Thursday, 1 November 2007


I've chosen the O-Torii Gate on Miyajima as a single symbol of a wonderful trip.
I've been back in England for a few days now, but my impressions of Japan are still vivid. Japan has a complex history and it would take a long time to unravel all the forces still at work in Japanese society.
Japan is made up of around 6,800 islands, although the vast majority of the 127 million population live on the largest island, Honshu, which I visited. Three quarters of the land mass is forested mountains so development is concentrated in the coastal plain. The Southern plain from Tokyo to Osaka is one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.
Until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, Japan was closed off from the rest of the world and it remains ethnically homogeneous with only small numbers of Korean, Chinese and Western immigrants.
After centuries of rule by the various Shogun, power was handed back to Emperor Meiji in 1868 and he embarked on a period of modernisation where Western ways were imported into Japan and a modern infrastructure was developed.
The rise of the military during the Meiji period led to Japan's involvement in a number of military actions, culminating in Japan entering World War II. Conventional bombing by America had resulted in terrible losses but the use of experimental atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced an immediate capitulation.
Following the surrender, America was able to direct Japan's path for a number of years but, by the 1960s, a more confident Japan was emerging as an industrial giant. A period of great prosperity followed, allowing major infrastructure projects to be undertaken.
The booming 1980s saw Japan becoming more international in its outlook, making major overseas acquisitions and also becoming the world's second largest donor of aid. This period of affluence later became known as the 'Bubble Economy' and by 1998 Japan was officially in recession. Redundancies, previously unthinkable, undermined confidence and suicide rates soared. A somewhat-chastened Japan is now creating a new long-term role on the World's stage.
Religious belief remains strong, based on Shinto, allied with Bhuddism and a little Christianity. Shinto is a form of animism, where deities are seen in the natural world who should be thanked for good things and prayed to for assistance. It has ritual but no scripture, so other beliefs can be accommodated readily. I was intrigued that some Shinto shrines have a special place where new cars can be purified. This seemed to exemplify a pragmatism which appears to underlie much of Japan's success.
History and religion have moulded the sociology of Japan. In the West, we sometimes find the politeness, exaggerated respect and avoidance of personal conflict associated with the Japanese mildly amusing. I found it refreshing - the consideration which I experienced in Japan highlighted how bad things have become in my own country.
Since I travelled within Japan by train, railways (both modern and preserved) formed a thread running through the trip which I found absorbing.
Japan affected me more than I expected and I certainly want to go back to learn more. The contrasts were very stimulating - the vibrant, sprawling city of Tokyo, Yokohama with its maritime past, Senzu nestling in the hills. Then on to Nagoya with its towering buildings, the charm of Inuyama and its hilltop castle, the seaside feel of Nagoyaka. Kyoto retains echoes of its Imperial past and offers an amazing collection of shrines and temples whilst, not far away, Himeji has perhaps the ultimate example of castle building. Hiroshima is now a thriving provincial city again but, inevitably, visits to the 'A-bomb Dome' and the Peace Museum provide a harrowing reminder of recent history. Finally, the special island of Miyajima is an odd amalgam of the 'touristy' and the spiritual which I found charming.
All in all, a wonderful trip.