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The contradiction that is Japan

Publication Date : 04-01-2014

 

When I told one of my friends in late November that I would visit Japan for a one-week holiday, he assured me I would love it. "Almost all the people who I know have visited the country enjoyed the trip," he said. He was not wrong.

My wife, who visited Kyoto 13 years ago, liked Japan's ancient capital so much that she always wanted to relive the experience. Actually, if it were not for her insistence, I might not have thought of setting foot on the soil of Japan, even though it is a "close neighbor separated only by a strip of water".

For me, Japan was psychologically too remote a country to visit, although many of its cultural aspects, from written characters to calligraphy and costumes to cuisine, can be traced back to China.

Japan is a country that has left the deepest scar on China's national dignity. In the half century starting from 1895, Japan invaded China, forced it to cede territory, plundered its resources and slaughtered millions of its people. Japan's wartime atrocities, such as the Nanjing Massacre in which at least 300,000 Chinese civilians and unarmed soldiers were butchered by Japanese imperial troops in December 1937 are still fresh in Chinese people's mind.

That explains why anti-Japanese sentiments have always run high in China, amplified whenever Japanese right-wingers try to whitewash wartime history or politicians pay homage to war criminals enshrined in Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine. The visit to the war shrine by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week has once again rubbed salt in the wounds of Japan's wartime victims.

I have to concede, though, that I knew almost nothing about ordinary Japanese people before my recent trip to Japan, perhaps because I had never had a chance to meet one. The word "Japanese" would conjure in my mind only images of Japanese soldiers from my childhood comic books, or war movies and TV series, which still dominate Chinese TV channels and depict them as stiff-jointed, lecherous and bloodthirsty creatures whose only source of pleasure stems from killing, raping and looting innocents.

It is not strange therefore that like many other Chinese, I too harbored a sense of animosity toward Japan and anything related to it. In 2002, when a man threw "liquid excrement" at actress Zhao Wei after she appeared in a fashion magazine wearing a skirt designed similar to the Japanese military flag, I thought it was a "patriotic act" that had gone a little too far. I couldn't have been more wrong.

In August 2012, when mobs went berserk, smashing and torching Japan-made cars on the streets of many Chinese cities because of the escalated territorial dispute between China and Japan, I started questioning the sense of righteousness long employed by many of my compatriots in the outpouring of hatred in the name of patriotism. It was then that I decided not to subject my judgment so easily to emotions.

It was with this state of mind that I boarded my flight to Japan. We visited Kyoto and Nara, and the trip turned out to be one of my most impressive abroad. Never have I seen a society where tradition coexists with modernity in such harmony. Pilgrims crowded more than 1,000-year-old temples nestled steps away from busy shopping malls where the world's most trendy electronic gadgets are sold. My hotel room was covered with traditional tatami mats, but it was also equipped with the most high-tech jet-spray toilet that warms up users' buttocks and plays pleasant sound tracks.

I found so many things to marvel at: blue skies and white clouds, impeccably clean streets, water fowls wading in crystal-clear rivers, and buses and subway trains that arrive and depart on the dot.

More importantly, I had a chance to meet ordinary Japanese for the first time in my life - waitresses, housewives, taxi drivers, shop attendants and those whom I happened to seek help from on the streets. They looked energetic, efficient and enthusiastic about their work and extremely polite, bowing their heads constantly while saying arigato gozaimasu (thank you). I was mesmerized into doing the same after a couple of days.

I know it is not easy to truly understand a people in such a short time. There must be more to their character than the superficial impression I got from a few days of random contacts. Ruth Benedict, US author of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, says the Japanese people are full of contradictions. The sword and chrysanthemum are two parts of the picture, because they are "both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite".

But I still believe human beings, despite their different nationalities, are the same in nature. And I hope the devilish part of the Japanese heart - the dark side of human nature - is never released, not even when their leaders push the nation down the road of militarism.

 

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