June 12, 2012

Looking for change

How do you discover change in a society? Or, how fast does a society change anyway?

I hadn't been in Japan for 7 years, after being in Japan regularly for the 7 years before that. And somehow I came to Japan expecting to see a lot of differences with before. But this trip has made me realize that change is hard to spot and it takes a lot of time to show itself.

Of course, cities like Osaka or Tokyo are a little changed. Osaka station, for example, has undergone a huge renovation so it's hard to find my way around. One of the clubs I used to go to has moved locations, and clubs are now ID'ing guests. In Tokyo, Tokyo Sky Tree is the newest attraction and the city has several new musuems. But all if this is superficial. Buildings, which can be built quickly but don't way anything about the society that they are part of.

In any society change will be gradual and, initially at least, underneath the surface. Attitudes towards marriage, child rearing, sustainability, education - all of these are essential to a society but also invisible until talk to enough people. Change in these attitudes is even more difficult to see clearly.

There are slow changes. A friend told me that he occasionally sees couples holding hands, more than before. And a Japanese friend was telling me that, despite an earlier promise to her mother-in-law to not go back to work, she went back to work already this spring when her son was only two. For traditional Japan this is a little unusual and it was good to hear. But I guess I was hoping for more. Everything else in the country is the same, feels the same - and this despite a major trauma last year which could have been a catalyst for many things.

Why am I looking so hard? I love being in Japan, it's a very comfortable and familiar place to be. But I also think it has some major issues to work through. And I would love to see those changes happening to make it an even better place to live, though I suppose it is also arrogant to say so as a non-Japanese, occasional visitor to the country. Nevertheless, some of these issues are why I wouldn't want to live in Japan long-term. And maybe more importantly, they are why several of my Japanese friends are leaving the country and are now living in New York, London and Paris - to name just a few places. So hopefully a lot more is happening underneath the surface than I could spot in my travels and my discussions with people.

June 01, 2012

Japan's edge

Waves gently breaking against the shore, leaves rustling in the wind, birds singing and an occassional fisher's boat cruising past (and a very very occasional Self-Defence Force jet going past): all the sounds that are around me on a day spent along the Wakinosawa coast of the Shimokita Peninsula. After four days of travelling and spending lots of time on buses and trains (yesterday I counted a record 7 hours), I'm taking it easy today. And what better way to spend a holiday then by sitting in the sun, reading a book, walking along the coast to take in the views and exploring tiny little fishing vilages. It also feels like I'm on the edge of Japan. Far away from the big cities, in areas which feel quite far off the grid. Life here seems pretty simple. You fish, you clean your nets, you put your shell fish to dry. But the area also seems to be emptying. At most settlements half of the houses stand closed up and empty. I haven't seen anyone under the age of 50 today. On the bus here yesterday we did pass a few schools so there are kids and families in the general area but I think Wakinosawa and beyond is pretty much the end of the peninsula and families live closer to larger areas such as Kawauchi, Ominato or Mutsu. For the past four days I've had the sea in sight. First, it was the Pacific Ocean starting from Miyako and now I'm staring out at the Mutsu Bay. So in a way I really have been travelling Japan's edge. It has also made me rethink my travel plans and instead of heading into the mountains inland - where I probably won't be able to do the intended hiking trail anyway - I'm moving on to the other coast, the Japan Sea. Heading South on some local trains should be good with plenty of new discoveries.