The perfect old- and new-symbiosis

Japan truly holds a special place in my heart. I lived in Tokyo for one and half years during my university days and just like the never sleeping city, I too took little rest. During this time, I came to admire many aspects of The Land of the Rising Sun, its people and their culture.

The first that comes to mind is their philosophy on preserving the old and traditional while seamlessly incorporating the new and modern. Ask yourself what words come to mind when thinking about Japan. I am quite certain somewhere on your list consists some of the following: high-tech, shinkansen, kimono, samurai, manga, Bladerunner etc. If you take a walk through any city in Japan, you will discover tori gates and shrines in the middle of bustling cityscapes co-existing in perfect synergy.

A great example of this is the Osaka Castle, though newly restored, sits on an island set centuries in the past, encircled by a sea of skyscrapers. Another excellent juxtaposing of the old and new is the ancient Zojoji Buddhist Temple in Tokyo set against the metallic skeletal structure of Tokyo Tower or Japan Radio Tower. As a matter of fact, you can catch this fusion throughout the country, whether it’s in grand scale in the cities or in small corners of people’s houses in the countryside.

On the one hand you have a Japan whose people still pay great respect to their customs by celebrating religious events during matsuri (festivals); who continue to wear traditional attires like the kimono and yukata (summer version with lighter fabric); and uphold all kinds of manners and etiquette that shape the habits of its population on a daily basis. Perhaps the ageing demographic of the Japanese population is partly responsible for holding fort to such conventional practices – the nectar of Japanese-ness.

Japan feels quaintly old-school in its broad use of stationery (postcard sending, memo writing and diary keeping is very much still en vogue), phone booths usage (I don’t remember the last time using one of these), flip functional phones with buttons (instead of smartphones), hanko stamps (instead of handwritten signatures Japanese people use a personal seal for every document). All this makes Japan feel that much more personal and intimate.

In addition, Japan has conserved Chinese history and culture better than China itself. From the written language to Buddhism, Confucianism to literature and from art to architecture, Japan absorbed from China with relish. Yet these things can hardly be found in China anymore, which is why for anyone looking for what China was during the time of dynasties it is best to take a stroll through Japan instead.

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On the other hand, Japan did not hold back in their ambitions for technological advancement since the Meiji Restoration (2nd quarter of 19th century) and a trailblazer on several fronts. Robots and machines are woven into the very fabric of Japanese daily life. In sushi restaurants you have miniaturised Shinkansen or model vehicles that propel out of the kitchen to your table to deliver your dishes. Vending machines, selling hot and cold drinks, soups, cigarettes and even used ‘sexy’ lingerie, are an integral part of life in Japan and they appear even in the most remote corners of the country. At night you will always be able to spot the lonely machines dotted about, glowing brightly in the dark, as if they have a life of their own.

Even when you are doing your private business you have a machine by your side. This particular machine I am referring to is the TOTO toilet seat. TOTO kindly, and automatically, heats up your butt cheeks because it knows the importance of first impression. Then to be considerate TOTO plays flushing noise in the background, so others are not privy to your important business. To finish it off TOTO sprinkles water (adjustable temperature and force) towards your private part for cleaning and refreshment – the perfect lover. If only I can take TOTO home. Oh wait, I have.

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During my residence in Tokyo, I noticed Japanese people have an uncanny similarity to Germans in their mastery in efficiency. But perhaps due to necessity their efficiency lies not just in industry or the workplace but has a ubiquitous influence on people’s everyday life. For example, the lack of landmass pushed the Japanese to perfect urban design that enables maximum capacity in limited space. This gave rise to the incredible capsule hotels, the intimate seating space in a ramen shops or underground parking lots that have only one entrance that’s just big enough to fit your car. You see it twist and turn and eventually swallowed into the concrete ground by a turntable lift that automatically stores your car somewhere deep down below. All this makes life in Japan exciting but at the same time impersonal and a lonesome for human being to inhabit.

Perhaps the best way to describe this symbiosis of marriage of the old and new is through the philosophy of kintsugi. Kintsugi literally means golden joinery and is a Japanese art form of pottery restoration. When a piece of pottery is broken in Japan people use lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum to mend the line of breakage. The belief is the breakage and repair are part of the object’s history and it is essential to preserve it as oppose to disguise it. As a result, a web of beautiful golden threads breathes a new life to the previously broken soul. This is the opposite to Chinese pottery restoration ethos where hiding any flaws is key. By emphasising the preservation of the old while adding new elements you are not only respecting the past but also created something beautifully contemporary. 

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