Japan, the time machine

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting things about living in a traditional Japanese village was the sensation of having traveled back in time–and to multiple time periods, at that.  I taught in classrooms heated by coal-burning or electric stoves and received my teaching schedules by fax from the Board of Education.

Sometimes, though, I felt as if I were seeing not Japan’s past, but America’s.  You see, there is a dichotomy in Japan between things Japanese and things Western.  A traditional Japanese kitchen with a cooking pot hanging over a fire pit at its center is called a daidokoro.  A Western-style kitchen is called a kichin.  A traditional Japanese dance is called an odori, while a Western-style dance is called a dansu.  When I carelessly mixed these up, I was corrected.  They were not variants of the same thing–they were different things.

Slowly I began taking notice of which things around me were Western.  The quaint old-fashioned school buildings did not have tiled roofs and tatami mat floors–they were actually built in an old Western style of architecture, and for that matter, the students’ uniforms were Western-style as well.  I remember visiting a music box museum in Kyoto that displayed gorgeous, elaborate European music boxes from the 1800s.  The curators wore white gloves and turned the golden keys of the music boxes with a gentle reverence that seemed to belong to another world.

At some point I asked myself the question, “How much of what I like about Japan is uniquely Japanese, and how much of it is the history of my own culture being reflected back at me?”

I’m not sure I would have fallen in love with Japan as it was before any Western influence whatsoever.  If the many-layered kimono and courtly poetry exchanges of the Heian period are attractive to me, there is also much about the strange rituals and dark, wandering stories of that time that I find alien and unsettling.  But modern Japan does seem to have a special something that I don’t see in modern America, and strangely, at least part of that would seem to be due to the pieces of Western history preserved here.


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