The Ashes smoulder, as flames lick the night air, on a cool Nabari evening…
The smoke towers into the air, unmoving, like an obelisk, from what I estimate to be around a mile away. It registers at first, as I’m stood on the driveway of my apartment, to be some sort of metal, orb-like structure, perhaps due to the way it’s illuminated white-grey in the lights below. It’s only my acquaintance with the landscape, and the incongruity of such a structure upon it, that leads me to double take. Squinting, you can just about make a row of red lights beneath it, as they twinkle, in the gentle billowing of its structure. At this time of year, in rural Japan—as in my own home town in rural England—bonfires are commonplace. But the sheer size and volume of the noxious cloud, along with the time (11pm), point to something more sinister. Naturally I decide to take a closer look.
The main road does not easily lend itself easily to pedestrians. It’s cold, and dark, and there is no respite from the traffic, despite whatever incident lies ahead. As I walk, I nearly trip over a deer, sprawling on the roadside, dead; one antler lies snapped in front of its buckled head. I wonder if this is an omen for what I might encounter. I decide to beat a route, on foot, through the patches of trees and rice fields, that comprise the rugged Nabari landscape. It is not long before the presence of a police roadblock becomes apparent, in the near distance, making its best effort to stem the deluge of cars, and trucks pouring along the road. My Japanese is so-so, and I stick out like a sore thumb here in rural Japan, needless to say I’d find a hard time convincing the authorities to let me through unimpeded, for the sake of indulging my journalistic curiosity; so, I adventure to continue off road, making my way through the long grass towards the source of this smoke—which now appears to emanate from a small cluster of houses.
Upon stumbling into a large, rather inconspicuous ditch, and hobbling up its bank, I am met by a dismal sight: the remnants of two houses, now reduced to crooked, skeletal frames, leaning precariously, as smoke gushes from their bowels, eviscerated by the blaze. It does not take long to realise that the fire originated from the larger, more emaciated dwelling, and had subsequently spread to its neighbour. The firemen scurry around, like ants, beneath these hulking wrecks, desperately trying to prevent the blaze from spreading further within the tightly packed houses. There is a convenience store in the midst of this potential furnace which is, remarkably, still conducting ‘business as usual’, despite chaos ensuing all around its premises—a testament to the Japanese work ethic, if nothing else. Onlookers likewise conduct themselves with a degree of phlegmatic curiosity; stood behind an invisible barrier, they watch cinders in the night breeze.
My vantage point has become untenable, due to its close proximity to the site, and the increasing number of firemen patrolling its surroundings. The worst of the blaze is now under control; and as the final chunks disintegrate into ash and rubble, I am waved down, and sent on my way, shuffling back through the undergrowth. The journey home gives me some time for reflection. It seems there are any number of reasons for such a fire: the houses here are made of wood, and the winters are dry, making them natural tinderboxes for any sake’d ojisan that falls asleep with a cigarette in their mouth; this accounts for a slew of similar incidents occurring throughout Mie, as well as other prefectures. As I reach my apartment, and ascend the gravelled driveway, I survey the skyline one last time. The smoke is still there, its thick towering now flaccid, and diminished, but the red lights no longer twinkle beneath it.
The following day I have the opportunity to revisit the site of the fire, on my way to see Nabari’s famous ’48 Waterfalls’ (Akame Shijuhachi), a location more than worthy of its own article. As we are driving, I spot the wreckage from the roadside, like a pile of used matches, and decide to have a closer look. Some residents of the street have gathered to help clear up the burnt mess, and a surveyor appears to be weighing up the damage. The use of wood in Japanese architecture serves multiple purpose beyond aesthetics. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the abundance of woodland in Japan makes it a convenient material. The use of wood also allows that homes may be quickly rebuilt in the event of natural disaster—from which the nation suffers terribly—and that they should cause minimal damage to the occupants in the event that they do come down. One of the owners is surveying his property as I approach, face as sunken as the roof in front of him. My presence is, understandably, unwelcome, as the families and neighbours pick through the debris; I do not linger.
I am to discover a few days later, in a further and somewhat more sinister illumination of events, that this blaze was by no means accidental. According to a local news source, things had taken a turn for the worse in an argument between father and daughter, after which the girl had set fire to the kitchen. Although not directly referred to, one scarcely has to read between the lines to glean the allusion to mental health, particularly the breakdown of it—sadly an occurrence in Japan that can be just as frequent, and fatal, as the narcoleptic chain smoker. The issue of mental illness in Japan is in many ways the ‘elephant in the room’. No one talks about it. Its presence and treatment are largely regarded as a cultural faux pas, and as such being stigmatized along these lines can have serious ramifications for ones social or professional life. The result is that mental health problems often get swept under the rug, or go undiagnosed, with destructive consequences.
It should come as an interesting development, to those who read my previous article on Mie, and the effects of urbanisation on rural Japan, that the Japanese government has hinted at plans to subsidise migration and repatriation to the more remote prefectures.
It has been suggested that a payment of 3 million Yen could be made to individuals prepared to relocate outside of Tokyo’s 23 wards, for the ostensible purpose of starting business operations or taking up employment. Though this policy is in its infancy, it does represent possibly the first attempt by a developed nation to address the issue of urbanisation in such a way. Undoubtably the phenomenon is accelerated in Japan, to the degree where such an initiative is required, though the impact this could have for future policy making around the world is considerable.
Since the 2014 report, published by Hiroya Masuda, highlighted the sheer scale of urbanisation and depopulation in Japan, the ruling LDP has committed itself towards addressing the issue. The growing overpopulation of Tokyo has also put a tremendous strain on the city’s resources and infrastructure, making a solution all the more important.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set the target of rebalancing internal migration by 2020, with this policy almost certainly being a major step towards doing so. Nevertheless, laudable though this is in its premise, one is inclined to question its potential for success. And there are number of reasons to be sceptical of this.
Though some effort was initially made, through the introduction of a ‘Regional Revitalisation Minister’ for example, the government’s 5-year plan is now reaching its end, and has yielded little in the way of tangible results. In fact, Abe has been increasingly criticised for ignoring the issue altogether. The start date for the ‘get out of Tokyo’ initiative is slated for some time 2019, leaving only a small window for success—typically these experiments take years to analyse in terms of merit and success. As things stand today, the target deadline of 2020 looks increasingly unlikely.
The policy itself has also come under scrutiny from both the public and private sector. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike remains unconvinced over the potential for such payments to make a difference. Indeed, currently there are no stipulations as to how far one needs actually to relocate from Tokyo in order to qualify for the subsidy. Furthermore, it seems to me that without some equal effort to address the reasons why people leave their hometowns in the first place, these payments (however generous) seem unlikely to have the desired effect.
It is worth noting, however, that there does seem to be some enthusiasm for such a payment, as well as an apparent growing desire among Tokyoites to at least consider the prospect of country life—according to the MLIT, 23% of those polled were receptive to the idea of leaving the city. Many of those polled seem to be migrants to Tokyo, rather than native citizens, pining for a quieter life. In any case, caution is always advised when using polls to interpret future behaviour.
Ichiro Asahina, CEO of the Aoyama Shachu think tank, believes that the best means of regional revitalisation is to attract talented leaders to local government and business. Through fresh ideas and innovative thinking, alongside further decentralisation, the tide of stagnation may be turned. There may well be some truth to this, after all, revitalisation efforts seem to have largely failed in the past due to outdated methods, and a money hose with no direction.
There are in fact many initiatives at both the central and local level, with the purpose of tackling the depopulation and overcrowding; though this payment can be seen as an attempt to speed up, or kick start the cycle of migration and reinvestment I mentioned in my previous piece, in a particularly ‘hands on’ manner. It certainly represents a break from traditional thinking on the subject (as evidenced by the ripples it has sent through the national and international press) though it also presents a long, costly affair, with no guarantee of success at the end of it; does the state have the ability to implement it properly, or the will to see it through to the end? Only time will tell, though, at any rate, it seems best served as part of a broad package of reforms and initiatives, promoting growth at the local level, and achieving sustainable flows of internal migration.
It has been said before, that if one should desire to see the future of western society, then they ought to look to Japan, where the unintentional outcomes (low birth rate, overcrowding, depopulation) of capitalist development have been significantly accelerated. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, though I personally find it a somewhat simplistic assumption. Nevertheless, the rest of the world will certainly be paying close attention to the outcome of this initiative.
It is a cold November afternoon in Chiyoda, and a steady breeze is beginning to rise, sending leaves fluttering across the pavement. All around salarymen and women go about their lives as if they were in any other area of Tokyo, seemingly oblivious to the walled complex they stroll past. And why shouldn’t this be the case? The Yasukuni is, after all, just one of many such shrines all over Tokyo, and the country itself. Yet more than any other landmark in Japan, it has become the source of intrigue and contention.
Founded by Emperor Meiji in 1869, the Yasukuni was to function as a memorial to those who perished in the Boshin wars, which paved the way for his dynasty’s restoration; as such it maintains an intrinsic link to the imperial family. Like many such memorials, all over the world, its scope has grown over the years to encompass the lives lost in more modern conflicts. However, it differs from other institutions in one fundamental way: it is not simply a monument to the dead, but the spirits of the dead are actually enshrined within, becoming themselves deities and subjects of worship. It should be further noted that that no tomb exists here in the material sense; there are no graves nor bodies. It is simply the case that their souls have been brought here, in perpetuity, wherever their bodies may lie.
In practice the Yasukuni amounts to a somewhat contentious point of union between the church and the state; though this is by no means the sole, or even principle source of enmity surrounding it. For of the 2,660,000 souls enshrined, a large number, if not in fact the lions share, are casualties in Japan’s wars of conquest and occupation—particularly the Sino-Japanese and World Wars. Of that number 14 have been designated as ‘class A war criminals’, a further 1,068 were accused and convicted of war crimes general. For their sacrifice they have achieved martyr status, and are honoured as eirei—or hero spirit. That this tribute should be considered ignominious to those nations who suffered under Japanese occupation goes without saying; as, too, does the Japanese insistence on observing a tradition of war memorial.
What does require some further explanation, perhaps, is how this relates to a broader political (and particularly international) context. Whilst the brutal occupation of Manchuria undoubtably carries a heavy burden on the Chinese collective consciousness to this day, it is worth considering this (rather visceral) snapshot of Sino-Japanese relations as part of a wider, contemporary struggle between two states in both the political, cultural and territorial spheres. The inexorable rise of China has unseated Japan as both the dominant regional power, and the second largest economy in the world—this has undoubtably caused some instability in the regional power balance. Sensitive issues such as those surrounding the Yasukuni then form flashpoints in a much more complex state of interaction between two regional superpowers.
Such being the case, the ‘Yasukuni Question’ (and all its connotations) has become a useful tool for political demagogues, both in Japan and across the region. The Japanese far right activist group, known as the Uyoku Dantai, frequently stage events at the Yasukuni, an institution they see as under threat—though this can never be separated from wider issues, such as immigration, identity and sovereignty. Japanese government officials, and even heads of state, are also not above playing the Yasukuni card, where necessary. Conversely, in China, one can always count on reference, from some party mouthpiece, whenever public support requires galvanisation, over diplomatic and territorial disputes; such nationalist sentiment also serves as a distraction, from domestic scandal and mismanagement, and can therefore be cynically applied. This is often low hanging fruit, considering that there are many still in living memory of the Japanese invasion and occupation.
Passing beneath the great Torii gates, and into the courtyard, I take stock of the surroundings. The Sakura trees for which it is famed have now shed their blossom, replaced by a rusty brown foliage. Though the Yasukuni seldom draws the crowds of it larger and more well-known contemporaries, it is unusually quiet today. A couple pose for pictures in front of the main hall, its doorway draped with the crest of the imperial family (the Chrysanthemum blossom), as nearby a groundsman sweeps dead leaves from the courtyard. The hall is flanked by an assembly, a reception and the shrine itself, all constructed in the archetypal Shinto style. I find much of the actual shrine to be typical, with only oblique reference to the War or those consecrated within. Those overt mentions are of an altogether mournful tone. For example in front of the main hall, where inscribed is the last letter of Takashi Yamaguchi Mikoto, a young Corporal slain in the last days of the Burma campaign. Haunting in both its poignance and poetry, I have transcribed it below for the readers’ convenience:
Emiko, Junko, Older Brother will go to the battlefield of a land of everlasting summer.
This is my last letter from the mainland.
For Older Brother, there is no greater joy as a man than this.
Our meeting on January 3rd might have been our last. I do not believe that I will return alive.
I will simply trust in the precious power of the people in the home front, which overflows in my thousand-stitch belt, and the power of my amulet and work in high spirits.
I had done nothing until now and was undutiful.
Older Brother now goes to die.
Long live the Great Japanese Empire and His Majesty the Emperor.
While I am away, in place of older brother, please be dutiful to our parents together with older brother, Mitsuru.
And please get along well with your older brother and younger sister.
Well then, goodbye. I pray for your health and happiness.
Reading this is enough to make one feel deeply and painfully for those who offered up their lives, many willingly, in the service of what might be termed ‘king and country’—to use a British idiom. This mournful tone is very much in line with the general national attitude towards war, of ‘never again’. It also illustrates well a certain character exemplified in the Yasukuni: pertaining to duty and sacrifice, not just of the departed, but of citizens in paying respect to their ancestors. The sun is now beginning its descent, casting an orange hue over the wooden structures, and it is growing colder.
The Yasukuni Museum, or Yushukan as it has come to be known, was first established in 1882, as an accompaniment to the shrine. It was originally intended to curate and exhibit Meiji artefacts, though this was extended to include artefacts from all successive conflicts; as such it forms the contextual foundation for the Yasukuni, and outlines the principal Japanese narrative on its military history. In many ways it has become the main attraction, due to its hands on, albeit contentious and revisionist interpretation of history.
Upon reaching the museum entrance, I am met by a large, rather austere memorial to the Bengali Judge, Dr. Radhabinod Pal, one of the jurists at the Tokyo Trials. Well regarded for his dissenting opinion of the trial, he has become something of a hero in Japan, and in no place more so than here. Inscribed reads the following:
“When time shall have softened passion and prejudice, when Reason shall have stripped the mask from misrepresentation, then Justice, holding evenly her scales, will require much of past censure and praise to change places,”
Very interesting. And I think it can be said that this is where the tone becomes less oblique, and much more proactive. This quote might well be considered a sort of hors d’oeuvre to the museum experience; and it does well to take it as such, adjusting ones palate to the atmosphere in which the subsequent exhibitions are to be consumed. It is unclear to me that this statement was to absolve those on trial of war crimes, though it seems intended to be taken in that spirit.
Entering the Yushukan, it is a spic and span little number. In the foyer, clinically arranged, a tank, plane and steam engine are positioned to give the impression of advancing upon you. At one time, the Yushukan was state owned, though following its closure in the post war years, it reopened as a private enterprise. As I mill around, flicking through brochures, it feels more akin to a theme park, than a museum—much less one of such scandalous repute. At the counter I purchase my ticket, the price of which is Y800, and enter the exhibition through the electronic turnstiles.
It is said that the museum provides alternative descriptions in English for all its displays. This is quite untrue in my experience. Though some have been translated into English, and other languages, these appear sporadic (or perhaps selective) in their application; nevertheless, this does not impinge the narrative and general thrust, which remains palpable throughout: that of the downtrodden, misunderstood empire, a once great power now hostage to the praxis of western powers. The scholars of the Yushukan appear to have gone to great pains to emphasise this, and at points one is inclined to feel some sympathy. An overture to the ‘Opening of Japan’ begins with an unflattering block print of Commodore Perry, the American naval commander who lead the assault on Tokyo Harbour. The previous year Perry had been given what amounted to carte blanche in the task of opening trade and diplomatic relations with the isolationist Japanese Empire; by whatever means necessary. Inclined to leave no hostage to fortune, this is exactly what he did, in what was to become a rather shameful example of gunboat diplomacy. This historical condition sits heavily on the Japanese consciousness, a nation dragged into the modern world by point of a gun. The argument put forward, though implicit, seems to be: if Japan was coerced into modernity by western military powers, why then should the west be surprised that Japan would develop into a modern, military power, with ambitions of its own. This of course makes some logical sense, though as an apologia for the brutal expansionism that would come to define its ambitions, it falls short of what one might call ‘good taste’.
Nevertheless, the Yushukan is a forum for celebrating, as well as mourning, the Imperial Japanese Empire. As such a veritable feast is laid out, of artwork, artefacts, and replicas, showcasing the prowess and ingenuity of its armed forces. Particularly interesting is a documentary, screened in the on-site theatre, showcasing the development made possible in European colonies like Burma, as a result of Japanese occupation—you would have a hard time gathering this if you did not speak Japanese however, as the film is without any kind of translation. This seems to me somewhat common apologia for imperialism, one I have heard countless times before, in many countries, including my own—whether referring to the introduction of railways, bureaucracy or language to name a few. Yet there is another dimension here, one that goes beyond presenting imperial colonisation in a favourable way, but also to distinguish Japanese colonialism as superlative in contrast to western exploits in the region—which is to say that Western imperialism came at the expense of the subjugated, whereas Japanese imperialism was by comparison more benevolent, and perhaps even emancipatory. This extends itself to the battlefield, too. Emphasised beautifully by a painting of Japanese soldiers, resting on the roadside, as they wave cordially to a stream of Indian POWs as they are lead past. Whether this exchange would have been quite so frivolous, had those prisoners (or indeed their Japanese captors) known what awaited at the internment camps to which they were destined, one can only guess; though I suspect not.
My tour comes to a close on a sombre note, upon entering a hall, its walls plastered lengthwise with the monochrome portraits of men. The exhibition is titled ‘mementos to those enshrined’, and is a tribute to some of those martyred in the defence of the Japanese Empire. Emotive though such a display is, this exhibition is interesting in more ways than one. Each individual exists upon this wall nameless, and therefore essentially without identity, other than that assigned by collective association in martyrdom. Scattered throughout this innocuous collage of young men, are the images of rather more notorious figures, such a Hideki Tojo (who can be discerned if one has the time and inclination to do so). This suggests the irrelevance of the rank, status, social class and even nationality for those enshrined, having received that most honourable title eirei. Of course this in itself is not without controversy. It is estimated that some 20,000 Koreans have received posthumous, and in some cases ante-mortem, inclusion into the Yasukuni, without any form of consent; what is more, many of that number were conscripted into the Japanese armed service, and forced labour units, whilst under occupation. This is an added burden for those surviving relatives, who already carry the burden of history. Nevertheless, the Tokyo District Court has dismissed calls to excommunicate those deceased from the Shinto shrine, on three separate occasions, citing ‘religious tolerance’. That one of the appellants was a survivor, in effect contesting his own obituary, does not seem to pose a contradiction significant enough to undermine the court’s ruling.
Before making my exit, I wander through the giftshop, amongst the assorted trinkets’ and souvenirs. On offer there one can find model ships, tea, candy, and nationalist literature. Outside it is growing dark, and the grounds are in the process of closing. Leaving the complex, it strikes me that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth; one of bitterness, and abjection. Perhaps this intentional. A means of stirring visitors into action. Yasukuni should be seen then, not just as an apologia, or a revisionism, but an attempt at mobilisation. A battle over history, fought in the present, in aid of the future.
I suspect the thrall of the Yasukuni (though more specifically the Yushukan) for tourists lies in its perceived ‘un-pc’ portrayal of history, and the subsequent controversy that this stirs. It should be emphasised, however, that whilst this historical narrative is certainly a faux pas in the eyes of many foreign visitors, this is very much politically correct in Japan, and conforms largely to the state position. As such the Yushukan caters almost exclusively to the Japanese audience, with the purpose of instilling national pride in the country’s imperial past, and the sacrifice of those who fought in its name. The attempt to reinterpret imperial history is not just a contest over the past, but in effect an attempt to shape the future generations. The education system has formed an integral part of this mission. Though there are some high profile ‘traditionalist’ schools, where the nationalist doctrine is taught openly, for the most part the Japanese mainstream curriculum avoids the topic as much as possible—save for some reference to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
With the renewal of mainstream Japanese nationalism in the 1990s, topics such as those concerning national identity and patriotism have become increasingly prominent. The Yasukuni has often been the material focus of this movement. In 2001 Japanese premier Koizumi Junichiro recommenced the practice of official state visiting of the Yasukuni, which had been abandoned since 1985, prompting widespread chagrin internationally. This tradition has been supported and continued, at least in an unofficial capacity, by serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, most notably in 2013. For Mr. Abe however this is something more than a matter of conscience over the future of the Japanese identity. Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was accused of, and imprisoned for, war crimes, due to his role in governing the puppet state of Manchuko. Though Kishi was absolved of all charges, and subsequently released, the stigma of this ordeal went on to impact Abe throughout his childhood, shaping his conservatism in the process. This little tale of abjection-cum-vindication is, ironically, quite in tune with the narrative espoused by the Yasukuni; it is perhaps unsurprising then, that Mr Abe has decided to make this one of his personal hobby horses
In many ways, the narrative put forward by the Yasukuni is actually in conflict with that of the post war commitment to peace, as enshrined in both the Kyoto and Hiroshima museums. This peace consensus remains dominant in public opinion, and it is no wonder then that Shinzo Abe chose to articulate his visit to the Yasukuni in these terms—as a part of a commitment to peace. However contradictory this statement may seem, its necessity shows that nationalist and militarist sentiment are not as buoyant as one might perceive. Further to this, both the renegotiate Japans military constitution, and the (scandalous) patronage of nationalist faith schools by senior officials, including Abe himself, have been met with widespread hostility. The omission of unfavourable history from the curricula has also proved to be a double edged sword: whilst it prevents open discussion and questioning, this extends itself to the principle itself, to the degree that many young Japanese are simply disinterested in this vision of nationalist revival, other than in the most perfunctory way. Even on the far right of Japanese politics, in fact, this vision is deemed too wishy washy. The idea that you can create national pride and strength, through cultivating a state of victimhood, seems to me destined for failure. Furthermore such machinations expose a distinct lack of strength and unity, by their very necessity. With the numerous economic and social problems facing Japan, such vanity projects seem to me a fruitless and destructive use of time. This is not to undermine the principal of war memorial, however, though the monetization for political purposes of those lives lost, seems to me a perversion of that same principle.
Further reading: https://apjjf.org/-Hong-KAL/2880/article.html
The ancient city of Nara, an experiment in technological and spiritual innovation. The watermark of a nation in bloom, and a defining point in the portrait of a culture.
I had developed an interest in Nara soon after arriving in Japan, following an encounter with an old friend. We were having lunch, discussing the trials and tribulations of rural Japan, when the subject came up—she had just returned from there on business, and said it had been an altogether pleasant trip. Though I had some knowledge of the city and prefecture beforehand, I had never been, nor had I made any plans to do so; however, after our conversation I became increasingly taken by the idea of visiting. I am fortunate to be spending a few days in Nabari, in neighbouring Mie prefecture (some 65km from Nara City) making the journey convenient if nothing else.
The City of Nara lies in the mountainous Yamato Basin, close to the Kyoto border, where she has done for some 1300 years. Built in the 8th century, the city was modelled on the ancient city of Ch’ang in the hope that it might emulate the splendour of the Tang Dynasty. It became the home of the Imperial Court and capital of Japan, and lends its name to the subsequent period (Nara-jidai) from 710 – 794. These days however Nara makes do with the title of prefectural capital, and is home to some 350,000 people, who live and work throughout the city and its suburbs. Though modestly sized (at least by Japanese standards) the city retains a historical and cultural significance that rivals even the largest of its contemporaries—the prefecture hosts more UNESCO heritage sites than any other.
The drive from Mie to Nara is in itself an experience worth writing about: up through the forests and winding roads, into the mountains; and then down, into the basin itself, where you are met by a panoramic view of the sprawling suburbs, the lights of commerce sparkling throughout. A sight for sore eyes. When travelling through the Japanese countryside, I am often astonished by the volume of undisturbed woodland. In fact some 67% of Japans land mass is accounted for by trees—to put that in context the UN average is 29%, with England retaining around 10%—making it one of the most densely forested countries in the world. Nara is no exception, its sloping, wooded hills giving shelter to one of the city’s most prized treasures: the Sika.
Just as one cannot mention Venice without gondolas, nor Prague without Kafka, a discussion on Nara seems incomplete without some reference to deer. The Sika, or Japanese Spotted Deer, are ubiquitous throughout the prefecture, though most notably in the city itself, where approximately 1200 Sika (as of 2015) coexist alongside their two-legged counterparts. A particularly interesting phenomenon, given that deer are so renowned for the shyness, and I’m sure one could spend a whole day studying their interactions with the environment and never tire of it—this can make for many a fascinating, and often amusing spectacle. For example, the deer have adopted certain idiosyncrasies specific to the urban setting, such as bowing to receive food, and waiting with pedestrians at traffic lights. The level to which they seem to have integrated into society is also noteworthy. For many Narans the Sika are a central feature of everyday life. I speak to a café owner, who tells me that one particular deer has been coming to her store since a young fawn, and now brings his family to receive scraps.
This arrangement of cohabitation seems, at least at first glance, to be one of mutual benefit. Tourists flock in to see the deer, which has spawned an industry in Shika-senbei (or ‘deer snacks’) that can be purchased and fed to them; the deer have in turn been allowed some degree of autonomy, being left to roam the city and Nara Park—where they are predominantly found. There are however some, perhaps unsurprising, problems that arise from cohabitation. The deer population has been steadily rising over the years, and with incidence of deer attacks on the rise, as well as a general strain on the local environment and infrastructure, it has prompted a question of ‘how many deer are too many’, and what should be done about it? There have been talks of a cull within local government, though this has (at least for the meantime) been shelved in favour of a relocation programme—largely due to public outcry.
This is more than an issue of animal rights, or protecting the tourism economy, however. Equally significant is the importance of the Sika to Nara’s culture and identity on an esoteric level. Legend has it that the Shinto thunder deity takemikazuchi-no-mikoto rode into Nara atop a white deer, where he was summoned to guard the Kasuga Taisha shrine; as such the Sika were for many years considered sacred and protected under pain of death. Whilst the scope of Japanese religious observance may have changed in the years between then and now, deer are still revered throughout the country; which is perhaps a good example of how certain values become entrenched over time, transcending the esoteric into common sense—that is to say, religion influences culture (and vica-versa).
Upon entering the Tōdai-ji, one cannot help but reach for the word ‘magnitude’. The sprawling complex is in itself a tremendous achievement both in size and engineering, though it is perhaps theDaibutsu (or bronze Buddha ornament) that is most exceptional. Standing at nearly 50 feet in height, it is the largest statue of its kind, and is housed in the Daibutsu-den (or Great Buddha Hall) which until the 90s was the largest wooden building in the world. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, but suffice to say, when it comes to Buddhism in Nara, size matters; and perhaps that is only right, Nara is after all Japan’s first quintessentially Buddhist city and template for the subsequent Heian Kyo—modern day Kyoto.
Standing in the courtyard, on a gravelled path leading to the Daibutsu-den, it is grey and overcast. Whilst I’m sure a bright, autumnal sky would make for a stunning picture, perhaps the clouds and drizzle lend to the conservative splendour of the place—much as a foggy day in London is almost a prerequisite to experiencing the city. The romantic in me tries to imagine the place as it was 1200 years ago, with the crowds of tourists replaced by monks and worshippers, though I’m not sure how helpful this is as the complex has been renovated numerous times since its inception. Inside the enclosure the Daibutsu cuts an imposing figure, and one can see how such a structure would inspire reverence in the hearts of all who came to supplicate before it. It is said that the amount of bronze used alone nearly bankrupted the nation, and took multiple attempts to cast. Nevertheless, it remains awe inspiring both in size and presence, and one cannot help feeling humbled before it.
Outside it is growing dark, though I decide to take a final stroll through Nara Park before departing. Nara Park is in fact one of the oldest parks in Japan, having been built towards the end of the 19th century during the Meiji restoration; and like so much in Nara, it is also beautiful. The leaves are turning as autumn sets in, in a spectacular canopy of green, orange and brown. Couples walk hand in hand along the pathways and stag joust with one another nearby. I have always felt autumn to be my favourite season, and this is especially true in Japan—something about the oak and maple in particular. The atmosphere there is one that I feel resonates with Nara as a whole: peaceful and understated.
I decide to visit the KasugaTaisha, a Shinto shrine tucked away in Nara park, before making the journey home. Built in 768 it was dedicated to the illustrious Fujiwara clan, who rose to prominence under the enigmatic Fujiwara Kamitari, and remained the de-facto rulers of Japan throughout much of the Nara and following Heian period. The family name remains a significant one, and the FujiwaraKamon (depicting a wisteria vine) is not an uncommon sight—especially in Nara and Kyoto, where the clan exercised considerable power. The shrine is noted for its collection of stone lanterns adorning the grounds and those of the park in which it is situated, of which there are some 3000. Each one is said to have been donated by a worshipper, in an act of devotion that seems almost banal by this point in my trip. The shrine also hosts the Kasuga Wakamiya on-Matsuri, a festival and celebration of feudal Japanese culture (particularly the Heian era), though I am visiting at the wrong time of day and year to experience this first hand. Instead I content myself with wandering through the shrine, enjoying its ambience as the light slowly fades.
There is much to be said about Nara, indeed much more than I can articulate in these brief paragraphs. In finality, It is clear that Buddhism (and to some extent Shinto) has played an important part in Nara’s identity and Raison-d’etre; whilst Nara itself has contributed towards shaping the Japanese identity, at least in the historical sense. It is then somewhat like a brush mark, on a historical canvas, giving definition to a national portrait. There are indeed many such brush marks, though it is only by studying these indentations that we can seek to comprehend the broader picture, which is itself an ever growing ‘work in progress’.
As of writing I am in Mie prefecture, located in the Kansai region of Honshu (Japan’s main island), where I will be based throughout my stay.
I think it’s common to associate Japan with sprawling cities, outlandishsub-culture and all the shiny baubles of technological modernity; by comparison rural life presents another world entirely. One that is, to all appearances, quaint and simple, perhaps somewhat antiquated. This no doubt holds a charm of its own for many travellers, myself included. As such I have developed something of a love affair with rural Japan, and relish any opportunity to explore it.
The prefecture itself consists of 14 cities, of which Tsu is the capital and largest city, with a population roughly the size of Hull, East Yorkshire (around 280,000, give or take). I am staying in Nabari. a sparsely populated city, tucked away amidst the rugged landscape that defines much of the region. Situated almost directly on the mountainous border with Nara prefecture, it is some 2 hours to Osaka by train, and a similar amount to Nara City (the capital of neighbouring Nara Prefecture) by car.
Mie encapsulates much of what I like about Japan’s country life: it is spacious and peaceful, with an abundance of wildlife and forests; the locals are also generally speaking friendly, albeit somewhat cautious—though one does have occasion to feel like a slightly famous, mildly unpopular TV personality spotted in public. The domestic and suburban architecture is what one might call quintessentially Japanese, comprised of wooden frames and ornate tiled rooves. Time ambles along slowly, with the elderly and housewives pottering around the cafés and shops.
It is easy for me to romanticise about all this, however it does not escape me that many of the things I admire about rural Japan are a hindrance to its prosperity—and in some cases are perhaps even a symptom of its problems. Urbanisation is by no means a new concept, nor a relative one, though it does seem to have taken a particularly heavy toll on Japan’s rural communities. Large swathes of the country’s young have migrated from their home towns and villages into the growing metropolitan areas, in search of work and opportunity otherwise unavailable in their home communities.
As such, what may appear as tranquillity to an outsider, may be viewed as stagnation, or even regression, to a young man or woman who has to live there. It is a mutually reinforcing phenomenon: the lack of jobs and opportunities leads to an exodus of the young, whilst the same exodus prevents innovation and change from occurring in the communities they have left. The hope is, at least in the long run, that some of those who have left will return to their hometowns, bring with them the skills, experience and capital they have accrued working in the city.
Whilst this has of course been true in other cases concerning migration, both at national and international scales, this does not yet appear to be happening in Japan; nor is it likely to in a time frame or intensity that would prevent many smaller towns from dwindling into extinction. When coupled with a declining birth rate, and an ageing population, this makes for a particularly debilitating cocktail.
The Mie economy seems to have fared better than that of other prefectures. It maintains a thriving rice and tea industry, and has a number of attractions that lure a steady flow of tourists into the region. For example, Ise is the traditional tea growing region, producing some of the finest in the country, and is also home to the Ise Shrine (Ise Jingu); the Iga region is similarly famed for its rice, a varietal known as Koshihikari (or Mie-Koshi), as well as being the birthplace of both Ninjutsu, and the venerable Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho—who scarcely requires an introduction from me. Mie also benefits from Japan’s efficient rail system, the Kintetsu line, linking many towns to larger cities (such as Osaka) and putting them on a commuter belt.
Nevertheless, despite all this, both Nabari, Iga, and Ise have smaller populations today than they did in 1995. Whilst the death to birth deficit has a hand in this, it is equally related to the aspirations and ambitions of Mie’s young, who wish to improve on the lot of their parents. Certainly the job market in smaller towns is not what it once was, and the quality of life there afforded, though comfortable, is out of sync with that desired by many; equally, the diminishing population impacts the level of public service provided, such as schools and hospitals, making relocation essential for parents who want the best start in life for their children. This can be a case of moving from smaller towns to larger prefectural cities such as Tsu, though often it involves migrating to larger metropolitan areas.
One area that has suffered particularly is that of the Buddhist temple. In conversation with a local monk, I am told that there simply aren’t enough monks to run the numerous temples spread amongst rural communities. He is now managing 3 temples—his own, and two others—which has become a terrible strain on him. It seems that many older monks are now reaching retirement age and, despite the profitability in becoming a monk, there is an apparent lack of those willing to take on such responsibility.
Many of the issues I have detailed are in fact the concern of countries all over the developed world, and are by no means exceptional to Japan. What might be considered exceptional however is the outstanding natural beauty and history in the Japanese countryside, of which Mie is a fine example. I only hope that some reinvigoration and innovation can help maintain its existence. Surely increased tourism is a means of doing this in the short term, and if I can promote that in some small way, all the better; though in the long run, some serious intervention is likely required, to prevent (or at least ameliorate) the decline into social decay.