Japan’s paradoxical neighbourhoods

JAPANESE PEOPLE ARE very aware of their densely layered past and how much of it informs the present, so despite the extravagance, complexity, super-modernity and rampant kitsch of the urban terrain, which infects the way we ‘see' Japan, older models may be more potent. The neighbourhood is certainly one of them, but its manifestation and manipulation are paradoxical. There have been many kinds of neighbourhoods which people defend or resist. They may be deep in the mountainous countryside, part of the urban sprawl, or the virtual neighbourhoods created by a generation of young Japanese people talking to each other via PCs, laptops and mobile phones.

The neighbourhood about which the Japanese are most ambivalent and confused is the region of which they are part: for a long time Japanese nationalists insisted North-East Asia was theirs, but since 1945 it's been a region in which many Japanese feel they have not been welcome. In the 1970s, the Japanese corporate thrust back into Asia was too aggressive, and in more recent years hubristic displays of nationalist recalcitrance – official visits by politicians to the notorious Yasukuni shrine, and denials that the Imperial government had anything to do with the organisation of sex slaves for the military in World War II – have made Japan's neighbours angry enough to take to the streets.

So once again, many Japanese prefer to see themselves benignly pursuing their own business in their own islands. It might be temporary, but this withdrawal reflects what happened nearly four hundred years ago, when the Tokugawa shoguns decided to retreat from engagement with their neighbours both near and far.

This might explain why Japan's most important neighbourhood is still the local built environment you can more or less walk around in an hour. A territory which exudes the most distinct and lasting resonances for almost every generation: the rural farm-village community, based on paddy rice farming, where up to fifty houses and other residences are built on raised ground, usually at the intersection of forested hills and wide flat rice fields. This is the archetypal ‘home' for millions of people. Even though they have never been there.

Often these hamlets house only a hundred or so people; the dwellings close together and quite separate from the surrounding cultivated land.

Before the mechanisation of Japanese agriculture in the postwar era, the land would have been ploughed, irrigated and harvested communally, and what machinery there was would have been shared amongst neighbours. Although many of these villages are remote and secluded, some of these neighbourhoods are now semi-urban, stranded within the outer reaches of expanding towns. It's quite a surprise to stare out of the window of a fast-moving shinkansen (bullet train) and see a man and his wife stooping to weed a small green or yellow field right next to a huge cement works, a pachinko (pinball) parlour or a housing estate stacked with twenty-storey towers.

The pressure on the sub-urban farming villagers to ‘unlock' this precious land, for the benefit of developers who want to build more apartment blocks or golf courses, is intense; but this view is balanced by a common, perhaps contradictory, national affection for people who continue to live the traditional farm lifestyle. Growing wet paddy rice is still widely believed to be the iconic heart of Japan's national culture. Without a diet of their own homegrown ‘sticky' rice, many say, they would no longer ‘be Japanese'. This goes with a widespread feeling amongst city and suburban Japanese that they all originally come from the country; that the place where their great grandparents were born is their true or spiritual home – their furusato, the Japanese equivalent of the German concept of heimat, the neighbourhood in which everyone feels they really belong. In reality, the farm village community is relentlessly withering; thousands of villages have lost a third of their population over the past four decades.


JAPANESE DOMESTIC RICE production is more than sufficient to supply demand. Many farmers are encouraged by payments to stay on the land but not to grow rice; and because being Japanese is defined by eating Japanese rice, the home-grown varieties are protected by an import tariff – rice from California, Australia or Japan's Asian neighbours costs seven times the price of the nation's favourite strain, koshihikari. Bluefin tuna and whales may have to come from the Southern Ocean and chocolate from Belgium, but rice is only palatable if it comes from Niigata or Akita.

Those who proclaim the preferences for the authentic sacred grain don't always eat it. Rice consumption has halved since the 1960s. If you want to see an example of twenty-first century conspicuous consumption, just observe the better-heeled Japanese shopper fastidiously browsing the patisserie sections of Ginza department store food halls, as they select their basket of exquisite rolls, baguettes, croissants and friands. Nevertheless, the young Japanese I spoke to recently, in a straw poll of about ten twenty-somethings in Shibuya, the fast food gathering place of Tokyo's ‘West End', told me they didn't like burgers, wieners or French fries, but ate them because they were cheap, and they only went into chain store food outlets because they were places to meet and hang out for hours. Just as Akihabara is the niche neighbourhood for cheap electronic goods, Shibuya is the young person's meeting zone.

One young woman, urgently but unhappily devouring a bucket of hot chips, grimaced and declared ‘why would I eat this crap for any other reason than being poor?' Everyone I spoke to told me they preferred ‘traditional rice based dishes cooked at home', and agreed that Japan should not be forced to import foreign rice. Maybe they say that to all the foreigners, knowing what is expected of them: when talking to gaijin stick to the national imperative.

The same kind of attachment binds city people to their furusato, the ancestral village which many Japanese imagine is their true home. Even if they rarely visit, the furusato is the home of their departed relatives, whose spirits are real. It's more than a convenient abstraction. The main holiday season in Japan is in August – o-bon – when people return to their furusato, not just to visit living relatives but to share some time with the spirits of the dead. The climax of o-bon is a ceremony in which the ancestral spirits are persuaded to leave the furusato and return to the world of the dead. And it's not just the old and lonely who join in these rituals. The huge popularity in Japan, amongst the young, for scary ghost films is firmly based in the tradition of the unhappy, vengeful ghost who has not been treated well by the furusato in or after death.

In the late 1980s, the furusato was revived, nationalised and politicised as the foundation of a regional survival strategy by Prime Minister Takeshita Noburo. He was the inheritor of the powerful and notorious Tanaka faction, which held power from its formation in 1970 until the early 1980s when its leader, Tanaka Kakuei, was disgraced in the Lockheed scandal (the most notorious of many bribery cases whereby, in return for massive cash donations, the ruling LDP favoured purchase of aircraft from the US Lockheed company). Its legacy remains. During his reign Tanaka turned small-time pork-barrelling into nationwide structural corruption, or kinken seiji – money politics. He was supported by his home province of Niigata for more than five decades and showed his parliamentary colleagues how to keep power and rort the system with impunity. The Lockheed scandal was a step too far, but long after Lockheed, voters – especially rice farmers getting government handouts for local projects and subsidies – willingly gave their electoral (and financial) support to the Tanaka faction. Even now Japan's political bribes-for-favours system has yet to be comprehensively reformed.

In 1987, in a move which was both cynical and sentimental, Tanaka's protégé Takeshita tried to give some respectability to money politics by embedding it in the furusato. Instead of funnelling cash-for-votes, he tapped into national and regional anxiety about the depopulation of rural villages. He told the Diet he wanted to promote furusato ‘consciousness' as a way of creating not just material wealth but also ‘spiritual' or ‘true' affluence. As he liked to say: ‘This beautiful blue planet is the shared furusato of all humankind.' He also believed increased furusato consciousness could solve environmental problems.

While furusato spending – ¥100million (about $1 million at the time) to each home town – stimulated many local activities, including the growth of some organic farming practices, the cash was distributed without restraint, and local mayors had a big say in whether it went to building a new tennis court, or towards the commission of larger than life bronzes of LDP politicians. For a few years the name furusato itself became synonymous with flaky projects.

Only in Japan? Perhaps we aren't quite so far removed from the furusato philosophy as we'd like to think. The grandiose homey philosophy was missing from John Howard's ‘practical' gifts to marginal seats prior to the 2007 election, but the intention was the same – money for votes.


WHEN JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI took the leadership in 2001, he wanted to put the lid on the pork barrel, a popular move with city voters but not with his own party, whose regional members depended on money politics. Koizumi's successor Shinzo Abe's ‘reform' program was stalled by the LDP's losses in the upper house elections of July 2007: so rural neighbourhoods will continue to survive on subsidies, and greased palms. A few young people are moving back to the country to try their luck at organic farming, but that too is a struggle which conventional agricultural power groups have been slow to embrace.

Kurose Tadashi, a farmer I met in September 2006 at Ogata village, in Akita prefecture, has been growing organic rice for three decades, but it wasn't until 1995 that the government stopped trying to blockade his delivery trucks taking rice direct to customers, instead of through the nationally approved monopolistic distribution system, Ja-Zenchu, centralised agricultural co-operatives. Kurose and his wife Kita, the mayor of Ogata, live in a totally artificial neighbourhood, custom built on the flat floor of a shallow freshwater lagoon, drained by Dutch engineers in the early 1960s, paid for by the World Bank, and settled by volunteers in a government plan to introduce Kansas-style industrial agriculture to Japan. The farms are more than three times the size of the average Japanese rice farm of less than two hectares. It was once thought Ogata village would supply rice to the whole of Japan, so the rest of the country could stop growing it. When it was realised, in the early 1980s, that Japan was already self-sufficient in rice production, and didn't really need Ogata, that delusion was abandoned.

The scheme created a unique kind of neighbourhood. There aren't many ‘new towns' in Japan, suburbs of housing estates, yes, but Ogata was a community of people from all over the country created out of nothing. Unlike so many other villages, Ogata's population of three thousand is more or less the same now as it was after it peaked in the late 1970s. Ogata no longer identifies itself as a model farm, but a model village and ideal holiday destination for elderly croquet players and whale watchers.

Something of the furusato is replicated in the heart of the urban neighbourhood. Within the great cities, including Tokyo and Osaka, a sense of local identity is reinforced by the built environment of the ‘old town' neighbourhoods: no farms here, but small houses, with lots of wood and tiles, lining narrow streets, and within walking distance of all the shops and amenities. People do think of the neighbourhoods as ‘villages'. Ride around the elevated Yamanote line which circumnavigates inner Tokyo and you can look directly down into intimate neighbourhoods which run along the streets in every direction from the station: small shops, specialist suppliers, trade and craft workshops, a Buddhist temple.

When I interviewed a Japanese woman who had left Tokyo many years ago to live in Sydney, I asked her to remember the neighbourhood in which she grew up in. She closed her eyes, and starting at the railway station, easily conjured a detailed picture of where everything was, or used to be: ‘There's a small supermarket, an individual fish shop, a meat butcher, vegetable shop, cake shop; and then you have a pharmacy, and a police box, a bank on your right and a ramen [noodle] shop, stationery shop and a tiny littleo-senbei shop – rice crackers – sushi, yakiniku [roast meat] restaurant, grocery, a doctor, laundry, watch shop and camera, then I think just normal houses.'

Many Japanese yearn for this kind of neighbourhood authenticity in the city. I thought I'd discovered it for myself when I first walked into Yanaka over a decade ago. I was in Tokyo to record interviews about the experience of the firebombing of March 1945, when great swathes of the city were scorched and razed, a hundred thousand people burned alive, and more than a million de-housed. Yanaka had escaped, just as it had done from the fires that followed the earthquake of 1923.

Yanaka's main street is not distinguished, dog-legging its way from Nezu crossing towards Nippori station, with many shops selling memorial materials for tombs and graves; but the side streets are narrow, with small businesses – more funeral paraphernalia, hand-made noodles and wooden accessories for the bath. It's mostly residential, and the walker shares the street with cyclists, small cars and delivery vans. What might have been a footpath is occupied by residential ‘gardens', less than half a metre for pots and small planter boxes with ornamental bushes and bonsai shrubs, and decorative purple kale, lined up in rows along the right angle between house wall and road way. No one rides fast, not even at night, and it's almost always deathly quiet. There's nothing much to ‘do' after dark in Yanaka, although there is one large sento (public bath house) which offers a wallow in herbal water the colour of Coca Cola.

The nearest big hub is Ueno, which has a major rail terminus and a huge public park with a pond, willow trees and lines of cherries. Hundreds of homeless men (many of them migrants from the Middle East), have made their own neighbourhood in Ueno park, living in semi-permanent tents made from blue tarpaulins, most of them kept as neat as a Japanese house. People at every level seem well trained in the art of living cheek-by-jowl.


WITH FOREIGN NEIGHBOURS it is different. Like Britain, Japan is a cluster of large and small islands offshore from a continent about which its peoples have always been ambivalent, introverted or aggressive. By the end of the sixteenth century Britain had given up its territorial claims on the mainland of Europe, but Japan was just starting on its quest to claim the Asian mainland.

In the 1590s, a decade after the Spanish Armada foundered in its plan to subjugate England, two attempts were made to invade Korea, as a way of getting into China. Huge numbers of Japanese ships were sunk by Korea's unique ‘turtle' ships and Chinese troops came to Korea's aid. More than a hundred thousand Japanese troops never came home, and the sacrifice of national honour and prestige was traumatic. That old war is every bit as unpopular in Japan's neighbourhood now as is the ‘Great East Asian War' of the 1930s and 40s.

Three decades after the Tokugawa family seized power in 1600, the Japanese were discouraged from commercial engagement with their neighbours – at home and abroad. Throughout two hundred and fifty years of feudal isolation, villagers paid homage and taxes to the samurai lords who ruled the regions, and they decided whether or not people could move freely around the country. Without written permission nobody could leave their neighbourhood. This goes a long way to explain how Japan's treasured regional variations – food, craft, art, folklore, rice varieties – became so distinctive, and why travel created an interest in stories, poetry, novels and artworks which revealed the nation to be a patchwork of internal exotica.

The Japanese merchant class eventually tired of the stagnant economy that came with isolation, and saw the arrival of the Americans in 1853, with an ultimatum that Japan must open its ports to traders, as an opportunity to remove the backward-looking clans, and create industries powered by a new generation of factory workers. A brief civil war ended the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, and a modern European political system was established, with a link to the ancient authority systems rooted in the villages and their shrines.

Emperor Meiji, aged fifteen, was taken from the seclusion of the old Imperial neighbourhood, Kyoto, in a grand parade along the tokaido, to the newly renamed Tokyo and, once installed, came to personify the modern age of progressive authoritarianism, much in the same way, and at the same time, as Japan's future Axis allies, German and Italy were created in Europe. Young Meiji was the figurehead for the political and economic program which created Japan the nation. In Germany it was Kaiser Wilhelm I, in Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.

People who had been confined to their rural neighbourhoods for generations were now told they could find jobs in the city or join the armed forces. It was the beginning of Japan's rural depopulation. Those who died fighting in national wars (starting with the civil war) were given a new ‘spiritual home' – the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. Close to the emperor's fort, Yasukuni was to replace the local neighbourhood and family shrines which had been dedicated to fathers or sons lost in clan warfare. Yasukuni is now home to the spirits of 2.46 million individuals, including the convicted and executed war criminals led by General Tojo Hideki, who planned the Great East Asian War. When Koizumi went to Yasukuni in 2005, a Chinese newspaper said it was ‘like someone knowingly eating rat shit'.

The war resumed the interrupted quest to unite Japan with its international neighbourhood, and submit it to rule from Tokyo, beneath the benevolent watch of the emperor – ‘coeval under heaven', as the Imperial proclamation put it. However, the Imperial project was problematic for most Japanese, who still lived in small towns and villages, and retained a neighbourhood mentality which could only really be charged with war enthusiasm by continuous exhortations that they put their lives at the service of His Holiness the Emperor whose very existence was threatened by backward foreigners, especially the Chinese.

A brief war with China annexed Taiwan in 1894; in 1905 Russia's navy was destroyed and the ‘rights' to position troops permanently on the mainland acquired. In 1910 Korea became ‘part of Japan'. Acts of aggression by Japan's forces were always portrayed at home as a response to provocation. In 1931 it was deemed ‘necessary' to seize Manchuria and the Kwantung army was forever chasing bandits, guerrillas and coup plotters across borders. China was occupied and Indo-China invaded. Even Pearl Harbor was a pre-emptive strike to stop the USA thwarting the assault on the Philippines. And so it went, as land, sea and air forces moved all the way south to New Guinea, dramatically and swiftly expanding Japan's neighbourhood beyond a range it was possible to sustain.

In more recent years the LDP leadership has been trying to assert Japan's right to be a ‘normal' nation that should be able to deploy its forces in ways not limited by a ‘peace constitution'. Koizumi's great project: his visits to Yasukuni and his assertions that Japanese troops should be allowed to bear arms in multi-lateral peace keeping forces were popular while he was.

Gavan McCormack suggests in his new book Client State (Verso, 2007) that, far from striking out on their own in a new expansionist plan, Japan's hawkish leaders have aligned the country more tightly with US foreign policy and, as with Australia, there is little chance of Japan ever trying to achieve strategic military goals in the neighbourhood without close consultation with and approval from Washington. The project begun by Nakasone Yasuhiro in the 1980s, to make Japan an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier' in the service of the (then) anti-communist alliance, may have been completed. It looks as if this policy is no more popular at home than it is in the neighbourhood. Mainly because he tried to push through an agreement which allowed Japanese oil tankers to refuel US warships in international waters, Koizumi's successor Shinzo Abe was forced to resign in September 2007. It remains to be seen which China and Japan's other neighbours fear most: a resurgent nationalist Japan eager to retake old territory, or a tighter strategic relationship with the USA.

Meanwhile, at home – which is where most Japanese prefer to be – the paradox remains: if the village neighbourhood disappears and they are no longer Japanese, what would they be fighting for?

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