On Being in Japan and Elsewhere

by Daniel Rourke

Japan. That’s where I am. With the rice-triangles and the tatami-mats and row upon row of vending machines. In a country where serving others is paramount, and where holidays are something that other people do, I find myself being served – on holiday… I am the ultimate gaijin 1 and every ticket I buy and photo I take seems to confirm this. I came to see Japan. But now I realise that the culture of seeing has been commodified into an experience in itself, and perhaps not an experience any of us are capable of moving beyond alone.

Not I, but WE are in Japan...

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love Japan. I lived here from 2004 until 2006, teaching English on the outskirts of a medium sized city on the island of Kyushu. The experience enriched me, precisely because it tore me from my anchors. Because it helped me understand where I had come from. On the surface Japan behaves like the perfect machine, with all its components functioning within designated parameters. And what’s more, that machine just seems to work, with hardly anyone screaming to get off. The Japanese are a nation in a very different sense to us Brits. And for a small-town, West Yorkshire boy like myself, being part of that nation, that huge entity, all be it for only 24 months of my life, is still one of my most humbling experiences.

But even as I gush about Japan being here can often feel like toiling through an endless urban labyrinth. With little of cultural merit to distinguish the pachinko parlours from the snack bars and multi-storey car parks Japan can seem grey, shallow and everything but refined. But when it surprises you, whether you’re picking blueberries in the mountains or being served delicate morsels of fish in the private room of your ryokan, Japan redefines the word privileged. I feel privileged to have lived here, I feel privileged to be travelling through it. Yet, keeping hold of that feeling is not always easy.

The Usual Route (Japan)The problem is not completely a Japanese one. Worldwide tourism has moulded, cast and set into faux-stone souvenirs the types of experiences we can access. Even those attempting to wind their own path through the deserts of Mongolia or the jungles of Brazil will occasionally find themselves face to face with a toll-booth and turnstile scrawled in badly translated English instructions. The forces of the free-market mean that being somewhere has come to mean “being near this particular cultural commodity”. Any 21st century traveller who believes that they can get to the authentic heart of an experience will have to pay for a ticket somewhere along the track.

Had the restless 17th century poet Matsuo Bashō known that his musings on the River Ōi would be turned into a set of commemorative face flannels he might very well have never set out on the road to Fuji:

In a way
It was fun
Not to see Mount Fuji
In foggy rain

Like Bashō I aim to plant myself in a place, more deeply than at the toll-booth and souvenir shop. But with every photograph I’ve taken of a monument, of a neon high-street or sunset, I’ve moved further away from this essential desire. Lest we forget the verb ‘to be’ whenever we are trying to be somewhere, somewhen, somehow.

The Japanese seem particularly keen on the token of the experience. Whether it is the photo of themselves issuing the ‘V’ sign in front of Mount Fuji, or the gift-set of sweet rice-cakes they take home as omiyage 3 for their grandmother. At first I thought this was nothing more than tourism top-trumps. A way to out-do your neighbour with 20 ‘sugoii!’ 4 points over her holiday snaps. But unlike the Westerner’s conception of the experience gained, the Japanese live to share their commodities with each other. Suddenly holiday photos are more than a way to put cousin Seth to sleep, they are a ticket for every member of your family, of your friendship group, your work mates and arch-enemies, to take a little bit of your experience for themselves. The machine of Japanese society is oiled by holiday snaps and boxes of seaweed crackers stamped with the silhouette of Hello Kitty. Before I lived here I read that the Japanese spend the same equivalent of their GDP on omiyage as America spends on law-suits and litigation. In this sense, the commodity of ‘being somewhere’ has far greater value for Japanese society than the mere personal. If we in the West were offered the chance to swap all our law-suits and lawyers for seaweed crackers, I hope we’d at least consider it. Perhaps the value I grasp for in my lived experience would be better shared than savoured for myself.

Is it possible then to have an experience without commodifying it? I’m not sure if it is. Whether through my photo collection or the stuttering inadequacies of my language, I find it increasingly difficult to pinpoint what it was about an experience that lingers within me. As the smorgasbord of human experiences is extended, enhanced, mixed and matched between cultures and languages, what there is to take away with us seems increasingly shallow. Turn on The Discovery Channel and be instantly smacked around the face with the token beauty of the world. Travel there yourself, whether by tourist boat or chartered jet, and wallow in the sense that where you are right now is not where you normally find yourself.

Japanese omiyage anyone?Without meaning to paint the entire Japanese nation with one brush, I do feel that they have got something right with their tourism tokens. They have brought in from the outside the gamut of experiences the world has to offer. They have reduced them to a pocket souvenir, or a sliver of flavour that lingers on the tongue, and shared them around for everyone to make sense of. The idea that we should all escape our lives for a while, should buy a reduced price ticket and lose ourselves on a pristine, simulacrum of a beach somewhere, bothers me. The only time I have ever felt distant from myself was when I was at the mercy of a culture who take pride in the commodities of their experiences. Who exist to share them. To really believe for one moment that I can find something, out here, that is true, that is mine and only mine is a little naive.

When I finally get back on my flight, disembarking at Terminal 2 of Heathrow, only then will I once again be living the absolutely individual experience that is my own. For it is only through my removal and return to London that my deepest experiences are founded. If I am going to be anywhere, I may as well be where and what I am, and not what my plane ticket promises me I can be:

Coming home at last
At the end of the year,
I wept to find
My old umbilical cord


1. ‘Gaijin’ is the Japanese word for a foreigner, or, outsider.
2. Poem taken from, The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, one of Matsuo Bashō’s journeys as recounted in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.
3. A souvenir or gift that represents something about a trip you have taken. Omiyage usually takes the form of a foodstuff that is ‘unique’ to the place visited.
4. ‘Sugoii!’ roughly translates as Great! or Brilliant!.
5. Poem taken from, The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel, one of Matsuo Bashō’s journeys as recounted in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches.

by Daniel Rourke