Saturday, 6 June 2015

Turning Japanese: 5 Twists on Traditional Culture

The Lais at Kinkaku-ji 'The Temple of The Golden Pavilion', Kyoto.

Welcome to the first chapter in a series of fascinating cultural observations from a recent holiday in Japan.

Before I begin I must credit my spirited, mile-a-minute tour guide Fu-san (Ms Fu) for sharing her insider knowledge as a Chinese woman living in Tokyo for the past 10 years.

These are literally nuggets of disparate facts I picked up along the journey. I tried to group them together as best as I could, so I apologise if they sound a bit haphazard.

If you are Japanese/am living in Japan and disagree with any of the following, please do let me know.

Turning Japanese: 5 Unexpected Twists on Traditional Culture

Ancient Architecture

It's impossible to visit Japan without encountering a breathtakingly photogenic temple. Spurred by the introduction of Buddhism by Chinese monks in the 6th century, the mass building of temples were heavily influenced by Chinese Tang and Sui Dynasty styles of architecture. The Japanese adapted and tweaked many, many historical inventions from the China which exist today - I'll cover more on this in a later chapter on innovation details.

Social Status

Can you guess which groups of men and women enjoy highest social status across generations in Japan? For men, Sumo wrestlers - apparently their heavy paypackets make them the most eligible bachelors in Japan. "Sumo wrestler wives are told to tie their husbands up in bed to avoid being squashed to death before they inherit their fortunes" my guide told me - I couldn't tell if she was joking or not. For women, Geishas are seen as well-respected, multi-talented businesswomen. It is expensive to train as a geisha as it is to be entertained by one. Since the interest in traditional arts is fast declining, so are the number of apprentices. I was slightly disappointed to have left Kyoto (the heart of geisha culture) without having encountered a real geisha.

Bento Boxes

The ubiquitous Bento box was originally imported from Song Dynasty China, known as 便當 ('biàndāng'), meaning "convenience". The most lavishly decorated examples, which feature covers or be stacked in presentation are Tang and Ming dynasty inspired, made with luxurious materials such as lacquered wood and aluminum. There are many types of bento boxes, defined by the occasion they are served at and the cuisine that fills them. Homemakers often spend a week in advance planning bento boxes for their husbands and children, varying ingredients according to their nutritional needs. Colourful, creative character bentos ('Kyaraben') are often the only incentive for kids to eat their school lunches. Although there's plenty of convenience stores and vending machines around, homemakers tend to save their bulk supermarket shop for the weekends. It is undertaken as a family activity, seen as a break from their notorious work ethic.

Wall Whispers

Here's one very good reason not to have an argument in Japan. The construction methods and materials used there mean their walls are literally thin. I can personally testify upon this truth from every hotel I struggled to fall asleep in. To be fair, you'll seldom hear a Japanese person raise their voice, indoors or outdoors.

Thinking Inside The Box?

Finally a contentious point Fu-san mentioned from her time working in Japan was the traditionally systematic, detail-driven and somewhat predictable mindset of the population as a whole. And how it contrasts to the flexible, entrepreneurial and opportunistic thinking of the Chinese. I'm not convinced of such a generalisation, but it was fascinating nonetheless to hear her point of view.

Up Next: Ageing, Sex and Fantasy

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