As I prepare to leave the land of the rising sun, it seems to follow that I should give my ¥200 on Japan.
Rather than beat around the bamboo, I'll be straight up with you: Japan is a place of impossibly incomprehensible contradictions, while simultaneously representing a completely different concept of functional development.
From my Western perspective, I've come to learn what development and progress looks like through that lens. Whether you see the United States as a benevolent promoter of democracy and development, or something more sinister, it is that brand of development - individualism, economic expansion, improved quality of life, equality - of which we might more closely identify with and in turn be able to identify. It is this brand of development which is promoted and to which developing countries aspire.
Japan is one of two developed countries in Asia (according to the CIA World Factbook, the other being South Korea - but even the United Nations doesn't consider South Korea on the developed countries list). And given the close relationship between Japan and the US following World War II, you might expect that over the course of Japan's development it would appear quite Western.
But it doesn't.
And that's why coming to Japan can be confronting for Westerners, especially for those expecting to find a small Western oasis in amongst the seeming chaos of China's rapid growth and the disorganisation of South-East Asia.
Instead, Japan does development in its own way. And this is where the paradoxes and contractions start. Japan is the centre of technological development, yet almost everyone still owns a flip phone. Japan is the home of the shinkansen (bullet train) yet few drive cars and in fact most ride bicycles everywhere. For a place known for technological advancements and inventions, it baffles me that most places only accept cash, something particularly frustrating to wrap your head around having grown accustomed to paywave-ing pretty much every purchase.
Japanese cities are also different - they don't really break areas down into a 'central business districts', industrial areas and suburbia. Instead, these elements intermingle in a hodgepodge of impossibly narrow streets dotted with vending machines, car parks and hairdressers (there are seriously so many hairdressers in Hiroshima it is amazing that they are all still in business). Naturally, there are more residential areas the further away from the city 'centre', but the tangle of narrow streets continues in a somewhat typical Japanese way - something impossible to think of in the West. This might be a long bow to draw, but there is something quite 'Asian' about this way of organising society and streets, and more than a few fellow Gaijin have mentioned that they didn't expect Japan to be quite so 'Asian'.
Yet everything just works. People are polite and patient, incredibly helpful to the point that they'll miss their train to make sure you're okay. For all the bicycles everywhere, I'm yet to see one collision and near misses are met with cries of apology, rather than rage and blame. Catching the metro at rush hour is the perfect way to witness this systemic politeness with people forming orderly queues everywhere from boarding the train to keeping left on the stairs when transferring lines.
After having spent more than four months here, suffice to say that some of the charm is wearing off. Japanese culture is renowned for its politeness and deference, which makes for a very pleasant social experience - whether it's the yell of 'irrasshaimase!' (welcome!) as you enter every store or the thousand 'thank you's as you leave, even if you haven't bought anything. Such deference also leads to a degree of conformity that is aching with suppressed identities or ideas. Conformity is king and all seem to work to maintain the accepted social order.
This deference also means that Japanese people have developed a rather indirect method of communicating - a Japanese person will decline an invitation by saying they have plans (even if they don't) and consider it rude to accept compliments, instead it's more polite to deny your genuine talent. Such indirectness can be frustrating after a while. This conformity to accepted social behaviours permeates on a deeper level here, adherence to ideas and even fashion seems to lead to a sea of sameness, which occasionally makes me want to shake the Japanese people I meet to see if they do indeed have their own ideas, identities and opinions.
There is a pressure to conform here, which seems at odds with my own context where people go to great lengths to express their individuality, uniqueness and that they are special. And when Japanese people do attempt to be what we might term 'non-conformist', they end up adopting a different set of accepted social attributes associated with whichever sub-culture they choose to embrace, which in turn undermines the concept of going against the grain.
All this aside, this place has a peacefulness and a calm, even in the midst of millions. Japanese people accept that if they have to live in such close quarters with so many other people that they might as well strive to make it a pleasant existence. That is what I'll miss about this country - the ease, the patience, the convenience of healthy (and unhealthy) Japanese snacks at 7-11.
This experience of Japan has also involved some seriously life-changing and sad moments for me, so I'll be happy to reset and revisit this place without the tough memories following me around every corner. The allure of Japan was sparked in me from a young age, and despite everything that's happened here, I will certainly be back one day.
Finally, the photos to accompany this post are of textures and a colour palette that have caught my eye over the past few months, which I believe are somewhat unique to this country and culture (and which didn't make the cut on previous posts!).
Next, my adventure takes me to Europe and I hope you'll stay with me on my journey.