhere in case of need — in hotels, offices, restaurants, and temples.
Earthquakes are frequent and widespread, and although most are mild and hardly noticeable, the threat of catastrophe is ever present — as was demonstrated in recent times by the Kobe earthquake of January 1995, the devastating earthquake and tsunami off the east coast near the city of Sendai, Tohoku Prefecture, in March 2011, and the Kumamoto earthquakes of April 2016.
Whenever a serious tremor occurs, city gas supplies are automatically cut off; all commercially available oil heaters have extinguishing mechanisms. Each district organizes earthquake drills on a regular basis, and all households are supposed to keep an emergency survival kit, available from department stores. All hotels are also required to follow such drills and are rigorously scrutinized for safety in both design and exit procedure. Following the Tohoku catastrophe, all systems were up for review.
RICE AND FISH
Heavy rains and hot summers allow rice, Japan's staple food, to be grown on most of the lowlands, including, surprisingly, the northern island of Hokkaido (famous also for its potato-growing, and for its winter ice-carving festival), is now one of the main rice-producing areas. As over 70 percent of Japan's landmass is mountain forest, leaving less than a quarter of the land flat enough for human settlement and agriculture, the Japanese have over the centuries perfected the art of paddy-field terracing. In southern Japan these rise in spectacular flights up the mountainsides, presenting from the air a remarkable, intricate lace pattern.
Rice as a staple food has many benefits, not least because it can be grown in the same field year after year. It is also low in cholesterol. In addition, for centuries, right up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it was used as a currency, going back to the eighth century when Japan was divided up into sixty-eight administrative districts or provinces by Prince Shotoku. The reputations and well-being of these districts depended on the amount of rice they could produce, and they were taxed accordingly (in rice of course). Not surprisingly, the Japanese government continues to protect Japan's rice-growers, paying up to ten times the world price, in order to maintain the status quo — and, supposedly, the Japanese way of life. (The main crop grown is a short grain white rice — rice Japonica — which is sticky when cooked and easily eaten with chopsticks.)
The other Japanese staple is fish, providing up to 50 percent of their protein intake, although meat consumption, along with carbohydrates, has been growing steadily in recent years. The Japanese also love squid, shrimps, king crabs, and many other kinds of seafood caught locally by small fishing boats throughout the islands. This is in addition to the deep-sea fishing for tuna and, more controversially, whale, although it is clear from history that whale meat as such was eaten only by isolated communities; mostly, it was left as carrion. Much was done, however, with whalebone, especially its use in a wide variety of implements, including female coiffure. The wide consumption of whale meat is a relatively recent development resulting from the advances in fishing technology and fleet management. The Japanese government allows whaling for "scientific purposes," which is legal according to the 1986 International Whaling Commision moritorium on commercial whaling, but it remains a contentious issue.
The greatest fish delicacies are to be found in the form of sashimi, slices of raw fish spiced with soy sauce, wasabi (like horseraddish) and radish (daikon), and sushi (small pieces of raw fish centered on a small rice "roll" usually wrapped in dried seaweed), now widely appreciated in the West (see Chapter 7).
Supporting traditional fishing is a huge aquaculture industry, farming many types of fish, together with oysters, mussels, and shrimps, as well as growing edible seaweeds in sheltered waters or in tanks and ponds.
The requirements of modern life and political expediency have created a demand for increasingly easy access to Japan's four main islands. This has resulted in some of the world's most remarkable engineering feats, especially the building of the Seikan Tunnel, opened after twenty years in 1988, connecting Honshu to Hokkaido. It is 33.5 miles (54 kilometers) long from end to end. Connecting Honshu to Shikoku is a series of three groups of suspension bridges, including the world's longest, the Akashi bridge, which has six lanes and measures 4,277 yards (3,911 meters).
THE JAPANESE PEOPLE: A BRIEF HISTORY
Although scholars debate endlessly about where the Japanese came from, there is broad agreement that they are a subgroup of the Mongoloid peoples who inhabit large parts of Asia and the New World. This is evident from a skin color that is pale to light brown, straight black hair, brown eyes, and a relative lack of body hair, as well as a high frequency of such features as epicanthic eyes (the absence of a fold on the upper eyelid). Nevertheless, the Japanese differ as much as any other ethnic group from individual to individual in both facial characteristics and physique.
It is also accepted that, although culturally Japan may be described as "a daughter of China," the Japanese are not Chinese. The Japanese reached Japan by a variety of routes, including Korea, and at some point around the seventh to eighth century the "mixing" process was complete, resulting in the Japanese people we know today. (This "mix" includes descendants of the Yamato and even the Yayoi people, described below. Unfortunately, there is very little archaeological evidence to substantiate any particular thesis. New finds are reported regularly — some subsequently exposed as frauds — and scholars continue to hope that they will be allowed full access to the early burial mounds, such as that of the legendary Emperor Nintoku of the early fifth century, near Osaka, which is the largest keyhole-shaped tomb in Japan.). But the Imperial Household Agency which has responsibility for the tombs is unlikely to agree to any excavation or examination of the bodies for the forseeable future.
However, a quite separate and distinct minority race known as the Ainu (a Caucasian group, probably from mainland Siberia) settled in northern Japan over twelve hundred years ago; today they live principally in Hokkaido, where their traditional language and culture is protected.
Recently, remarkable archaeological finds have shown that southern Japan, especially northern Kyushu and the Inland Sea, were settled by Stone Age groups who were skilled hunters and gatherers many thousands of years BCE. This is known as the Jomon (rope pattern) period, distinguished by pottery vessels decorated with a chainlike or rope design. Some of the pottery has been carbon-dated to more than 10,000 years, making it the oldest pottery in the world.
Anthropologists do not link the Jomon people to today's Japanese; if anything, they are closer to the northern Ainu people. But excavations of their shell mounds, which contained tuna and whale, as well as coastal fish, indicate a sophisticated settlement of people well adapted to the ocean environment. Such information is relevant insofar as it has a place in the Japanese self-image, especially their notions of uniqueness.
After the Jomon period (c.10,000–300 BCE came the Yayoi (c.300 BCE–300 CE), so called for the wheel-turned pottery produced at this time, but especially significant for the introduction of rice cultivation from the continent. This period saw the settlement of the limited area of flat land between the mountains and the sea. Land shortage and crowding gave rise to the economic use of space that would shape the Japanese way of life. Settled agriculture, and the introduction of bronze and iron, led in turn to the growth of warlike states.
By the fifth century, Japan was divided among numerous clans, of which the largest and most powerful was the Yamato (300–593 CE), based in what is today Nara Prefecture. By now the native Shinto religion, based on nature worship, had been formalized, and the Japanese imperial dynasty had emerged.
The Impact of Chinese Culture
From the sixth to the eighth centuries, Chinese cultural and political influences entered Japan via Korea and profoundly influenced the Japanese way of life. These influences included Buddhism, the Chinese script, and Chinese methods of government and administration. At a later stage, Confucianism was also imported. Early cities, modeled on the capital of T'ang Dynasty China, were built at Nara (710 CE) and Kyoto (794 CE) — Kyoto remaining the seat of the imperial court until 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration.
The most famous administrator of this period was Prince Shotoku (573–620 CE), who introduced his Seventeen Articles Constitution, based on the Chinese system of government, and with it a concept of the state; Buddhism was also established as the national religion. Many temples were built in Nara (a short distance from Kyoto) under his direction, some of which, such as the Horyuji, still exist today. By the end of the ninth century, the last Japanese embassy mission to the Chinese imperial court had taken place and the process of "Japanizing" Japan could be said to have begun in earnest. For example, it was during this period that the two phonetic alphabets (kana), which are unique to the Japanese language, were invented.
The adoption of the so-called "Chinese system" of centralized, bureaucratic government, however, was relatively short-lived. From the early twelfth century onward, in an increasingly unstable environment of clan warfare, political power was usurped by military aristocrats, and government was conducted in the name of the Emperor by feudal warriors known as shogun (commander-in-chief). Even so, civil war between rival groups was endemic over long periods. This state of anarchy largely came to a halt in October 1600 following the epic battle of Sekigahara, when Tokugawa Ieyasu destroyed most of the opposition and declared himself de facto military ruler of all Japan (reconfirmed by the great battle of Osaka Castle in 1614–15, when the remaining opposition elements of western Japan were eliminated). In 1603 Ieyasu assumed the title of Shogun and set up his Shogunate in Edo.
The outcome, known as the Tokugawa (name of the ruling family) or Edo (now Tokyo) period (1603–1868), was an extraordinary period of sustained peace for over two hundred and fifty years, only ending, after a short-lived civil war, in 1866–67. (The following year, 1868, the Emperor was restored to his historic role as executive head of the nation, moving up from Kyoto to the new capital of Edo — today's Tokyo.) The Edo period was a time of unparalleled economic prosperity and cultural advancement. It witnessed a flowering of the arts, crafts, literature, and general artistry in much of the national life.
Excerpted from Culture Smart! Japan by Paul Norbury. Copyright © 2016 Paul Norbury. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
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