Columnist shares cultural experiences from visiting Japan
April 17, 2014
Entering a foreign country is a bit like entering a new world. Many things struck me about Japan but the one interesting thing is the contrasting sights of the country. All countries have contrasting views. Ocean and desert, city and countryside, modern and ancient. But Japan has one that is unique.
Japan is paradoxically one of the oldest civilizations in the world and one of the most modern countries in the world. The older buildings of Japan have traditionally been built with wood, a material which struggles to survive the ravages of time but is easier to rebuild with than other materials. While many of the historic buildings may not be old, having been rebuilt several times due to fi re damage, they feel old. You look at the large stone block that is half your height and know that it has been around a lot longer than you. The buildings were designed in an age far past. Then, going to Kyoto, you find out that the city was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. Feel young yet, America?
The contrasting elements to Japan’s ancient structures are two parts. First is the technology. While Japan is hardly a Star Trek-like place, it seemed a bit unworldly. Automatic doors, doors that slid open when you pressed the handle, shiny trains and an abundance of technology worked to paint the image of a technologically-advanced society.
The second contrast in Japan is harder to put into concise words. Japan’s native religion is Shinotism, a faith based on nature and its forces. Many of the old buildings and shrines almost seem part of their surroundings. The path to the Meiji Shrine is outlined with tall trees that lean inwards. Large wooden gates mark various points on the way to the shrine. A different shrine, on the famous Miyajima Island, is built on stilts so when the tide comes in, both the tori/gate and the shrine look like they are floating.
These natural-looking old buildings contrast with the style of modern Japan. Many of the clothes and artistic styles I saw were girly or childish. Although the prominent color of clothing was neutral, a majority of the females wore dresses or skirts. I’m not talking simply business clothes but fashionable jackets that were the same length as the dresses. Even on the two days that I as a person from the Midwest deemed cold, many females were still in their cold girly clothes and high heels.
It was not just the average female clothing that gave the contrasting image to the natural religious buildings, but also the not normal clothing. I saw several people in cosplay, which is a form of dress-up. One girl in particular was wandering down the street dressed as a pink and white fluffy Little Bo Peep. The stores too had many pink and white clothing that if I didn’t know better, would have said were for children. While wandering in Shinjuku, an entertainment district in Tokyo, my group and I discovered a Hello Kitty shop. Pink, fluffy and sparkly were the themes of that shop. I noticed that people who were no longer young were perusing the products there. So it is not just the young people who are into this style.
Putting the clothing and stores aside, there were also purple buildings, adult advertisements that seemed to be designed for children, and cartoon characters for just about every shop we saw. Did I mention that one mall we went to had all their employees, even the guys, wear bunny ears? One teacher of mine suggested that the reason behind the seemingly, to my American eyes, childishness of Japan is the manga/anime culture. It is an important aspect of Japanese culture but who can tell how much the anime culture was a part in the different visual aspects of Japan.
Either way, Japan is a country for all the senses and for contrasting visual elements. More to come!
Rachel Molitor is a student at UW-River Falls.