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Japan, the Beautiful, and Concrete

Reading Henry Scott Stokes's The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima I came upon the following passage:

“As we left Odawara and reached the coastal expressway beyond, the car passed the first of the succession of big industrial plants which we would see on our return to the capital, still an hour away at least. There was no beach below us, only a dreary series of massive reinforced-concrete tetrapods, intended to break the force of the sea as it hit the might wall below us. ‘I believe in culture as form and not as spirit,’ said Mishima, referring to the leprous Khmer monarch Jayavarman III and his building of one of the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon. He seemed very tired as he talked. ‘I want to keep the Japanese spirit alive,’ he added, as if unaware that he was contradicting himself . . . A few minutes later, he cradled his head in his left arm, leaning back in his seat, and fell fast asleep. The car sped swiftly on toward Tokyo, which we would reach in another half hour . . . From time to time I caught the sight of buildings, new factories, other expressways. As we passed Chigasaki, there was an occasional pine tree to be seen by the road, still standing on what had once been the historic Old Tōkaidō Road to Osaka, three hundred miles to the west. That was all that was left of old Japan, perhaps—a few pine trees.”[1]


It occurred to me that if in the late 60s Japan’s landscape had already become a scorched earth of industry and “modernism”, then it was stupidly naïve of me to embrace the romantic image I’d had of Japan before I actually came almost a quarter of a century ago—the sensitivity devoted to the most mundane of daily items, the beauty of manicured gardens changing with the seasons, quaint Japanese houses with tiled roofs and a zen-like simplicity inside, young pearl drivers lowering their lithe bodies deep into the pristine sea, a respect for nature that exceeded worship . . .


Thirty years after Stokes biography was written, humorist David Sedaris had this to say about Japan:


“Riding the high-speed train—the Shin-kansen—to Hiroshima, I supposed that to the untrained eye, all French cities might look alike, as might all German and American ones. To a Japanese person, Kobe and Osaka might be as different as Santa Fe and Chicago, but I sure don’t see it. To me it’s just concrete, some gray and some bleached a headachy white. Occasionally you’ll pass a tree, but rarely a crowd of them. The Shin-kansen moves so fast you can’t really concentrate on much. It’s all a whoosh, and before you know it one city is behind you and another is coming up.”[2]


Out of fairness to my adopted country, I should note that Japan is seventeenth among nations in the world (and the third industrialized nation, after Finland, 72.9%, and Sweden, 69.2%) for forested area. 68.6% of the land in Japan is covered by forests. It is also one of the few countries in the world where the percentage of forested land is increasing.


The title of this post might not ring any bells for most readers, but this was a play on the title of Yasunari Kawabata's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature: "Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. Kawabata won the prize in 1968, and, four years later, killed himself.



[1] Stokes, Henry Scott, The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1974, pp.234-35. 

[2] Sedaris, David, When you are Engulphed in Flames, London: Little, Brown, 2008, p.295

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