Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Past in Present-day Japan (Crystal)

I am lucky to be attending a university only a train away from both Osaka and Kyoto. Kyoto especially is a stunningly historical city. One of the reasons it is so popular is because it is host to around two thousand Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dating back hundreds of years. Although it is just as full of modern conveniences as any major Japanese city, there are references to traditional Japanese culture everywhere you look.

The Otowa Waterfall at Kiyomizu-dera
One of the most visibly obvious signs of this is the fact that you often see Japanese people wearing traditional clothes like kimonos. While traditional clothing are often worn at festivals, ceremonies, and other special occasions, it seems pretty rare to see people wearing kimonos, hakamas, and the like around the street – unless you’re in Kyoto. Though they don’t represent a majority, it’s common to see women and (fewer, but some) men sporting traditional clothing, especially around the temples. Kimono rental and dress-up services aren’t just for foreign tourists; most of the customers are Japanese (though probably still tourists, I would imagine). It’s a fun activity, paying to get dressed up and made up in traditional clothing before hitting the historical town and visiting shrines.

The fact that Japanese people still wear traditional clothing was a little surprising to me at first. In the US, we don’t really have a “traditional” dress that is still worn. One could look to early colonial settlers, but no one (to my knowledge) wears anything like that outside of reenactments and maybe the Amish. In Japan, however, the echoes of the past are still alive today. The kimono, which has remained more or less unchanged since the Edo period, still has a lasting presence today.

Japanese Women in Kimono at Kiyomizu-dera
Even the continued popularity of shrines and temples is a testament to Japan’s past. Even in my day-to-day life in Hirakata and the surrounding areas, I pass small shrines all the time, including on my walks to and from school every day.

From research I have done, both online and from talking to Japanese students, it seems to me that most Japanese people are not very religious, in that they don’t follow strict dogmas or even necessarily really believe in gods. However, shrines and temples are still very popular, and many people still go there to pray for numerous reasons (for anything from entrance exams to the souls of tragedy victims).

Clearly there is something about the shrines besides religion that attracts people. Maybe it can be explained by “spirituality”, but I think it also speaks to the importance of tradition and respect for the past. For one thing, many (though certainly not all) kami (gods/spirits) are said to be ancestors. Visiting a shrine can therefore be a way of honoring your family’s history. But even if ancestors aren’t on the mind of Japanese when they visit a shrine, it’s clear that they are following an ancient tradition that has been passed down for over a thousand years.

All in all, it’s fascinating to see this kind of historical presence so prevalent in Japan. I certainly haven’t seen anything like it where I’m from!


Dylan Hackler said...

Given the relative youth of the U.S. and the recent arrival of (the vast majority of) its population to the continent, it's not surprising we've built up so much fewer ancient traditions to follow. That being said, Japan does seem to be taking it quite a bit farther than say, the U.K., even there's parallels to be found.

Christopher Aaron Koerner said...

Going off a bit on what Dylan said. Japan is also a younger country when looking at modernity. Japan started modernizing just before the American Civil War. Japan did go through modernity a lot faster than a lot of countries have gone through, and Japan has had to go through a reconstruction period after WWII, but it is still surprising and amazing that tradition is still running. Many shrines and temples get renovated every few decades, so that they still stand. It is amazing that traditional building still remain popular, and that people are willing to dress in traditional garb at these locations.

Crystaline Hoover said...

Yeah, it's definitely amazing! England has a very long history as well, but you don't see too many people dressing up like King Charles and regularly visiting old castles.