Misunderstanding Japan

Although I had almost no knowledge of its history, culture and language, like many Europeans, I became intrigued by Japan when, as a student, I was exposed to a heightened, almost surreal image of the country.  This pastiche of curious places, objects and characters that drew my attention to this peculiar civilisation, did not come from the common vehicles of manga, anime and hentai– but through Monocle magazine. Month after month, as I was laying hungover in my drab and damp student rooms in England’s West Midlands, Monocle helped me escape the reality by showing beautiful photos of luxurious ryokan, delectable katsu sandwiches and gorgeous Japanese pyjamas.

Issue after issue, Monocle’s Japanophile founder and editor-in-chief, Tyler Brûlé waxed lyrical about the wonders of Japanese service industry and liveability of Tokyo, a narrative I happily imbibed (ironically, while realising that England, which I idealised throughout my teen years, may be charming, but was certainly no Shangri-La).

What was striking and intriguing about Monocle’s picture of Japan, was how much at odds it was to all the other stuff I could normally read about the country. “Serious publications”  (such as other purveyor of heightened realities, The Economist) were either filled with alarmism about its lost decade and general unwillingness of the Japanese to enter intro reckless financial transactions, or featured stories about ‘epidemics’ of people marrying pillows in the comfort of their solitary rooms. Less serious publications also seemed concerned the sexual predilections of the Japanese and focused on the wackiness of the country which came to stand for crazy gameshows, crazy outfits and crazy sexual fetishes practiced publicly. Even when the coverage was positive, it verged on woo-y with cuteness and orderliness being elevated into “lifestyle concepts”.  Then of course, there were the usual darker themes of wanton brutality and technological dystopia, where robots are replacing people and/or cramming them into creaking, neon-lit subway trains.

After more than not being able to imagine what real Japan is from afar, when I finally got the chance to visit it a few weeks ago, in March 2019, my biggest source of excitement was that I will finally get to find out how all these pieces, from excellent hospitality to uncomfortable body-horrors, gel together.

What I found on my, all too brief 12 day trip though Kyoto, Osaka, Koya-san and Tokyo, was that Monocle’s Japan – of excellent traditional craftsmanship, opulence and unimaginable civility almost perfectly hit the mark, much more so than the image of an island populated by weirdo anime enthusiasts living in irradiated shoeboxes married to sex dolls.

What struck me was the general sense of well-being and – for the lack of the better word – normality that far exceeded anything I’ve seen pretty much anywhere else in the world. Although, a random tourist’s perspective is obviously not definitive – and I do understand that Japanese society faces many challenges (from over-work to gender inequality) – I was constantly under the impression of how much most foreign media exoticised Japan and its unique culture. Where I expected to see manga-costumes there were impeccable suits and dresses, where I expected dystopian sense of oppression and crowdedness, there was calm and orderliness, and where I expected effects of decades of economic slowdown, there was a sense of affluence which makes 5th Avenue and Bond Street pale in comparison to Tokyo’s Ginza and Aoyama.

Tellingly, Kawaii Monster Café and stranger parts of Akihabara – Tokyo’s “tech” district – were you get served full Japanese “wackiness” seemed more popular with the foreigners than locals who stuck to stylish stores and cafes. This is not to say that Japan is not “strange” for someone coming from Europe. The unparalleled sense of calm order, economic equality and the seemingly deep adherence to traditions and rules, are all fascinating and offer a lot to learn from. Then of course, there is the love of sakura, puzzling variety of foods, beautiful onsen, ubiquity of low-key classical music and stunning architecture.

Coming back to Belgrade, I could not but think how great it would be if more of those writing about Japan – and foreign countries in general – took the (well designed) page out of Monocle’s book and strop succumbing to “wacky” tropes that serve to make their readers superior to others, but rather compel them to learn and admire the deep diversity between various cultures… and high-thread-count fabrics, of course.

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Me in front Monocle Shop in Tokyo (aka “the High Temple”)

Good sources on Japan (beside Monocle) (until I publish The Nutshell Guide to Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo)

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