Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Why I Like Japan Reason #4: History

Japan is roughly the size of California, yet within this compact land mass lies some of the most interesting historical sites in the world. There are thousands of temples and shrines, hundreds of burial mounds, tens of castles (plus plenty more sites of former castles), and on and on. Can you imagine 50 castles in the entirety of the US, let alone California? Even 12, the number of original castles in Japan, seems extravagant for our Western state.

I love history and Japan just bursts with it. Every region has at least one thing to see but often this number is more like a hundred. Even Oita, the prefecture where I lived in 2008, isn't all that exciting in the modern world but was a powerful area in the samurai days. In just Oita Prefecture alone are two castles, tens of castle ruins, the ancient headquarters for the network of Hachiman shrines that stretches across Japan, 2 or 3 samurai quarters, and much more. Multiply this across Japan's 47 prefectures and you begin to get an idea of just how much there is to see.

Perhaps it's because I'm from California that I love history so much. America has its own history, however young that may be, but it's largely confined to the East Coast, to places like Boston and Philadelphia. Out here on the other side of the country there's a distinct lack of past. If you want to see something from before WW2 you have to search for it and once you find... oh, too late, it's been replaced by a Wal-Mart. Japan likes to replace its old buildings too but in the case of shrines and castles, at least it rebuilds it exactly as it was before, preserving the lay of the land as well as the feeling of the place. Try finding that in the diaper isle at Wal-Mart.

Japan is also in love with its own history so there's no lack of homegrown appreciation for samurai and days of old. It's sort of like America's love of the western before Italy took it away from us and made it better. Back in the '50s, you could see westerns on TV, at the movies, and read about it in books. It was part of our national culture. Now no one cares about the past, perhaps because for most Americans now it has no bearing on them. Their past is in India or China or Eastern Europe. It's not right to say that America has no past; its pasts are countless and spread all over the world.

But for someone like me, who so enjoys learning about the past, living in a country without a distinct national past is like a baseball enthusiast living in France. You just have to go elsewhere to get your needs met.

This is part of an ongoing series of articles exploring my fascination with Japan. Previous entries include:


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