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Culture Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival

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An earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown made 2011 a particularly rough year for Japan, revealing long-running worries about seismic instability, economic vulnerability, and the need for political reform. Yet the nation has recovered well, continuing as a major economic and geopolitical power. Pilling, a Financial Times correspondent to Japan for seven years, examines the extraordinary resilience of the Japanese people and institutions through recent disasters and more historical catastrophes. Even as it continues to recover from the angst of having lost its way as a leader in technology, Japan draws on a culture that recognizes the opportunity to transform bad fortune—or bend adversity. Pilling talked to a broad cross-section of Japan—young and old, industrialists, bankers, teachers, students, shopkeepers—for a vibrant portrait of triumph over adversity. He details Japan's constant trade-offs between, on the one hand, stifling conformity and paternalism that protects citizens from the harsh realities of market forces and, on the other, a surprising ability to adapt to change en masse even as it also balances its relationships with the U.S. and China.


I arrived in Japan in the winter of 2001. Before I started my job as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, I spent a month beginning to learn the language while I was living with a family in the castle town of Kanazawa, a sort of mini-Kyoto on the rugged Sea of Japan coast. Kanazawa was a charming place with much of its medieval heritage preserved. It had samurai and geisha quarters, a famous garden called Kenroku‑en — like most famous sights in Japan, diplomatically said to be one of the "best three" in the country — and a thriving artistic community of potters, gold-leaf craftsmen and amateur Noh dramatists. On my first day, fresh off the plane from London, I was taken to the sixteenth-century moated castle, an imposing whitewashed structure set on huge stone walls, to attend a tea ceremony. Dozens of people had gathered on a gazebo-like platform in the castle grounds, where the ritual was to take place. I was ushered by my "host mother," Mrs Nishida, to the very front so that I could sit as close as possible to the proceedings. A woman in kimono prepared the hot water in a sunken hearth, spooning out the green powder with a wooden scoop and whisking it with a long brush. Every action she performed, from the way she knelt to her handling of the tea bowl, was precise and rehearsed — a mirror of the actions made in countless other tea ceremonies down the ages. I sat, as did everyone else, in seiza style, legs and feet folded beneath my buttocks, back straight. After a few minutes of initial pain, my limbs grew used to the position and I concentrated on what was going on around me. When the tea was served, we first ate an exquisite handmade sweet, separating it into bite-sized pieces with a small wooden utensil like a large toothpick. Then we earnestly examined the tea bowl's shape and glaze, and felt the heat of the tea penetrate the fired clay. We rotated the bowl two quarter-turns, before downing the pleasantly bitter, jade-green liquid in quick, noisy slurps.

Japan is a country of performances and role-playing: here we were all actors in a centuries-old pageant, our every action dictated by custom. When the ceremony was over, the other guests rose and took their leave. My lower limbs, however, had lost all feeling and standing was impossible. I was left, alone on the stage, waiting for what seemed like several minutes while a painful tingle slowly crept up my legs as sensation returned. I still regard the experience as my initiation into the pains and pleasures of Japan.

From my first days in Kanazawa, I resolved to embrace the new culture in which I found myself. I ate the food I was served, whether it was crab brains, sea urchin or raw octopus. Slowly I discovered that almost everything the Japanese prepared, however unfamiliar, was fresh and delicious — better, in fact, than any food I had tasted before. At the age of thirty-seven, I plunged into the study of the Japanese language, working my way through a series of exams that obliged me to learn more than 2,000 kanji characters and obscure grammatical constructions. (I eventually learned to read fairly fluently and to conduct stilted interviews, but my Japanese remained like Samuel Johnson's description of a dog walking on its hind legs: it was not done well, though at my age it was perhaps surprising to find it done at all.) In Kanazawa, I learned to love the routine of living on a tatami, the traditional rush-mat flooring. One removed one's shoes at the house entrance known as the genkan, knelt on the floor to watch TV and unrolled one's futon at night. The tatami had a comforting, musky smell. Bathing was in a square upright tub, in which you sat only after a thorough scrub in a separate shower area. Sometimes we would walk to the local public bath with its old-fashioned municipal tiles. It had outdoor communal pools of cold, warm and hot sulfurous water and vibrating massage chairs of worn leather in the changing room.

I loved that Japanese people always put their hands together to thank their food before they ate it, and the way they apologized before they asked for money in a shop as though payment sullied the otherwise pleasant human interaction. I learned the correct place at which guests should sit at a table — furthest from the door, a position in former times that was safest from a surprise attack. I gained an appreciation for small, considerate gestures. My teacher had told me, for example, that it was rude in a business conversation to say that you were busy since this might imply that you were more in demand than the person to whom you were speaking. I liked it that even cheap restaurants handed out a hot hand towel before you ate and that, when it rained, there was a machine at the department store to seal your wet umbrella in a plastic cover. I marvelled at how social convention trumped laws. The streets were entirely litter-free. No one would dream of answering their mobile phone on the train or in a lift, not because it was illegal but because consideration was expected. Even in the street, people cupped their hands over mouth and phone to muffle the sound of their voice.

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David Pilling
The Penguin Press
Year of publication
2014 (1st edition)
Number of pages
382 (hard cover)
1,780 JPY

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