Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Notes from Japan 2: Looking inwards

If India became seriously rich as a result of several decades' concentrated hard work, it would look like Japan in many ways. For example I live in a locality of Kyoto which is made up of tiny lanes with tiny houses crammed next to each other, which brings to mind (but only symbolically) the lanes and by-lanes of a Mumbai slum. It is more than likely that these neighbourhoods were very poor at one time. The rapid industrialisation of Japan, and consequent rising affluence, led to a decline in population growth and a gentrification of the poorer areas.

What is interesting is that this gentrification did not (at least in Kyoto) follow the path of building skyscrapers everywhere. Rather, the entire area east of the Kamo river - Higashiyama and Sakyo districts - is low-rise. The lanes are scrupulously tidy and each house has a microscopic front yard with a bonsai tree or some rocks, or tiny garden gnomes, or all of the above. In some cases there is just enough space to hold a kei car, while the most affluent houses that are lucky to be on wider lanes will display a Crown Athlete, a hybrid car the size of a small airplane. (My own lane is so narrow that a taxi cannot make it in.) The atmosphere in these areas is serene, excessively so. On the first 15 minutes of my 20-minute walk to work, I typically see one or two human beings, sometimes none.  After 7 PM there is essentially no chance of seeing anyone on the street.

The serenity is one evidence of a very important fact about Japanese culture - the emphasis on looking inward, focusing on one's own duties, keeping to oneself. To be sure, bustling Osaka and Tokyo (and even downtown Kyoto) are far from serene, but if you look carefully at the gigantic crowds you see that most people are quietly occupied with themselves. Alternatively, they are occupied with being a nuclear family: typically a young couple with one child, immersed in its own world though interacting with others from time to time. This is not intended as a negative judgement, simply a fact of Japanese life. Presumably it originates in the ancient Shinto religion and has been reinforced by Buddhism.

In contrast, in India the keyword is to busy oneself with everyone else's business. And actually, this too is not intended as a negative judgement. The warm mutual engagement of people in every locality in India is what makes it such a cheerful place. Neighbours exchange food, front doors are kept open, privacy is unknown. The result is an exuberant culture that provides a fascinating (and, for me, essential) change from the orderliness of Japan.

A dose of looking inwards would, however, be very beneficial if India is to prosper. I would love it if the "bastis" (shanty towns) of all our cities were transformed into neat little localities of the Kyoto type -- retaining the narrow winding lanes, but with proper hygiene, electricity and sanitation. It can be done, but requires both vision from above and self-discipline from within.

1 comment:

vbalki said...

Just read all three parts of "Notes from Japan". It could have been titled "Japan in a nut-shell". A most vivid thumbnail sketch that brought the place to life. Thanks for the tour!

Apropos of wishing that our own 'bastis' were as spick and span as those in Japan: we DO scrupulously sweep out our own little yards, both metaphorically and literally. The problem, as you know, is that we sweep the debris out onto our neighbours' yards and public spaces, with complete reciprocation on the part of our neighbours. The consequences of this philosophy are eminently predictable, and ought to be obvious to anyone over six. It's an enduring mystery why they're not!