When friends visit from California, they point out how much the old Buddhist capital of Nara looks like a version of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. Mothers in Japan now aspire to look younger than their daughters (as in the Golden State of eternal summer), as fast as their daughters contrive to look older than their mothers. Those not possessed of surfer or hip-hop styles seem to be taking their cue from old punk records or the “Full House” sit-com that was shown for years on Japan’s educational channel. There are many more 7-Elevens in Japan than in the U.S. But in a sense, this is a San Fernando Valley violently lost in translation. As soon as my friends start talking to Japanese people, they find much less faith in the future tense than in the Far West — and a much keener sense of the past.
I remember the first time I spoke to Toshi Okazaki Satow, the elegant manager of Tawaraya, the 18-room inn at the center of Kyoto that is often called the best hotel in the world. Tawaraya has opened its doors to European kings and the first prime minister of Japan, to Marlon Brando, Willem de Kooning and J. Robert Oppenheimer. “The spirit of Tawaraya has not changed in 300 years,” said Mrs. Satow, the eleventh-generation owner of the inn, as she served me tea in the compact library and lanterns came on in the narrow lane outside. “But the style has to change to keep that spirit alive.” True to that creed, she brought in design elements from China and Indonesia and Egypt—then WOVE them together into a distinctly Japanese whole. She installed televisions and telephones in every room, but covered them in elegant fabrics, so that visitors could imagine themselves in a classic tatami quiet. What she was saying, I think, is that Japan remains Japanese by constantly bringing in new elements to sustain its traditional ways, the way the shrine at Ise is carefully rebuilt every 20 years to remain in the same state of weatheredness.
Issey Miyake draws on a classically Japanese sense of design to make Western-style clothes for the global market. Hayao Miyazaki brings together the Prussian-blue skies of Hiroshige and a Shinto sense of spirits alive in every river, tree and even desk to make Academy Award-winning animated films so popular that Disney buys them. In Kyoto, tradition is so much in fashion—thanks in part, perhaps, to interest from the West—that design studios are now setting up offices in machiya, or traditional wooden houses; temples are opening their gates after nightfall (to show off the autumn colors—and to put more money in their coffers); and platinum blond-haired local girls are paying $150 to dress up for a day in geisha clothing.
Of course it’s much easier to adapt foreign images to a Japanese model when it comes to fashions, films and food than to global diplomacy or international trade, both of which hold to worldwide standards. And no one would suggest that a place as exclusive or as exquisite as Tawaraya could serve as a useful model for democracy. But what I heard Mrs. Satow imply—and implication, inevitably, was part of the point—was that Japan was still much better at being itself than at being a mock-California or proto-Shanghai. It does not take a visitor more than a few days in Tokyo to see that (as is not the case in Beijing or Bangkok) the same women who look so natural and at ease in traditional dress often seem strikingly ungainly in Western fashions, as if they do not know how to match content to context. The only part of Nara that does not seem confused to me is the 1,300 year-old center of it, which has very much stayed in place.
The recent power and popularity of Japan, such as it is, has come not from its trying to diminish its distance from the world so much as from trying to turn that distance to advantage. The brilliant miniaturism of its TVs and smart phones arises from a land that has long liked to work in small spaces – think haiku and bonsai. The manga and anime that have swept the pop-cultural globe come from a culture that has long thought in images more readily than in words. The planetary phenomenon that Yorkshiremen call “carry-oke” derives from a country whose people are at once publicly shy and yet strikingly confident when it comes to playing a part.
Japan has long been less like anywhere else than anywhere else I know, and when it sees that as a strength, it has found its place on the international stage. Who would have thought, for example, that people from Bombay to Rio would be devouring raw fish? In an era of globalization, the local has a new and particular force.
Posters everywhere, as autumn approaches again this year, are drawing me to the Autumn Carnival in department-stores. McDonald’s is serving up tsukimi or moon-viewing burgers (with fried eggs between the buns) on the occasion of the harvest moon. Plastic maple leaves are soon to appear around the sets of TV shows and Pumpkin Churritos and Halloween masks are showing up in Universal Studios in Osaka. This can all seem rather hokey to a visitor— ancient Chinese customs adapted to a deracinated Westernized world.
And yet, the reverence for autumn remains, deep down, as Japanese as it’s ever been. I watch as my neighbors stream into the parks again—to admire the same trees in the same light as last year, and every year before—and then to pose for the same photos and murmur the same phrases among the deer, around the shopping arcades, in my artificial suburb and along the rusting streets of Science Town. It’s hard not to feel that people here are sustaining themselves — not desperately or nostalgically, but instinctively — by noticing what doesn’t change even as their own lives move naturally towards the cold and dark of winter.
Their economy is stalled, their political system looks bankrupt, their land was hit by an apocalyptic series of traumas and their kids are acting out. But when Japan looks towards the future—and this was not the case in the England I grew up in, or in California, when I lived there—it sees something that looks as familiar as the falling leaves and brilliant skies of November. The things that don’t change give a meaning and a perspective to the many things that do. Autumn turns to winter, and then to spring again.