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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Losing Japanese Culture

I made many observances on Japan when I lived there between 1990-1993, many of which have already been presented here in this blog.

Some are poignant, others ignorant, still some are amusing, and others just sad (both blue and lame).

Some cover more than one of the above descriptors, an easy result considering my descriptors are vague in their generality.

I'm currently in the process of reading a book (real paper!) called Lost Japan—a slow-moving, but highly thoughtful book by a writer and bon vivant far more intelligent than I—Alex Kerr.

The book is a collection of essays he wrote originally in Japanese for publication in a magazine, and when it was finally translated into English, it won the 1994 Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize, becoming the first book written by a gaijin (foreigner) to win such a prestigious prize.

In the very first essay/chapter, Kerr looks at the lost place known as Iya, lamenting how a whole village—after centuries in existence—was essentially abandoned as its population sought a better way of life in the big city of Osaka, for example.

As mentioned, the story was written for a Japanese audience originally, so the fact that a gaijin is pointing out a negative issue is something the Japanese would at least listen to - especially since there's no English involved!

For myself, I feel that Kerr's finger-pointing about the destruction of Japan is merely a description of what is going on in every single small town, village or hamlet in damn near every country in the world.

But… there was one thing about Japan that bothered me terribly: Japan trying to be less Japanese and more "American".

Now… there is nothing inherently wrong with America, nor wanting to be more like it. Canada is pretty much America Jr., but with better healthcare and less of a proliferation of automatic weapons or Zaxby's. (I see the TV ads!)

America has its pluses as well as its minuses, but all told it has more pluses - so I'm not bashing the U.S. of Eh. (Sorry, that's Canada, I meant the U.S. of A).

I'm actually bashing Japan and its desire to sacrifice aspects of its own culture as it incorporates bits of Americana into itself.

One of the things I like about Japan, is its distinctive architecture (at least it appears pretty damn distinct to me). For me, I like roofs… which is ironic considering I have a leaky one in Toronto…. but you can't have everything, least of all money to fix a leaky roof. Thank goodness it was -40C/F this morning, so there's no chance of leakage.

Anyhow… Who's the greatest baseball player ever? Roof! says the dog.
"What?" he continues, "I should have said DiMaggio?!"

I enjoyed traveling around Japan (it always rained when I traveled around in Japan, earning me the nickname Ame Otoko - Rain Man), so seeing effective roofing was always a plus.

I would look at a typical Japanese-style house and see the semi-circular pipe shaped terra cotta (in this clay)-like roofing tiles, and just know that I am in Asian country.

But… I noticed in my hometown of Ohtawara (It's always sunny in Ohtawara, when it isn't cloudy or rainy, which was actually pretty damn often - damn Ame Otoko), that when they constructed new, single or double-level houses, all the roofs had the neo-classic soft, flat glued on tiles that are rampant throughout Canada and the U.S.


Why make houses look so… so… un-Japanese?

It's a little thing, but it bothered me immensely then, and it bothers me immensely now.

It was like Japan was in a hurry to divest itself of a part of its cultural identity.

OMG - I think I understand (partly) what Japan Prime Minister Abe wants for Japan… more Japan-ism!

Can you imagine going to Japan for the very first time from your westernized country And discovering that Japan looks just like your home?

I won't call your country boring, but seeing Japanese houses with boring western roofing robs each visitor a bit of that mystery… a bit of the magic that Japan offers everyone who sets foot on its hot and sticky tarmac.

I know that Japan is still Japan, but with every new building looking less Japanese, I think the country loses a little bit more of its cultural identity.

And then I read more of Alex Kerr's Lost Japan. Turns out that Japanese half-pipe tiling isn't really Japanese… that a more Japanese roofing system involves something called kaya (which happens to be my sister-in-law's name)… a type of grass that is placed on a building like thatching.

It's a lost art… and even though there is still plenty of thatch being grown, very few people remain who know how to weave the stuff into a roof, making replacing the roofing of cultural heritage housing a very expensive proposition.

Japanese thatch roof. Image borrowed from
Of course, while the tiles in the west might need replacing after 10 years, the Japanese half-pipe tiles every 20, the thatch roofs only need replacing every 70 or 80 years.

Anyhow… the point is, I am lamenting the loss of Japanese culture, bemoaning the loss of the half-pipe roof tile, when the grass roofing is probably mow Japanese than any other style of roofing…

It's on temples, shrines, palaces, castles… fancy barns… hell… my Ohtawara Board of Education Office superintendent - his family's centuries (plural) farm house had the stuff on its roof, and I didn't realize that until just now with an acid flashback minus the acid.

Oooh… don't take the brown anti-acid. Classic.

Oh well… maybe I'll try and find a better argument for Japan losing its culture in another blog.

It does pretty much concrete up every damn space of green it can find, though. River banks, backyards… forests…

Andrew Joseph

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