Just about every guide book you see about Japan seems to fall over itself to tell you that Japan is a country of contradictions. It’s become a cliché to be sure, and I think that it’s also become overstated. Yeah, there are a lot of different kinds of people in Japan, but to point Japan out as special in that way is to ignore that humans everywhere are different. Oooo Japan struggles with modernity while keeping traditions alive, give me a break. Nobody else anywhere does that?
Ok, I’ll concede that some of the contrasts are maybe more visable here, given the fundamental changes of the Meiji period and the post-war period. I’ll also admit that the contrasts are sometimes more apparent because space is so constrained – Japan ain’t that big, after all.
This was pretty much the theme of my trip to Harajuku last Sunday. See, Harajuku has a park where all the wanabe rock bands hang out and play. Well, that’s also where the beatboxers and breakdancers and drum groups play too. Oh, and the runners and the skaters – they hang out there too. And the guys who dress up like extras from Grease. They look like they’ve been there since Rock Around the Clock was topping the charts. But there are two other main draws to the area.
The one that’s definitely going to be in your guide book is only about a two or three minute walk from the doo-wop dudes. It’s the old Meiji Shrine. Like most pre-war buildings, everything was destroyed in the bombings, but it was rebuilt in the 50s. It’s grand and beautiful, set in the middle of a forested area that looks like it was basically let run wild. The Shinto penchant for purity and serenity is very much to be appreciated after the chaos of the Tokyo streets and subway.
I was there on a Sunday, too, which meant I got a chance to see part of a Shinto wedding ceremony. It was a wonderful procession, with the bride and groom and a few others in traditional dress, trailing members in tailed tuxes and alas, women mostly in pantsuits – only a few kimono. Photos over at flickr, you’ll forgive me for not capturing the pantsuits.
Nearby, there was a railing set up around a huge tree where you could post a board on which you had written your wishes. These were really interesting. In all sorts of languages, but mostly Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English, people wished for health, happiness, love, and even a ‘mo chill time in Japan.’ The one that struck me the most though, was the one that wished that the soldiers and sailors of both sides in the Great Pacific War may rest in peace. It struck me because not so very far away is another more famous Shinto shrine, Yasikuni, that houses the spirits to the Japanese war dead, including most notoriously, several war criminals. I’ve also already seen the right-wing propaganda trucks that tool around town with people giving speeches on top. I wish my Japanese were good enough to understand more of what they said. All I can hear is a lot of ‘fathers,’ ‘mothers,’ and ‘children.’ Perhaps it’s my overactive imagination, but that sounds like it would fit well with good old down-home xenophobic populism to me. The rise of nationalism in Asia is very disturbing to me, and I was very disappointed to have the reflection break into my bucolic reverie. I may write more on this later.
Leaving the shrine, I ran into the other most famous sight of Harujuku, the Cosplayers – ‘Cos’ for ’costume.’ They are also called Loli-goths – the ‘Loli’ is short for ‘Lolita.’ Wouldn’t Nabokov be proud? (I should say that I’m pretty sure they aren’t encouraging pedophilia. I’m fairly sure that Lolita has the same readership rate among the pre-college folk here that it does in the US - that is - next to nil.) I’m sure you can kind a wealth of information all over the web about these folk, and the couple of photos I’ve got might help, but briefly, imagine that the Rocky Horror Picture Show folks didn’t have a movie. Mix liberally with the Emo kids. Put them all in costumes made from the reimaginings of Gothic horror and Manga. Give them one day of celebration per week on Sunday where they can gather and seek the affirmation that they don’t get from their peers in school by allowing a horde of photographers to ask them politely if they might take their picture. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh. As a former Rocky Horror Picture Show and drama geek, I imagine that, were I to grow up in Japan nowadays, I might be out there too. They generally seemed really happy, too, so maybe the Emo thing doesn’t fit. Perhaps a wondering Googler can enlighten me.
In any case, the costumes of the cosplayers and the do-wop guys along with the costumes of the wedding ceremony (both kimono and tuxedo) seemed to encourage a confirmation of the ‘Japan is a country of contradictions’ blather. I still don’t buy it. At least if you are going to claim that Japan is a country of more contradictions than other countries. Yeah, sure they’ve got east and west and past and present, but who doesn’t? Ever been to a renaissance festival in the US? Ever seen a clutch (gaggle?) of non-Asian folk at a Japanese anime screening at a US university? Ever seen photos of a Star Wars wedding? To me, it’s just another way of saying that Japanese folks are fundamentally different from others, and I really don’t think that serves anyone very well. To cover my ass, I don’t mean to say that there aren’t cultural differences and social issues unique to Japan, of course there are, and I’ll happily write about them, too. I guess I just got a bit miffed after looking at all the exotic–ized Japan in the guide books I’ve been looking at.