In the 1980s this question, why to study Japan, would have been answered by many by referring to Japan’s dominance of the business world. The power of Toyota’s manufacturing technique and the innovations of Sony and Nintendo that took the world by storm would have been enough to give weight to arguments for studying Japan.
Now 30 years later Japan seems to be a study case for all things gone wrong. The Japanese economy has been stagnant. What has been termed a “lost decade” in the 1990s due to a major speculative real estate bubble in Japan has turned out to be much more fundamental problems with Japanese business and has turned into two lost decades. Fukushima and the political inbreeding has made Japan an example of a post-war “wonder boy” unable to mature into a 21st century “superman”.
But looking at the economy of Japan I argue were the wrong reasons for studying Japan in the first place. The more enduring reasons actually lie in the way Japan and its people relate to the world. Ever since the Western World has gained access to Japan in the mid 1800s, has there been enchantment with its culture. The Shinto animistic beliefs in a spirited world, the code of honor of the Samurai, the delicate cuisine reflecting in presentation and savor the seasons the regional flora and fauna of the Japanese isles, the architecture in harmony with nature and in respect to its raw forces of destruction, the artisan crafts of pottery, painting, weaving, and ironworks, and the martial and performing arts. These arts are being cared for to the present day. And also modern forms florish and travel the world in form of Japanese Manga Comics, Anime Cinema, Fashion and Zen spirituality.
This richness of expression point toward the deeper value of studying Japan. They point toward an aspect of reality that the Western World has been neglecting in the past century or two: namely the relatedness of humanity to the world.
CG Jung has spend his life unearthing and reappreciating the fundamental link between the human psyche and the world at large. His study of psychological diseases and anthropology convinced him that people across the globe are expressing in their arts and crafts ageless themes fundamental to what we call humanity, themes of life, death, love, pain, joy, loss, longing, courage, fear and the like.
Japan in contrast to the West has kept one important message alive: that we humans are not creatures separate from the world, but rather deeply connected in all our emotional life with the world. When a Japanese poet tries to capture the feelings of fall in his tanka poem by writing about falling leaves he pays homage to this connection. When a Japanese anime paints a dream world of a young girl that tries to safe nature from the destructive forces of human greed and industry it expresses the deep-felt need for harmony with nature. When a Japanese cook changes his dishes and plates to account for the changing of seasons he points to the natural cycle of life.
These are more than a Japanese romance. Japan is holding out a sign for all of humanity that humans are part of nature. And that when we live in harmony we can deepen the quality of our life. And that is a timeless reason to study Japan and ask where our own culture holds the sign to the same message.