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Is Japan really a nation of nature lovers?

12 Comments
By George Lloyd, grape Japan
Photo: Joe Mabel, WikiMedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

The idea that Japanese people have a particularly close relationship to nature, which Westerners have somehow lost, is deeply ingrained in how the Japanese perceive themselves.

The idea first took hold during the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan was forced to re-define itself in relation to the West. Naturally, Japanese thinkers were sensitive to how westerners perceived them, and they weren’t averse to appropriating orientalist imagery from the West when it suited them.

Characteristics that were supposed to suggest the weakness of Eastern peoples were redefined as strengths. Some Japanese thinkers accused westerners of having become estranged from nature, in contrast to the Japanese, who were supposed to have stayed true to it. Love of nature became synonymous with being Japanese.

It’s certainly true that "nature" is a social construct; how we perceive the natural world is not fixed, but changes according to the kind of society we live in. In Japan, ‘nature’ is not usually seen as the opposite of "culture," as it tends to be in the West. Instead, nature is understood to oscillate between two extremes. At one extreme is ‘raw’ nature. At the other is ‘cooked’ nature, which is to say, nature modified by humans for human purposes.

The kind of nature most appreciated in Japan is "cooked" nature, as exemplified in traditional aesthetic disciplines such as bonsai and ikebana. Even after they’ve been appropriated to become bonsai or ikebana, trees and flowers are still considered parts of nature, but they need people to bring out their inherent "simplicity," "crookedness" and "austerity."

The love of "cooked" nature is bound up with the Edo period (1603-1868), when feudal lords recreated scenic spots from their home provinces in the gardens of their Tokyo mansions. These gardens had more than sentimental value. They were microcosms of how their owners understood the world. By creating a miniature world, they transformed "wild" nature into an idealized shape and a symbol of another place.

Unfortunately, this left "raw" or "wild’" nature rather out of a job. In Japan, perceptions of the natural world are still often marked by a general sense that it is useless until fiddled with by busy human fingers.

Westerners are still in thrall to the Romantic conception of "raw nature" as a refuge from the vanity and delusions of human society and font of all that is pure and good in the world. By contrast, many Japanese still see the natural world as essentially empty. To call a place a "wilderness" is not a compliment in Japan.

In Japan, the urge to improve upon the natural world, to corral it for human ends, is so ingrained in the national psyche that it has become a fetish. Of Japan’s 30,000 rivers and streams, all but three have been dammed, and even these have had their banks and beds encased in concrete. Thirty per cent of the island nation's coastline is lined with concrete blocks 1. There is no reasonable justification for this tidy mindedness, but ever since Japan’s bubble economy popped back in the early ‘90s, pouring concrete has become akin to a nervous habit.

In the minds of many fretful bureaucrats and vote-hungry politicians, "raw" nature is just an accident waiting to happen. That’s why even the wildest parts of the country have been brought to heel, as part of the authorities’ all-consuming desire to discipline the unruly, be they bored children, disgruntled workers or the rogue branches of wayward trees.

Pity the trees of Japan. A generation ago, the government encouraged owners of mountain land to cut down the native forest for timber, and replace it with uniform ranks of sugi (杉 Japanese cedar). As a result of this mania for monoculture, every spring these cedar clones spew vast clouds of pollen into the air, sending the entire country into fits of sneezing. No wonder most Japanese slam the window shut and turn on the aircon at the first sign of spring!

Living in Tokyo, the natural world – raw, dirty and potentially dangerous - is a distant threat and easily forgotten. There aren’t many parks, and you can spend days on end without seeing a wild plant or animal. "Connecting with nature" often just means recycling your PET bottles.

No, despite their much-vaunted affinity for the natural world, many Japanese people have little regard for the environment. Instead, they obsess about rituals to mark the changing seasons, and have the peculiar satisfaction of seeing their foibles recreated in the little theaters they call their gardens.


Notes:

1. "Lost Japan," Alex Kerr, Lonely Planet Journeys 1996, p.49

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12 Comments
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The park near my house was torn up to build a new subway exit. They tore down these big beautiful trees, which were actually nowhere near where they subway exit eventually appeared, and didn't bother to replant. They also removed most of the play equipment, a fountain that the children used to play in, and a small pond where frogs were laying eggs.

The park that was once full of trees and grass and little animal life is now bare dirt and a single swing.

This is not an uncommon sight, either. Most parks have no grass; there are barely any trees; and even the large parks, like Yoyogi, really aren't that well cared for. The grass barely grows back every spring, and don't even get me started on what the parks look like after hanami and how filthy beaches are in summer.

There are barely any green spots as it is, and the ones that do exist are in poor condition or else get torn out completely. This is how we know Japanese people, or at least, the Japanese government, doesn't care about or respect nature.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

The idea that Japanese people have a particularly close relationship to nature, which Westerners have somehow lost, is deeply ingrained in how the Japanese perceive themselves.

Yeah deeply ingrained in delusions of grandeur like the stupid Nihonjinron.

Japanese people have a particularly close relationship to nature, which Westerners have somehow lost?? Seriously?? In the west we have backyards where we have barbecues. We have BACKYARDS where we actually plant grass where the Japanese PAVE over their soil, which makes me want to scream. And that's IF they have an outside space- which most Japanese houses DONT have. We can have BBQs in most parks and on the beach. We have enjoyed camping for generations, which the japanese are only barely beginning to learn about now, not not without the urban comforts of onsen and convenience stores.

1 out of 10 Japanese live in Tokyo. And all I ever hear from them are things like Inaka yada or Dasaitama when they talk about saitama.

Granted, things are changing for the better, but to say that Japanese people have a particularly close relationship to nature, which Westerners have somehow lost is beyond IDIOTIC

6 ( +7 / -1 )

In Japan, the urge to improve upon the natural world, to corral it for human ends, is so ingrained in the national psyche that it has become a fetish. Of Japan’s 30,000 rivers and streams, all but three have been dammed, and even these have had their banks and beds encased in concrete. Thirty per cent of the island nation's coastline is lined with concrete blocks

There is no reasonable justification for this tidy mindedness

No reason, huh?

How about Landslides? Earthquakes? Tsunamis? Floods? Typhoons? Erosion?

Apparently this writer (and Mr Kerr, who he mindlessly quotes) forgot about the fact that 120+million people are densely living on one of the most geologically active and disaster prone parcels of land that the earth has to offer.

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

Pity the trees of Japan. A generation ago, the government encouraged owners of mountain land to cut down the native forest for timber, and replace it with uniform ranks of sugi (杉 Japanese cedar).

another dumb Idea by the gov. there are still seeds for the original native forests of Japan. Shave off these awful sugi and replant the forest the way it was originally.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

As a result of this mania for monoculture

Monoculture is quintessential Japan. Plant all the same trees, same desks at the office, same color suits to work, food prepared the exact same way with the exact same sauce, slippers all the same size, and on and on the list could go. Whatever the talking heads on TV say nature is, they'll go with that and do just like they are told. Monotonous.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I don't disagree with the author; and I think Alex Kerr is an excellent writer.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

No, we are not, really.

Love of nature became synonymous with being Japanese.

Sorry, but this seems rather like a view of a tourist, pretty shallow.

Some Japanese thinkers accused westerners of having become estranged from nature, in contrast to the Japanese, who were supposed to have stayed true to it

Names, please.

Japan is becoming more and more of a concrete jungle. Less and less green. And the care for the current green is also shallow. Sometimes, when there is a revitalization program, they destroy the old green in order to plan something new. Just because スッキリ. Take for example new Central Park in Nagoya. They rip out old trees and planted something new. Absolute disrespect. And not just this.

We like to think we are connected to the nature, but in fact we are far from that already.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I'd say the Japanese celebrate seasons more than most in the the west do these days but it's more for commercial purposes. Certainly they do not have a better understanding or closer relationship with nature, that one always makes me laugh but keep on stroking your fragile national ego if it makes you feel better.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

the fact that Mt. Fuji was inscribed on the UNESCO list as a cultural rather than natural World Heritage Site says a lot about appearance vs reality which is where all these kinds of articles come from. it's never been explicitly confirmed but the sheer amount of garbage dumped in and around Fuji-san's surroundings may have had something to do with it. (garbage as in cars, refrigerators, appliances, etc. before the "it's the foreigners" crowd get started).

https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/mountain-of-garbage-on-mount-fuji-20070611-gdqd0t.html

https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/mountains-of-trash-foul-sacred-mt-fuji/

https://www.nippon.com/ja/views/b00306/

https://www.japankuru.com/en/culture/e3147.html

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Yes, they love nature and environment intensely. You can see presents and gifts like garbage bottles, eaten bento boxes, old towels , shoes, anything else, while driving or walking everywhere.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

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