Turning Japanese

28 working days…no word from Customs… [Sigh]

As mentioned last week, my parents are here, and this weekend was largely spent in a range of cultural pursuits – at least, in comparison to the next few days, when the eventual destination will be the anti-culture capital of the world, Las Vegas. We got to contrast two cultures on Saturday and Sunday: the first day of the weekend saw us at the Arizona Scottish Highland Games; on the second we stumbled, more or less by accident, across a Matsuri or Japanese festival, in downtown Phoenix.

Despite the vastly different backgrounds from which these two sprang, there were some interesting cultural similarities, not least in the way in which both celebrated – or perhaps “wallowed” might be closer to the truth – in history. In Scotland’s case, this is somewhat understandable, given that the country ceased to exist as a sovereign nation the best part of three hundred years ago. While the sons and daughters of the country have done much to be proud of since (and quite a few things we’d rather not broadcast – Sheena Easton comes to mind there), it’s best not mentioned that these have been as the junior partner in a supposedly united kingdom.

For Japan, the situation is different, yet perhaps not so much as you’d expect. For hundreds of years, it was a nation which practiced isolationism to a degree which would be utterly impossible today, and the savage Westernisation which has followed its defeat in World War II is not going to be welcomed by all, leading to a strong sense of nostalgia for older i.e. better times. In both Japan and Scotland, it’s probably true to say that icons such as whisky or bonsai are wrapped up as a significant part of national identity, to a degree which may not be apparent to outsiders.

It would, however, have been nice if either event had made some effort to introduce a contemporary feel to proceedings. Okay, this’d be a bit difficult for Scotland, given their last worthwhile contribution to shared world popular culture was probably the pneumatic bicycle. But Japan’s three biggest post-war cultural exports are perhaps Godzilla, Hello Kitty and anime, and all three were virtually absent from the matsuri. One Hello Kitty book and two wall-hangings, depicting the big G and Sailor Moon, was about the sum total, which is a shame, because they would have brought in a whole new generation for whom the noble arts of flower-arranging aren’t much of a draw. I must confess to having thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition of drumming, performed with rather more enthusiasm and energy than the martial arts nearby! This was hugely refreshing, in comparison to the po-faced and almost dreary nature of some of the items: you could certainly admire them, but they didn’t really spark much enthusiasm in me.

I have to admit though, I don’t think I ever realised before what big buggers koi carp are; they had entire plastic swimming pools filled with them, though my enquiry of whether they were also selling chips to accompany them didn’t go down too well… You need to show relevance to people; you bring nations together by showing that the Japanese have the same sick and twisted interests as we do. Thus, I have visions of a pop matsuri, in which Godzilla would wrestle a barbed-wire death-match against Mima Shimoda, accompanied by a rendition of the Sailor Moon theme played via a cheap, plastic alarm clock. The food would be McSushi, and all the stalls would be manned by over-sized robots and doe-eyed schoolgirls, with the odd tentacle flicking casually in and out of proceedings (if not the schoolgirls). Doesn’t that sound rather more fun?