The phoenix, as an idea, has a recorded history of seven to eight thousand years. Yes, roughly seven to eight thousand years. The earliest designs were found at an archaeological site in Hongjiang, Hunan Province. The idea has mutated over time but as a final cultural product, it is invariably known for one very specific characteristic. The ability to rise from the dead. More specifically to rise from the ashes.
The phoenix as a symbol quite aptly epitomises the endurance and resilience of the far eastern nations. But the nation we are to discuss today reminds me of another mythological character: Icarus. The son of the Greek master craftsman Daedalus who flew too close to the sun. Some story. But like a phoenix, this country has never truly learned to give up.
There will be plenty of examples to prove this point. But even though I have a suspicion that you have already identified the country, I will let the suspense build up a little. While this country is so important that no history is complete without its mention, we have trained our minds to ignore it so often that when just before writing this piece I told my wife that I was about to write about another country and asked if she would care to guess which one was it, she named a dozen other ones and then all Asian Tigers before finally mentioning the one nation that has immensely contributed to their rise.
I think you have guessed it right. This piece is about the land of the rising sun. Be honest about it. Japan’s name seldom comes to mind when we are discussing contemporary international politics. Even though it is a member of the G-7; has a per capita income of over 40,000 PPP dollars; and as will be shown in this piece soon, an enduring cultural and economic influence on the world. So much lobbying goes on our everyday news screens that our short-term memories and narrow attention spans can seldom do justice to the individual cases that deserve our profound attention. Then decades of political and often economic stagnation have also done a disservice to this country’s robust spirit. The problem is we are still accustomed to judging countries by their political postures and not their intellectual or cultural depth.
I have had only a nodding acquaintance with the country as it is today. Had it not been for a chance encounter with a beautiful book I don’t think I would have even brought up the subject. A few but really remarkably good-natured friends from the country, loads of history books that usually give up the struggle to cover it beyond WWII, literary portrayal from Clavell’s Shogun to the Amazon Prime series, The Man in the High Castle. Some residual memory of the gadgets we once used to enjoy in the 1980s and 1990s. Cultural products like Anime and Manga never grew immensely on me. Nothing personal. It might be a very unpopular opinion in this age but I find comics and sometimes even poetry gigantic waste of the trees we kill to print them. Paper for me is meant to be packed with as much information and ergo words as possible. What? I said I know it is an unpopular opinion. Then the pictures and reports that come from the world’s most populous city, Tokyo, do not inspire confidence. Even flying visits will not do justice to the country.
The chance encounter with a beautiful book that I mentioned went like this. For a few years, I’ve been gobsmacked by the rise of conspiracy culture in the West and most of it being linked to two imageboard sites: 4chan and 8chan. These sites primarily and ostensibly came into existence to feature anime and meme images. So, I had to get to the bottom of the whole thing. In one famous podcast, QAnonAnonymous, its hosts one day decided to do a whole episode on this. The man who commented on the Japanese origins of these sites, Matt Alt, had also written a book that had just come out. His grip on the subject led me to this book titled, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World. And what a remarkable book it is. Its paperback was released this week and if you read one book this month make it this one.
Let’s face it. We live in the age of manufactured rage. Nations dig deep into the distant past to find something to be outraged about. America is worried about white rage. In India when the current situation does not seem to comport with the aspirations of the people, pundits reach back into the trash heap of the pre-independence history to blame someone else and get outraged. In Pakistan sometimes the outrage is about the end of Muslim rule in India and at times about the fall of East Pakistan. China that has precious little to complain about today is outraged by the century of humiliation. But none of them had to go through the trauma of being nuked twice. To know that two of your sprawling metropolises were wiped off of the face of the planet in living memory and yet keep battling on has a name: Japan.
Imagine how many cultural products has the country given us in the past few decades apart from their cars. Toys, headphones, the Walkman, VHS tapes, Karaoke, videogames, Hello Kitty, Pokemon and what the author of the book disparagingly calls the antisocial network. The book is so lovingly written, without any qualms about both the best and the worst that you cannot but help fall in love with the country and its cultural resilience. Perhaps, the nations that have not known pain and loss to this degree only to rise from the ashes like Japan need to heed its example. Not everything has to be political. Politics has always been Japan’s undoing. Intellect, culture, temperance and resilience are its saving grace.
Socio-economic and cultural angst is justified in Japan more than in any nation. But it is a different element altogether. Kintsugi is the Japanese art mending broken pottery with gold, a metaphor for the very resilience we have discussed. Such nations do not bemoan the past. They overcome insurmountable challenges despite all odds. This piece is not a book review but read the book and like me, you will be rooting for the Tokyo Olympics to succeed next month despite all challenges.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2021.