What’s so great about Japan?

When I travel back to Europe and I meet with someone who finds out that I live in Japan, the inevitable first question is along the lines of “What do you like about Japan?” It’s a question I have fielded hundreds of times, and to be honest I tend now to try and just skip over it as quickly as possible. It’s not that I don’t want to answer, or that I find it tedious to trot out the same basic response each time. It’s more to do with the fact that I find it such a difficult question to answer honestly. What’s so great about Japan?

Everyone has their own ideas, of course. For me, it has always been a problem to articulate my particular viewpoint. I have loved the country since the very first moment my foot touched Japanese soil. I have visited and worked in many countries, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But I have never felt such an instant connection with any of them in the way I did with Japan. I have never been able to adequately explain why.  Until now.

Prompted by our own recent trip to Japan’s Inland Sea for our 10th Anniversary, I bought a book of the same name by – as it turns out – a truly wonderful writer by the name of Donald Richie. Richie, originally from Ohio, came to Japan as a young man and like me fell in love with the country. However unlike me, he is able to express his own affinity to Japan eloquently and elegantly. He wrote in response to the question why he liked Japan:

I think the most honest answer is: I like myself here. There are places—Calcutta is one—where you can come to loathe yourself. I never knew I would be ready to kick children from my path, to strike out at cripples, to compose a face apparently contemptuous at the sight of misery so great it seemed almost theatrical. And all because of sheer terror. I, along with most of my richer Western brothers, had believed that such qualities as disinterested politeness, trust, friendship, even love are necessities. It had never occurred to me that they are luxuries until India showed me that this is so. Such attributes—the pride of Western man—are but accoutrements, like well-cut clothes. They are removable. One can go naked and miserable.

For me, that’s it in a nutshell. I like myself here. In Japan, you can be kind, polite and gentle, and nobody mistakes this for a weakness to be exploited. In fact, quite the opposite –  to be strong, yet quiet and benevolent are considered the ultimate manly attributes. As the great Dan Inosanto (shameless namedropping: Malc, Lewis and myself had the honour of training with Guru Dan many years ago) is fond of saying “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness”. The inference is that the truly strong man has the capacity to be kind and gentle, not because he is weak but precisely because he is strong. But in the UK, wherever you go, there is always some entity that tries to challenge this and impose its “Might is right” view of the world on others. Either personally through loutish anti-social behaviour, or indirectly through faceless unaccountable corporations or useless government bodies. I got so tired of having to fight endlessly with these people on a daily basis. I got tired of having to stand my ground, react forcefully to a threat or waste time and energy fighting with idiots. All of that stopped the moment I arrived here.

But even that’s not the whole answer. The wonderful Donald Richie goes on to write thus:

Japan, then—to answer this perennial question—allows me to like myself because it agrees with me and I with it. Moreover, it allows me to keep my freedom. It makes very few demands on me—I am considered too much the outsider for that, a distinction I owe to the color of my skin, eyes, and hair—and, consequently, I become free. I become a one-member society, consistent only to myself and forever different from those who surround me. Our basic agreement permits an amount of approval, some of it mutual; our basic differences allow me to apprehend finally that the only true responsibility a man has is toward himself.

In Japan, not only am I free of the jobsworths, louts and gobshites, I am free to be exactly who I want to be; to hold my own standards and to set new ones of my choosing based on the things I have learned here. In other words, Truly free.