I have finished my first book!
Writing a book is harder than I thought and more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. Japan Unmasked is my first book, and it has taken nearly four years to complete this unique interpretation of Japanese society.
I had no choice but to re-examine my roots after living away from Japan for the past 35 years. As so many Japanese who were youngsters in the 1960s and 1970s I looked externally for inspiration and freedom, negating the society that surrounded me. I lived in the UK, USA and in Australia ever since I was 27 years old, preferring to bring up a family on foreign shores – I’m now in my 60s!
For the majority of my working life, I escorted business people to Japan helping navigate the cultural maze of Japan. In doing so I have had the unique advantage of seeing Japan as an outsider, and it is only in my latter years that I have come to appreciate Japan and its people that the younger me rejected.
Publishing this book has been in my “bucket list”. Through the cultural lens of myself, my family, friends and many clients, I have written Japan Unmasked. This book offers insights into Japan’s history, society and culture from a distinctly Western perspective. I am now privileged to present to you a journey into why Japan is so enigmatic.
Japan’s history is one of furious independence – in feudal times from its big brother China and then more recently from the West. Japan’s great strength is that it has selectively and successfully borrowed from abroad – namely science, technology and democracy – but has protected its cultural identity – its language, ideology, religion and the arts. Today Japan’s modern way of life is a direct reflection of its traditional cultural values. It is one of the very few societies that modernised by looking internally at its own structures and not simply supplanting a Western model on its traditional society.
Wearing a mask is historically the norm in Japan; from samurai warriors to kabuki and noh actors they all wear a physical mask. Anyone who knows anything about Japan is aware that the Japanese also wear a non-physical mask, particularly in public, to hide emotions and thoughts. Also, Japan adopted a specific policy of obscuring itself from foreigners throughout the majority of 265-year Tokagawa period of 1603–1868 AD, ensuring that it gained knowledge from outsiders but masked knowledge of its society and culture from others.
The native Shinto religion’s mythology and imported Buddhism’s philosophy stimulated the culture and artistic explosion of Japan’s classical antiquity. At the end of this process, the unique and authentic character of the Land of the Rising Sun emerged. Its more recent dance with the West has led to the establishment of the world’s third largest single modern economy, yet still maintaining its authentic cultural traditions and thinking.
The Japanese have long been an enigma, different in spirit and behaviour from the rest of Asia as well as the world. As a nation they are overtly homogenous, outwardly secretive, and beautifully simplistic. The Japanese, and Japan as a whole, have maintained a mask that to this day is worn instinctively. By understanding the depths of Japan’s history, tradition, people and natural environment, this book unmasks this unique culture; a society that has for so long been veiled from the world.
I hope by reading this book that Japan for you will become no longer an enigma. Its apparent contradictions have been explained in large part. For while in Japan foreigners are always trying to understand what they see around them, and the only way it makes sense is by looking at the entire system rather than at the individual components don’t make any apparent sense. They are just crazy snapshots. A salaryman passed out drunk in a bush; a child being smacked by his or her mother in the grocery store; a family enjoying the cherry blossoms in the springtime. It’s tempting to focus on isolated events, and this makes for an easy portrait. Look how “nice” Japan is, with everyone enjoying the flowers! Look how “horrible” Japan is with its strict discipline, racism and overt sexual promiscuity. How polite the Japanese are, yet how cruel they were during World War II!
But things don’t exist as separate phenomena – they are connected, and they impact each other. If one pasted all of these snapshots of Japan onto a giant noticeboard and then drew arrows showing how one element influenced another, there would be a tangled mess. To understand these relationships would drive the average foreigner insane, but somehow in the Japanese mind it all makes sense.
People rave about how good the service in Japan is, how clean the cities and countryside are, and how everything runs like clockwork. Those are good things. But they are made possible because people endure such long work hours under incredibly strict bosses. And people praise the orderliness and politeness of Japanese society, rarely understanding that such attitudes are built out of significant respect for personal space, when space within this island nation is at a premium, and fear from a violent feudal past where true feelings always had to be hidden.
For a city the size of Tokyo, with 15 million people living in crowded conditions, the amount of yelling, pushing and horn honking is amazingly low. Such calm exists because most people are keeping their true feelings inside, as they have done their whole lives. Open expression is not an option in this society, and many are deeply repressed. A cohesive society was always necessary as natural disasters often so adversely affected entire communities, and survival and renewal depended upon all simply pulling together. Modernisation and globalisation now also bring severe challenges to Japan as lifetime employment gives way to the supply and demand equation, low birthrates see the population plummeting, and man-made global warming threatens Japan’s current energy policies.
Conversely, if there was greater personal freedom there would be many social excesses and problems such as today in the United States. Personal space dictates how one communicates, works and lives in Japan far more than in any other country worldwide. These differences in personal space make Japan an extremely interesting destination for foreigners to visit; to examine and explore a unique culture that continues to fascinate. Buddhism particularly has assisted in teaching the Japanese to look inward for solace and not outward, and has so strongly influenced the Japanese “public face, private mind”. In contrast, animistic Shinto has been responsible long term for the Japanese love of nature and appreciation of beauty – its wabi-sabi imperfection and impermanence.
I hope that Japan Unmasked will give you more resources to understand Japan and the Japanese. This book is simply a plain-English introduction to Japan and the key themes in modern Japanese society. I have looked back at its history, to the foundations of its culture, to the opportunities and constraints of its natural resources, plus the trials and tribulations of building a modern society that can thrive in a modern world. I trust that these insights are the start for further exploration and of making your next visit to the Land of the Rising Sun a far more thought-provoking and enjoyable experience.
If you have any interest in visiting or revisiting Japan, then I hope you will read “Japan Unmasked” – click here: