Musings on Art, and the Search for Japanese Culture

Aug 17,2011

I'm finally back at the blog after another whirlwind of activity here at TPIEF. It would take several entries to cover all the excuses I have for not having made one in all this time, so I'll start with the most recent.

As it happens, the misadventure from which I've just returned was a weekend excursion after nearly two weeks of continuous work, and perhaps this week is the one in which I'll catch my breath. After all, this is the Obon holiday period, all my teaching work is in suspension, we're on half staff in the office here, and we're not likely to get many visitors.

The weekend was spent in Okayama and Kagawa, after a few days in Kouchi the week before. The most striking thing about domestic travel in Japan is that everywhere in Japan looks almost exactly like everywhere else in Japan. You'll see the same chain retailers and convenience stores, tiled roofs, and municipal layouts. The only significant difference might be that people's speech is less understandable the more you're used to the dialect of whatever region you happen to be living in. It really makes me wonder why most people in Tottori aren't interested in going abroad and prefer to travel around the archipelago when they travel at all. Someone once said that the world is like a book, and he who doesn't travel reads only one page. If anything, the numbing similarity of the domestic landscape reminds me of the absolute necessity of going abroad if I really want to experience anything different at all; if not, I may as well stay in Tottori.

For one thing, an awful lot of people in Tottori know who I am, and even those who don't have seen me around often enough that they know I'm not dangerous to the average Tom, Dick and Hiroshi. Sometimes they'll even sit near me on the train as if I were a normal human being. Not so in Okayama, where no matter how packed the train, everyone prefers to stand rather than go anywhere near me, and every seat on the train is occupied except for the two directly opposite us. This was a new experience for my Japanese girlfriend, who had never seen this kind of avoidance before. She was completely nonplussed as to why people who go to such lengths to stay away from us, and I had to explain it to her.

I'm told that the reason Japanese people avoid sitting near (especially opposite and facing) white folks on the trains is that they're afraid we're going to talk to them. This is given as an explanation so often that I'm afraid I have to accept it, even if I find it hard to believe. After all, I look pretty exotic wherever I go, and yet I don't expect total strangers to start conversation with me, so why would ordinary, common-looking people believe themselves to be so incredibly interesting that total strangers can't resist talking to them?

But I digress.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the trip was to see artisitic Okayama, including an island, accessible only by ferry, on which many of the artists made their livings. To be fair, the island included some fairly interesting old buildings and was sprinkled with the same elements of hip that define California surf communties like San Clemente. We stopped for lunch in a little Hawaiian-themed surfer joint. The walls inside were handpainted murals, there was reggae music playing from a portable radio, and the oscillating floor fan did little to dispel the oppressive heat. The guy at the counter had a deep tan and looked stoned. When we ordered our food together the only problem was that some things on the menu were not actually available, but when I returned alone to order additional drinks, there suddenly developed a language problem.

I ordered in standard Japanese, but the dude answered me in what was either slurred and heavily accented English, or Hawaiian. I couldn't tell. When I requested clarification, again in standard Japanese, the other guy in the back added some gestures. When I apologetically explained that I didn't understand whatever language they were speaking, they grudgingly switched to Japanese. They must have been disappointed.

Interestingly, or perhaps predictably, the staff of the big (by Japanese standards) museum we visited next all spoke standard English and couldn't resist using it on me. They obviously know I could understand Japanese because they hear me and my companion conversing fluently in it before they talk to us. But when they address both of us together, it was always in English. My lady was indignant. 'Do I look like I'm not Japanese?' she wondered aloud. It's not that, I explained, it's that even though their jobs require English, less than ten per cent of their clientele are caucasian, and so when they see one of us they know it's a rare chance to use their English and keep it from going rusty.

The museum was interesting in that the queues were extraordinarily long considering how few exhibits there were. Most of it was sketches or unfinished paintings by such names as Monet and Gauguin, and none of it was particularly impressive. But people queue up to see pieces by Monet and Gauguin not because they are good, which they would have no way of knowing, but because they are Monet and Gauguin. If they dug up a farm goods receipt signed 'William Shakespeare', they would frame it and charge exhorbitant prices for admission to a peek at this authentic piece of 'literature'.

The next disappointment was Okayama Castle. There were, in fact, some authentic swords, suits of armour, and pottery from the original period on display, but these were overwhelmed by the renovated walls and flooring, the video exhibits, and the tacky souvenir gift shop. What an extraordinary opportunity this could have been to showcase the elusive 'Japanese culture' everyone seems so proud of! Why keep destroying the old and beautiful to make room for new, state-of-the-art junk? There isn't nearly the drive to preserve ancient or antique artifacts of traditional culture of the sort that are ubiquitous in Europe, and the irony is that Europeans seem to take it rather for granted, while in Japan quite a bit of noise is made over precious little. But then people who have never left the country might actually believe that a few authentic katana amid a sea of bric-a-brac trinkets are actually a legitimate source of national pride.

Then again, when I returned from Italy recently and remarked on the lack of architectural beauty in Tottori, I was reminded that if Tottori was made of splendid ancient buildings and grand fountains, it too would be swamped with American tourists, which wouldn't necessarily be a good thing. On the other hand, agencies around here are constantly claiming they want to boost tourism for the sake of municipal revenue, and they come up with all sorts of schemes to promote manga and pears, but almost nothing is ever heard of one of the surest tactics for attracting tourists, especially foreign ones with money: digging up and showcasing something really old, really cool, and really Japanese.

Island-flavoured Surf Bar

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