Japanese Culture – What are we giving up?

October 30, 2014

Culture constantly evolves, as it reflects changes in the lifestyle and values of a people. Japanese culture is no exception. However, because of these recent changes in people’s lifestyles and attitudes, Japan may currently be going through an unprecedented loss of its traditional culture.

With a negative population growth and one in four people over the age of 60, Japan is rapidly approaching a tipping point in which the rising generation may be significantly smaller in number than the one passing away. What might this entail? Clearly there will be political and economical consequences. But there will be social, cultural ones as well.

The passing generation may represent the last of many things.

With this generation will go the last of the war veterans who remember the violence of that time and truly understand the value of peace; so too will go those who were brought up in a stricter, more rigid society that emphasized respect and diligence as utmost virtues. And with this passing generation will go some of the most skilled masters of traditional Japanese crafts, called kogei (or for specifically qualified crafts, dento-kogei).

Already, several techniques for crafts such as Gamou-washi from Shiga prefecture (a specific form of traditional Japanese paper (washi)), have only one master remaining. Some crafts and techniques probably have already been lost without our knowing. In Kyoto also, only one master remains for the craft of making by hand a particular form of weaving shuttles; once he passes away, weavers would have no choice but to purchase machine-made shuttles instead, as he does not have an apprentice. Without master craftsmen, with a break in the traditional chain of succession that lasted for at least a hundred years, Japanese culture is bound to change. And, perhaps, this change will not be one to rejoice over.

In our current world of abundance and mass production in Japan, we seem to forget to place much value in things. Go to the 100yen store and you can buy cheap plates and cups on a whim – probably of poor quality and unlikely to last long, but they are cheap and sufficient for your temporary purposes. Should they break, there are always plenty more to buy.

The truth is, many people no longer seek the lasting quality, beauty, and often practicality of the more traditional crafts. Mostly hand-made, kogei and dento-kogei include a wide range of crafts, such as urushi (lacquer), cabinets, paper, utensils, brushes, and fabrics. The craftsmen make them all with sincerity and care and effort. And yet, who carries around their own personal pair of high-quality dento-kogei chopsticks, when Family Mart provides you with free, easily disposable ‘wari-bashi’ (disposable chopsticks)? Our current society places much emphasis on convenience and swiftness, rather than quality and durability.

Having said all this, however, I do not believe all such traditional culture will disappear; some crafts are still fit for today’s society. For example, a master swords-maker may find that he has a place in current society, by sharpening kitchen knives for people who value the high quality of his work – which is actually a true story, of a man who comes around my neighborhood once in a while. And some have perhaps heard about kumano-fude, or kumano calligraphy brush, a traditional dento-kogei that has found a place in the makeup industry as a high-quality makeup brush. However, the only hope of survival for some other crafts and aspects of Japanese culture may rest on the shoulders of those comparatively few that currently are actively working to try to save and protect these traditions.

Of course, it is inevitable that people live and die, and it is natural that traditions and culture that best suit and reflect the current society and attitudes of people will be the ones to remain, and those that no longer do so to go obsolete. Yet, it is not without some trepidation that I look at Japan’s future, as I feel a great loss will come our way. And ours will be the generation to see and live through it all, to remember and to reminisce.


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