Before sitting down to wade through Christopher Harding’s chunky volume of contemporary Japanese history, containing over four hundred pages of richly embroidered, well-written text, I asked a young friend staying with me if he might like to attempt a summary of Japan’s recent ‘story’, to try to sum up what Japan meant for him in a stream of consciousness-like list. He had visited Tokyo for a week a few years ago and was also a fan of manga and anime. Gamely he agreed:
Samurai. The Last Samurai. Anime. Manga. The movies of Kurosawa and Oshima. The Second World War and Pearl Harbor. Kamikaze. The Nanjing Massacre. J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. POW abuse. Brutalism. Banzai. Bonsai. Ikebana. The economic miracle. Sony’s Walkman. Cameras and cars. Toyota and Nissan. Canon and Nikon. Sushi and ramen. Judo and karate. Fashion designers – Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto. Earthquakes. Salarymen and schoolgirls in fetish-inspiring sailor suits. Hibernating youth who refuse to leave their bedrooms – I forget what they are called. Yakuza and Zen. The sound of one hand clapping, whatever that is. Bashō and haiku.
‘That will do,’ I said. I wouldn’t like to try to sum up what it meant to be English, or British if you prefer, and attempt to tell the story of my own nation, let alone that of a foreign country. But this snapshot of Japan shows us something. If