A Glimpse Into Japan's Past

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Kofi Bulluck | 11/06/2022

The class taught me to avoid generalizations and monolithic perspectives of Japan, as Tokyo quickly came into stark contrast not only to rural Japan but also to other major cities in the nation. Through living in the city with a host family and having opportunities to explore Tokyo in addition to Hiroshima and Kyoto

For a few reasons, Japan was among the first of the countries I became interested in learning about and traveling to. I became somewhat familiar with Japan as an elementary schooler, learning to count in Japanese from my aunt and watching old Ultraman and Speed Racer episodes with my father. My primary attraction to Japan came from knowing the country as the home of Aikido, a martial art I’dpracticed since I was five. Beyondtraining itself the dojo was a great way to be exposed to Japanese history, society and culture. We wore gi (Japanese training uniforms) and hakama (traditional pants) and learned the social mores around their wear. We were taught the names of the weapons we practiced with and also learned about the legendary masters of those weapons, samurai like Miyamoto Musashi and Muso Gonnosuke, and about the feudal world in which they lived. Calligraphic painting and naturalistic sculpture filled the building and covered the walls, art both decorative and representing foundational Buddhist and Shinto ideas that influenced the philosophy of Aikido.  Although I didn’t immediately appreciate much of what was surrounding me I quickly came to. The little bits of art, language, history, philosophy, and religion came to give me a sense of Japan as a country.

My understanding of Japan was challenged, adapted and expanded during my five-week long experience in the country (May 25th, 2019 - June 29th, 2019). The academic side of my experience was directly impactful in this regard. The class I took, Humanities in Tokyo, covered various developments in visual art, film and animation, literature, architecture, and other shifts in the cultural topography centered on the Tokyo metropolis.

The class covered Japanese history primarily from the Edo Period, beginning at the start of the 17th century, onward, focusing on major national milestones in government, technology, and cultural topography in addition to many of the natural and man-made disasters that struck Tokyo up to the present day. The importance of these historical events cannot be understated, and continue to be an influencing factor of the appearance and culture of the city today. Perhaps the most significant event we studied was the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a period in which the shogunate government and samurai class structure were abolished and the Japanese imperial government under the leadership of Emperor Meiji took complete control of the nation. Under Meiji, Japan began a program of rapid industrialization and cultural westernization, modeling itself–artistically, architecturally, stylistically, and technologically–on the Western powers of its time. Such changes, in addition to creating a lasting relationship between Japan and the West that remains observable in various aspects of Japanese society, set in motion a vision of Japanese expansionism which began in the 1870s and would continue until the surrender of the Japanese Empire following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final moments of the Second World War. The legacy of the Meiji reforms was observable in my experiences in Tokyo. The Japanese commercial sector in many ways owes its foundation to the relationships formed between state and corporation under Emperor Meiji, and Meiji era industrial giants (like Mitsubishi) remain powerful. The aesthetic legacy of the era was also evident as the Neoclassical and Neo-Baroque styles adopted from Western European architects persist in many of the older imperial government buildings, corporate headquarters, and perhaps most notably in the facade of the Tokyo Station Marunouchi Building. For this reason, in exploring the city I felt that the class provided a historical lens for understanding the appearance of the city and the structural, aesthetic, and spatial organization of modern Tokyo and how that development is as old as the city itself.

Another formative theme in the development of Tokyo and Japan that the class confronted was the relationship between the city and the various calamities that Tokyoites were forced to endure from the 17th century onward. We focused primarily on two disastrous events, first the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and later in the class on the firebombings that leveled the majority of Tokyo, left a massive proportion of the population homeless, and killed more than both atomic bombings during the Second World War. The Great Kanto Earthquake is among the most damaging of the natural disasters to occur in Japan, as the earthquake instigated fires that raged through entire neighborhoods through the mostly wooden buildings of Tokyo in addition to the city of Yokohama and many others in the nearby prefectures. Although evidence of the destruction no longer exists, the response in the development of engineering technology and architecture specifically suited to the Japanese environment still do and are applied to and developed within nearly all new construction works. The firebombings of Tokyo and atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were likely even more impactful. To grasp the significance of these events the program included a three day trip to Hiroshima and Kyoto which allowed us not only to understand how other parts of Japan developed post-war but also provided perspective in understanding the unique features of Tokyo. Hiroshima, a city that was entirely destroyed, had to be entirely rebuilt. The city is beautiful yet incredibly modern as a result, as almost none of what preceded the bombing still stands. Alternatively, Kyoto was spared from both atomic and firebombings during the war and thus appears to be the oldest city, with traditional materials and styles used which has obvious effects on the overall culture of the city with respect to the importance of tradition and historical preservation.

Not only did the rebuilding of the cities lay apparent architecture foundations even more present in modern Tokyo than the Meiji era styles, but the social and societal consequences of the national traumas were lasting. Japanese post-war entertainment often grappled with such issues, evident in the monster film Gojira (1954), Godzilla to American audiences, which warns of the danger of nuclear technology, the Yasujiro Ozu masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953), which focuses on the effects of the war and its horrifying death toll on post-war family life, and even in animated children’s shows and manga like Astro Boy (1963), which projects a utopian future in which technology, and specifically nuclear technology, is used for societal benefit. Beyond these immediate media responses, the disaster had lasting results on the Japanese identity, including the nation’s commitment to pacifism. This commitment forced Japan’s technological and industrial resources into non-military areas which in large part has contributed to the nation’s technological dominance today. Both the investment in technological development and overall pacifist vision I found inspiring and in line with the mission of the Milken Institute and Milken Family Foundation. In addition to the day to day experiences I had being able to take part in Japanese life, I found my studies instructive and applicable to our nation’s approach to scientific research, technological investment, and ultimately global progress.