A country of contradictions: Japan

I think you’d (mostly) agree that Japan is a place of wonder, a culture of intrigue and a population most unique. I arrived to this mysterious island with an eagerness to explore.

I write this on my return flight and can’t help but feel I’m leaving even more fascinated by Japan, with my curiosity about the culture and history further peaked, and as I reflect upon my journey, I’m baffled by the many contradictions highlighted.

A country full of temples and one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, yet walking around the capital, it feels like an incredibly secular society. Tokyo is a city of giant TV screens and bright lights, where games arcades are the place of worship and Pokémon the modern deities.

Frenetic Tokyo.

In frenetic Tokyo with a mammoth population of over 35 million (in Greater Tokyo), it’s a bewildering to see pedestrians halt at traffic lights. Initially, in my London haste, I weaved my way through traffic, jaywalking, while the Japanese with their immense patience waited for the green man.

The Japanese people are some of the most polite, helpful and respectful I have ever encountered. Exchanges are conducted with two hands — from business cards to cash. Train conductors bow as they enter each carriage. Orderly lines form at bus stops and to board the metro — even at rush hour! Never a rubbish bin in sight, yet the streets are spotless. A technologically advanced society, yet credit cards are hardly accepted anywhere.

Despite this respectful culture, I was disappointed to hear that employers are prejudiced against women and that a traditional, chauvinistic culture still persists. The gender pay gap is significant and there are limited women in senior roles in business and government. Speaking to some local women, the rare few I met who spoke English, they articulated the choice they face simply: career or motherhood. As more modern Japanese women select career, fewer are getting married or marrying later, and the population is in decline.

The declining demographic, the fastest of any developed country, and a large ageing population, is worrying for the Japanese economy. But the Japanese are a creative, innovative and hard working people, a nation that became the second largest developed economy in the world in the postwar period. They’ve brought us Canon, Sony, Nintendo, Uniqlo, Hitachi, Toyota, Nissan, Panasonic, Muji, and Yakult, to name but a few Japanese brands. And visiting the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, it was thrilling to see the potential developments that might change our lives in future — from ASIMO the multilingual robot to the human-like androids. To me it’s an indicator that the Japanese believe they have the resources and skills to stay at the top of the high-tech chain.

ASIMO- the multi-lingual, dancing, football playing robot!

I’m leaving enchanted by this country. I fell in love with the temples, green mountains, the bowing welcomes, the tea houses, zen gardens, the obsession with Hello Kitty, the prompt and rapid bullet trains (Shinkansen), the heated toilet seats (!), the low beds, and saying ‘konnichiwa’ (hello). Furthermore, I loved how the culture brought out the patient and peaceful side in me. Through reading, talking, exploring, I’ve learnt so much about a culture foreign to me and a history excluded from our curriculum. Yet I leave contemplating the contradictions I’ve perceived in the society and feel my learnings are only scratching the surface. One thing is for certain, Japan is a country I will return to and next time, with some more Japanese up my sleeve!