May 7, 2019
For the first time in modern history the Japanese empower has decided to resign leading to a change from Heisei Period to Reiwa period from May 1st 2019. The Heiwa period has led Japan through a new paradigm of balance between modern and tradition and placing Japan into a postindustrial society 5.0.
Author with 4 sisters around 80 years old running the 108 years old Inn Tamaya in Daigo (photo Sanjeev Sinha)
Among many of Japan’s traditions, lacquerware making, known as Urushi in Japanese, goes back to 5000 BCE in Japan during Jomon Period. Japanese lacquerware, paintings, ancient pottery, sculpture, ink painting and calligraphy, woodblock prints, ceramics and origami are known and collected across the world. Famous Ukiyo-e paintings are also a popular collector’s items. More recently manga which is modern Japanese cartoons and comics along with a myriad of other types are being known as Japanese soft power.
Watanabe Kun learning the Lacquer plantation (photo Sanjeev Sinha)
With a history of Japanese capital and arts and culture hubs moving to different locations across Japan, the tradition is also dispersed across different parts of Japan including small towns and villages.
Japan is also well known for bullet trains, which is demonstrably the world’s best as a combination of length, speed, frequency, service and most of all safety: not a single accident fatality despite many severe earthquakes in the total history of more than 50 years. The remote rural part of Japan is also well covered by the public transport despite a very mountainous terrain of the country through breath-taking bridges and tunnels.
Japan’s urban transport systems are also a wonder, with greater Tokyo having the world’s most extensive and smooth urban rail network of 158 lines with 2,200 stations serving 40 million passenger rides daily, a little more than the total population of the region, which is also world’s largest urban conglomerate, at about 35 million. This is further connected with a dense and frequent bus operation as well as increasingly pedestrian and bicycle friendly urban planning. This is topped with a long-time impeccable record for safety and on-going regular improvements on all aspects. This leads to a very comfortable urban life style in Tokyo with almost zero crime, practically zero unemployment, negligible traffic jams, great healthcare and increasing convenience with omnipresent network of 24 hours convenience stores.
Similar is the case for other major cities of Japan like Osaka, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Sendai, Mito etc.
This poses a dilemma for Japan as the youth of Japan especially gets pulled into a handful of bigger cities not just for economic attraction but also for the active and playful lifestyle leaving the smaller cities and towns of Japan with dwindling ageing population.
A modern dilemma for traditions
While Tokyo is upcoming as a major international arts and culture hub the traditional culture, arts and craftsmanship of Japan widespread into its diverse landscape of smaller towns are facing a threat.
Sanjeev Sinha, President of India Japan Partnership Group specializing in promotion of collaboration including technology, finance, arts and culture between India and Japan, was invited by a joint initiative of TV Osaka and TV Tokyo for an experience and global awareness building of Japan’s traditional culture, arts and craftsmanship in smaller towns. In the context, Sanjeev Sinha is also an Advisor at the Committee on Promotion of AI and Inclusion at Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication of Japan, been an Advisor to the Nagareyama City and for Japanese collaboration of new capital city of Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, President of India Japan Partnership Fund, India Japan Institute of Technology and a guest lecturer of Urban Development at University of Tokyo.
The place chosen for the theme Daigo Town is a little-known place in Ibaraki Prefecture, on the border of two other prefectures of Fukushima and Tochigi for the period of April 19th to 21st 2019.
The town at 160 kilometers north of Tokyo is a host to a small community for plantation and collection of lacquer and more recently for making of inkstones and is the original investor of a popular health food of Japan Konyak.
The town also has many traditional inns called Ryokan and hot springs called Onsen, as is common in many places in Japan making it a wholesone trip to experience the local culture, hospitality and economy.
The Daigo Town has records of lacquer plantation and harvesting, known as Urushi Kaki in Japanese, for more than half a millennium. Sanjeev and visitors were greeted by Mr. Tobita 84 year old on the slopes of the hills in the town where a new plantation for lacquer is being carried out. It takes 8 to 10 years for a tree to be harvested which takes specialized traditional tools. As the visitors were taken around different plantation sites, they were treated to a wide variety of fresh local food highlighting the hospitality of country side of Japan called Omotenashi.
Return of the youth to the tradition
In the team of 5 people most people were in their 70s and 80s except one Mr. Watanabe, affectionately called Watanabe Kun, who was only 26 years old.
Watanabe Kun was born and brought up in a large and world famous city of Kawasaki which is a part of greater Tokyo described above. His presence in the small and remote Daigo Town for Lacquer plantation was a very interesting phenomenon which deserves some deeper analysis. The generation of Millennials across the world are known for their special and independent nature. The accelerated changes in the global economy which are now so fast that a single generation can face 3 or 4 different economic paradigms. At the same time the great access of latest and world wide access of information makes it a very different world where the younger generations have a huge reasons to think very independently of their earlier generations. While the economic efficiency of the new world makes their lives very comfortable in the moment the serious concerns of the climate change makes the younger generation question the very values systems of the older system.
Watanabe Kun chose to leave the comforts and economic benefits of the bigger city and live in Daigo Town just with an impulse as he liked the idea. He is not worried about his economic future because the modern economy of Japan offers him enough opportunities for a good life style anytime he wishes to choose and change.
This brings the core intellectual and aesthetic luxury of arts, culture and nature to the forefront as a major driving force. Watanabe Kun, not worried about his own economic wellbeing, just chose to live in nature and tradition in defiance to the economic common sense of the earlier generations.
Vertical integration of arts and culture
While Daigo Town has had the tradition of Lacquer plantation for hundreds of years, the town has not been known much because of the background nature of the work. In the foreground is the lacquerware itself which is well appreciated as an art work across the world.
Hence not surprisingly, the town has attracted an art expert Mr. Tsuji from the top arts university of Japan, Tokyo University of Arts, to make it a base for his lacquerware studio.
Mr. Tsuji is producing world class lacquer art in Daigo Town and gave a demonstration and educational session to Sanjeev and visitors group. He also uses latest technology for temperature and humidity control in his process creating a fine balance and coexistence between tradition and technology.
The arts and culture survive on a sense of pride by the community, hence the lacquerware artwork in the town also enhances the sense of pride of the lacquer plantation community and the whole town can expect a boost. This was seen in move of youth moving to Daigo to work with Mr. Tsuji, and this time it was two young ladies in their 20s from central Tokyo.
Lacquerware also has symbolism in India Japan relations as many of the Buddhist artwork exchanged between the two countries historically and contemporarily. Both countries and rest of Asia also place a huge symbolism on Lacquerware, brining Asia together in one of the ways of culture.
Hardship of tradition and need for society
Symbolically so too, hard stone of Daigo has led to a new artwork in the town with Mr. Sato, in his 70s, to chose the town for his hard work of inkstones making.
Inkstone making goes back hand in hand to the early history of calligraphy to thousands of years back. It requires special types of stones which lend themselves for the delicate shapes and finish required for Inkstones called Suzuri in Japanese. Mr. Sato found a river basis in Daigo which has the right kind of stone for the purpose. As a one-man project to begin with Mr. Sato started digging these stone, acquiring the tools for the Suzuri making and created his workshop on the way to a shrine in the mountains.
Mr. Sato, having lost his first wife and now battling with the illness of his second partner in the hospital, is spending a rather solitary life in the mountains and couldn’t stop his tears when spoken on the matter.
Over the time Mr. Sato, has attracted a group of younger professionals, still in their 50s, to support him in his efforts and now is a proud owner of a Suzuri gallery hosting Suzuri work ranging from few hundred grams to 10s of kilograms and from 20,000 yen to few million Yens in valuation.
Omotenashi: the mantra of Prime Minister Abe to secure 2020 Olympics and Paralympics
Japan is known for Ometanashi, which is a level of hospitality and service from heart and culture going beyond any economic reasons. And it goes beyond age too as was proven by the four sisters all around 80 years old running a 108 years old inn called Tamaya Ryokan.
The four sisters symbolizing the longer lifespan of women then men have all lost their husbands to natural reasons. They decided to come together to renew their 80 years old bonding from childhood to live together and run the 2 storied inn inherited by them in this small town of Daigo.
Running the Ryokan requires taking care of all the errands from procurement, cooking, cleaning and bed making and they do it all with their heart into it. Their deep knowledge of the society, human relations and culture makes any conversation with them very lively and enlightening.
Even in the age of 80s the third eldest sister makes an annual trip of couple of weeks with around 40 other friends from the Daigo town to different parts of Japan. Showing how the passion for life, community bonding and active lifestyle can help one live longer naturally and happily. The reason for their good health also lies in the healthy traditional food of the town as the town takes the credit for invention of famous health food of Japan called Konjak (pronounced in Japanese as Konnyaku) made from the Asian plant Amorphophallus konjac and has great health benefits with negligible calories in the various forms of processed Konjac. As Japanese tea has become very popular in India in recent years for its health benefits, Sanjeev is also exploring promoting Konjac in India for its dieting benefits. Japan with its excellence in food processing has a wide range of Konjac based health supplements which can be preserved, transported and consumed under various conditions. Daigo town hosts a historical factory of Konjac and offers a wide variety of Konjac cuisines. Daigo also has a beautiful municipality run hot water spring, known as Onsen in Japanese, in the mountains with open air baths called Rotenburo. It’s a delight to soak in the natural hot water in a very comfortable and clean environment surrounded by hills and trees.
The town is also attracting modern style guest houses like Lahar run by a young couple Mr. and Mrs. Komatsuzaki. Coming from the bigger capital city of Ibaraki Prefecture called Mito, the couple is providing the much-needed outbound marketing insights to the town that Sanjeev and other foreigners as longtime resident of Japan in the visiting group could closely associate with.
Japan having been a very homogenous country lacks the global marketing acumen which is much needed to promote the awareness of Japanese virtues to the rest of the world and India is widely recognized as a trusted potential partner for the same.
Smaller towns as a guidelight for modern solitude
The modern world especially in big well managed cities like Tokyo have gone beyond their economic necessities. With good lifestyle infrastructure of restaurants, 24 hour convenience stores and trustworthy health care with ambulances reaching within few minutes of calling, every individual is extremely self-sufficient. The self-sufficiency has led to people living alone and has taken its toll on human and family bonding leading to serious issues of loneliness.
The lifestyle of the four sisters in the small town of Daigo comes as a great inspiration and a living example to solve that problem of solitude as the people in Japan can afford to focus more on culture and lifestyle than economy. Smaller towns can serve as the hubs for community rebuilding and in parts the big cities can also emulate to implement similar lifestyle models in the big cities.
With modern economic and urban development advantages, Tokyo is already seeing new development of smaller self-sustainable residential hubs in the so-called Society 5.0 or Post Industrial Society model which will underline the new Reiwa period.
Japan with its long term and well-balanced socio-economic planning leads the world in post-industrial society issues and solutions and can offer a significant amount of experience and know how in the domain, including the example of Daigo.
(Sanjeev Sinha, Daigo Town, April 2019).