. . . and now for somewhere completely different: On Japan’s uniqueness

David Piling – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
An excerpt:
In Japan, the trees are blue. So are the traffic lights, even though they look decidedly green to uninitiated outsiders. The Japanese do have a word for green, but when it comes to foliage and traffic signals, blue is the preferred term.
Blue trees are not the only initially puzzling thing about Japan. In a hundred tiny gestures and assumptions, Japan can seem just slightly out of kilter. When Japanese people refer to themselves, they point to their nose, not their heart. Many restaurants have no chairs. The Japanese count in units of ten thousand, making the population of Japan one-thousand-two-hundred-and-fifty ten thousands, not 125 million as you might have thought. The calendar is different, too. Circular not linear, time tracks each imperial reign – I am sending this dispatch, not from the year 2008, but from Heisei 20.
These are superficial differences to be sure, tiny variations of the sort found in many places a western-centric observer might consider “odd”. But even experienced Japanologists can find Japan a topsy-turvy place. Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek who pitched up in Japan in 1890, only a decade after the country opened to the west, wrote: “The outward strangeness of things in Japan produces a queer thrill impossible to describe – a feeling of weirdness which comes to us only with the perception of the totally unfamiliar.”
Hearn was no ingenue or racist. A naturalised Japanese citizen, he was known as Yakumo Koizumi (or, rather, Koizumi Yakumo, since the family name is stated first in Japanese). He married the daughter of a samurai, spoke Japanese and spent the last 15 years of his life in Japan. Yet foreshadowing a sentiment often expressed by today’s long-time residents, puzzled at their inability to grasp what they imagine to be the essence of Japan, he says: “Long ago the best and dearest Japanese friend I ever had said to me, a little before his death, ‘when you find, in four or five years more, that you cannot understand the Japanese at all, then you will begin to know something about them.’” Tellingly, his book was entitled Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation. A year after his attempt, he was dead.
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