by Florin Grancea, Author of “Crescuti pentru Asahi Shimbun: Japonezii pe Patul lui Procust
Every time I am savoring my fried himono, sundried fish, in the morning, I am remembering my grandmother who, at the age of 84, wanted to buy again, like many times in her childhood, sundried fish from those horse pulled carriages that supplied with fish during late autumn the most towns and villages of Romania. She couldn’t. The World Wars and the years that followed disrupted and then annihilated the supply chain that made the Romanians a healthy people. How ironic was that fish that protected us as a people form starvation and malnutrition generation after generation became a symbol of empty stores of late ‘80s. How ironic is the fact that nowadays “good food” for most of Romanians is something with meat. How ironic is that we as a people almost completely forgot that we used to eat during long winters… fish.
Finishing my himono in the morning I am happy that leaving Romania for Japan I could discover that these two countries are very much different but very much alike. Not only the himono that my ancestors clearly enjoyed makes me think like this, but also the very Christmas song that I can hear from J-wave radio: Japan, same as Romania, had a vibrant culture when it was attacked and forced to open at the end of Edo period. Four generations after, Japanese and Romanian people alike, go to work dressed in suits, white shirts and ties. But the Japanese that I come to love, unlike my compatriots, know how to strike back: they filter trough their own culture everything that comes from abroad having in the end not their own culture replaced with something foreigner but their culture enriched.
Every since the first technologies of the western world were forced into Japan, they were improved by Japanese people and sent back. Japanese culture’ own way of survival was in refining and transforming western models. These were sometimes so much improved that became the standards upon which the entire world was focused. Yes, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Panasonic, Sony and the list is still far from ending, are stereotypes that we use to describe Japan. But Japan is more than the list of its famed companies. It’s the country of the “The Myriad Year Clock”, the most complex mechanism ever built. Made in 1851 with rudimentary tools, this clock could display time in 7 ways (usual time, the day of the week, month, moon phase, Japanese time, Solar term) and chimed every hour. Moreover, fully wound, it could work a year without another winding.
It’s the country of farmers that, same like Romanian counterparts, see the sunrise and sunset while working their fields; it’s the country of brave fishermen that battle high seas for the love of their families and the food independence of Japan. Yes, food independence, because Japan is the only industrialized nation that is not 100% self sufficient for food. Whaling has made Japan in recent years a target for environmentalists around the world but people tend to forget that not Japan was responsible for bringing whales to the brink of extinction but money greedy western companies that whaled for dog food. Nations that still kill endangered species to feed the animals they keep in fur farms never make the news.
Let’s just not forget that the entire adult population of nowadays Japan, the same population that trough taxes supports the yearly 8.3 billon USD in ODA that Japan offers to less fortunate countries, was saved from malnourishment in’60s, ‘70s and ‘80s by whaling. Japanese can never forget this.
However, as a proud and responsible nation Japan knows how not to deplete resources and how to give back the little that it takes. They don’t make a fuss from it, but all important reforestation programs in South-East Asia are founded by Japan with money and knowhow that other countries cannot offer. Japanese people too, not only their government, volunteer and dig wells in villages that never had water and sweep land mines in war thorn countries; university teachers make keyboards in local alphabets so people in poor countries can keep their cultural dignity when using PCs and the list is still long.
I said at the beginning of this article that Romania is very much different and very much similar to Japan. I know Romanians that work and are serious like Japanese are and I’d like to think that if as reach as Japan, my country would contribute to the world’s welfare as much as Japan is now contributing. But we are not that rich. However we are as welcoming to foreigners as Japanese people are. As an expat living in Japan for the last nine years I can tell for sure that Japan is treating “aliens” better than these aliens are treating foreigners back in their own countries. Maybe this is something the world can learn from us, Romanians and Japanese alike. But for certain if the world will try to watch and “see” Japan as it is, not only as a country of big companies, but as a country of a kind and cultured people, peace loving people, concerned more about society than about their own kids, then the world would be a better place. Japan became what it is today by refining bits and pieces of what America and Europe threw at it, so maybe it’s time for us all to start not refining but at least welcoming and understanding what Japan is offering us.