Snapshot From Japan

23 April, 2019
By courtesy of a British Airways Boeing 707 I was crossing in a few hours the same distance that cost Marco Polo years of his life, but the speed of modern travel has its penalties. Among these had been the in-flight movie, which I dimly remember was about bears playing baseball.
From the air Siberia looks like cold nothing. The Sea of Japan looks like wet nothing. But Japan itself, at your first glimpse of it, looks like something. Even geographically it’s a busy place.
Immediately you are impressed by the wealth of detail – an impression that will never leave you for as long as you are there. Only a tenth of the land is useful for anything. The remaining nine-tenths, when you look down on it, is a kind of corduroy velvet: country so precipitously convoluted that the rivers flowing through it look like the silver trails of inebriated slugs. The useful tenth is inhabited, cultivated and industrialised with an intensity that boggles the Occidental mind. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
Seen from high up, the basic agricultural pattern of the Western countries is of accumulated squares. America looks like a patchwork quilt; France like another quilt but with smaller patches; Britain like yet another quilt but with smaller patches still. The basic agricultural pattern of Japan is of proliferating brain cells. Everywhere a rice paddy can possibly be put a rice paddy has been put, even if it is only the size of a table napkin.
Merging with this nervous tissue, like bionic grafts, are the areas of urban habitation and industry. One hundred and ten million people live and work down there, most of them in conurbations which to the stratospheric eye look like infinitely elaborate printed circuits. You can tell straight away, before you even touch the ground, that in Japan there is nowhere anybody can hide. They’re all in it together.
When the plane starts to land at Tokyo’s Haneda airport one tends to panic slightly because from the tilting window the built-up area seems to go on for ever, with no edge except the sea. Later experience confirms the truth of this suspicion – Tokyo is really just a name for one of the more drastically overpopulated districts in a single, enormous city that goes on and on for hundreds of miles – but for the moment the panic is cancelled out by the more immediate fear that one is about to land in an oil refinery.
The plane comes in low over Tokyo Bay and touches down at a point where the water abruptly becomes concrete, with a plenitude of industrial capacity looming on all sides. The sheer crowdedness of Japan is already happening even at the airport – a place which in the next few hours I was to see a lot of, because I had neglected to provide myself with a visa. Even after sixteen years in Britain I still carry an Australian passport, and although Britain has a no-visa arrangement with Japan, Australia hasn’t.
Half a day of negotiations provided eloquent proof that in Japan subsequent action may be swift but the preliminary formalities must always be thorough. The smiling but inexorable lady immigration official did everything except interrogate separate parts of my body to make sure that they belonged to the same person. Documents were produced on which I had to fill out details of the Observer’s ownership, management structure, circulation and history over 200 years. By this time I was getting worried about being deported straight back to London with nothing to show for the trip except a very short article.
The situation was saved by the arrival of a public relations officer from jetro – the government-sponsored trade organisation who were my hosts for the visit. A young man of awesome patience and efficiency, Mr Jun Tsunekawa was to be my Virgil for the entire junket. In Japan there is really no such thing as first-name terms, so even when we got to know each other well we always remained Mr James and Mr Tsunekawa. But in my mind he was known straight away and for ever as Jun-san the PR-man.
After filling out several hundred forms on his own account, making a few score phone calls and helping me to suspend the immigration lady’s disbelief in the existence of the Atlantic Richfield Company, Jun-san finally sprang me from the trap. We fell into a taxi and headed for central Tokyo. During the rush-hour Tokyo’s millions of cars form a traffic-jam which lacks a glacier’s sole virtue – movement. But this was merely the middle afternoon, so the taxi-drivers on the flyovers were free to express themselves. The old joke says that in the kamikaze squadrons the failures were the ones who came back. The old joke forgets to mention that they’re all driving taxis in Tokyo.
The Imperial Hotel is a few yards from the Ginza in one direction and the Imperial Palace in another. The old Imperial was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces and was reckoned to be full of character if you didn’t mind getting down on your hands and knees to look through the window. The new Imperial has nothing quirky about it except a standard of service that is little short of uncanny. Platoons of highly motivated staff are poised in the starting blocks ready to anticipate your every wish. If they can’t read your mind and supply what you want before you ask for it, they hold themselves to have failed.
I later learned that a high standard of service is general throughout Japan, but for the moment it seemed an emollient specifically laid on by the fates to console me for the visa blunder, which had wiped out the time allotted for visiting the Sony factory. Jun-san had worked out a jam-packed itinerary which left no room for errors but on this one occasion there was nothing to be done. The Sony visit was out, and very soon Mr James was out too – out cold. While Jun-san commuted back to his wife and children, I turned on the Hitachi TV set and fell into a jet-lag sleep while sitting upright in bed watching Samurai running at one another with little swords.
That was the last quiet moment. For the next eleven days the pace was a cracker. In England jetro had asked me to supply a list of things I wanted to see. Assuming they would make a limited choice according to what was available or convenient, I had asked to look at everything from heavy industry to flower arrangement. I now learned to my horror that they had taken the whole thing literally and had put together a programme involving half a dozen big cities, most of the important shrines and temples, tours of factories, visits to pearl farms, and a night in a traditional inn. All these things were to be joined up by rides in the Bullet Train, which would transport us at a steady 120 m.p.h. on the rare occasions when we were not doing something else.
First there would be conferences, meetings, lunches and dinners in Tokyo, with the object of providing opportunities to Exchange Views. In Japan it is always called an Exchange of Views, even when the only view that matters is theirs. The more anxious they are to tell you something, the more polite they get – and at that moment they were very anxious to tell us something, so the politeness was overwhelming.
For the next two days I was ushered from conference room to conference room. A team of Japanese officials would be waiting in each room, the older men of unnervingly high rank, the younger men of vibrantly keen demeanour. One and all were dressed in impeccable taste. Having been warned in advanced that it was suit and tie all the way, I had brought both my suit and my tie, but in this company there was no hope of looking anything except seedy. They didn’t seem to mind. They Exchanged Views undaunted.
Always deferring to their seniors, the youngsters made the points. Every point was backed up with Xeroxed graphs and figures, until my briefcase started looking like a kitbag. I am so far from being an economist that I have always admired Sir Alec Douglas-Home for knowing which matches to move, but gradually a picture emerged that even I could understand.
Japan’s balance of payments surplus has grown so big as to become embarrassing. Unless something is done to reduce it, tariff barriers might be put up in the countries to which Japan exports. But Japan can’t afford to export less, since she is already in a recession. Therefore she will have to import more.
It is not easy for foreign countries to trade in the Japanese market, but America has done well, there is a demand for high-quality British goods, and there is no reason why everybody should not do better, especially with the encouragement and advice from the Japanese Government. In other words, it’s open house.
Though I never, then or subsequently, conquered the suspicion that they had chosen the wrong man to entrust with their message, still I was impressed with their sincerity. After the frightening success at selling things to the rest of the world, the Japanese now really and truly want the rest of the world to sell things to them. One catch, however, had already become obvious even to my inexpert eye. It takes only a few hours in Tokyo to make you wonder whether there is anything in the way of consumer goods that Japan doesn’t make better and cheaper than anybody else.
The cars that choke the streets are not only all new, they are solidly made: the days are past when shortage of materials enforced shoddiness of construction. On the footpaths, the population is well dressed. You would expect the Japanese to make their traditional clothes well, but they make Western clothes well too. The men’s suits are beautifully cut, and even the more humble of the women wear soft fabrics in a subtle range of colours – always a sign of wealth in Britain and America, and in Russia totally unknown.
Japanese shed no litter. (Nor is the city air any longer polluted – the only reason that you see some people wearing gauze masks is that it is considered bad manners to give other people your cold.) But they are not just spick and span. They are tasteful in a way that unites the past with the present and the higher orders with the lower. You never get the sense, as you do in most other countries, that the upper classes have the monopoly of aesthetic gratification.
That much you can see on the streets and footpaths. Then, when you go inside the shops, you start seeing the consumer goods – another revelation. In a discount house for electric appliances Jun-san and his raffish colleague Mr Sato (who daringly wore no tie) showed me a new-model pocket calculator. I bought it for about £8 and have it before me on my desk as I write. It runs on a lithium battery and has about the same dimensions, including thickness, as a rye crispbread. A country that can make something like that can make anything.
But before I had time to get doubtful about our chances of further penetrating the new Japan, Jun-san whisked me into the old. The road west from Tokyo to Kyoto is called the Tokaido. In Hiroshige’s time the 300 or so miles was a fortnight’s brisk walk, although he himself took longer, since he was sketching for the famous series of woodcuts with which he finally toppled Hokusai from popularity.
Nowadays you travel up and down the Tokaido on the Shinkansen, known to the world as the Bullet Train. (Shinkansen really just means New Line, but the world wants romance.) The Shinkansen moves at about the same speed as BR’s 125 but nothing stops it except an earthquake. After half an hour of going hell for leather it all seems very natural and you are left with nothing to do except wonder vaguely when Tokyo is going to end. It never really does: it just changes names. At one of these names, Nagoya, we got off and switched to a private line, the Kinki Nippon Railway, which took us into the Ise peninsula, where the shrines and pearls are.
For the next few days, by dint of the Kinki Nippon and a succession of limousines laid on by jetro, we zig-zagged around the peninsula absorbing the surprisingly large amounts of old Japan which still remain carefully preserved among the factories and rice-fields. A measure of the holiness of the Buddhist and Shinto shrines is the fact that the land inside their boundaries is used for nothing except gardens.
The Meiji restoration in 1868 brought an end to the long reign of the Tokugawa Shoguns and launched Japan into the modern era. But looking at the shrines, temples and palaces you feel that the continuity between the ancient Heian Period and the current Showa Era remains largely unbroken. For one thing the Japanese are still physically involved with the far past. The Emperor and the Prime Minister come to the great Ise shrine every year. The Emperor’s white horses are kept there. Some of the Ise shrine’s bleached wooden buildings are rebuilt entirely every twenty years, exactly as they were before, tile for tile, nail for nail. The substance changes but the form persists, just as there are always carp in the clear river century after century.
In Nara, which was the capital before Kyoto, which was the capital before Tokyo, I saw the world’s oldest wooden building. It belongs to a Buddhist temple and dates from the seventh century. Not far away is the pavilion containing the Daibutsu, a statue of Buddha more than 60 feet high. The pavilion roof is currently being restored at a cost of five billion yen, which according to my crispbread calculator is a hell of a lot of money. Standing in the shadow of the Daibutsu’s left knee, I said the only prayer of my adult life, on the principle that it would be foolish to waste the opportunity. If anyone is in touch with the man upstairs, the Daibutsu is.
In Kyoto I contemplated the famous Zen garden of stones and raked sand in the Ryuan-ji temple and walked across the stepping-stones in the lotus gardens of the Heian Shinto shrine. It was all magically lovely, but on the whole I found the secular architecture more appealing than the religious. In their bland, sweet eclecticism the shrines remind you of the rest of the East, but the buildings put up by the nobility represent a conjunction of high art and worldly power more familiar to the Western mind, which will readily find comparisons in Renaissance Florence and Petrine Russia.
The edifice not to be missed is the Nijo Castle in Kyoto. The Nijo-jo was built in 1603 by Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns. Inside its stone walls the wood, cloth and paper rooms combine force with delicacy in the most astonishing way, as if the acme of taste had already been reached and there was nowhere else to go. Coffered beams with gold-plated nail-covers mark off areas of wall exquisitely decorated with Kano murals of cherry tree branches piled with snow.
Sunlight filters though paper windows into the long, low reception rooms behind whose sliding panels the Shogun’s bodyguard were concealed ready to leap into action should one of his ambassadors prove traitor. For security at night the corridors are equipped with nightingale floors: all the boards are mounted on sleeved nails so that the whole floor sings like a bird no matter how softly you tread. Thus the Tokugawa preserved their power for centuries, until the day came when they decided to let the Emperor carry the can.
The Two Views traditional inn at Toba has received many a weary traveller, but none wearier than Mr James. I was glad to descend into the traditional bath and emerge into the traditional kimono. Jun-san opened the traditional calligraphy set, prepared the traditional ink, and taught me to write my name in Japanese. Meanwhile the traditional maid in traditional dress brought us the traditional meal. Most of this was sashimi – raw fish. The sea cucumber was like taking a bite out of a squash ball but the squid was not to be sneezed at.
At last it was time to roll out the traditional bed on the tatami, heap it with the traditional quilts and settle down for the traditional sleepless night. I didn’t get a wink, but in the morning the Pacific was outside the window, glass-calm to the horizon. As the pale dawn broke gently over the pearl farms I wondered why I felt so at ease, considering that I had never been further away from home.

June 4, 1978

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