One can’t escape the authors of travel books. Fiction writers lurk behind their characters while essayists on academic subjects prowl behind their data. Travel writers, though, can offer little but their own perceptions and their readers’ enjoyment is at least in part reliant on their feelings towards them. An author may write beautifully yet leave one cold because they come across like an asshole. This means it’s a particularly subjective medium and, thus, that all I can say about Will Ferguson’s Hokkaido Highway Blues is that I like the guy.
There’s a lot I can imagine readers disliking. He’s disrespectful to the point of outright rudeness to some of the people he encounters and cynical towards much of the culture of his subject. He doesn’t have the stubborn unwillingness to be impressed that’s a feature of other authors – he gets on with other people and likes much of the place – but has a fairly grim perspective. Still, I liked his humour; the breadth of his interests; his eye for that beneath the superficial and, indeed, his mixed opinions on a land I’ve thought of in romantic terms.
Anyway, the question I was pondering is – why do Westerners like Japan? Or, to be specific, why do loads of young, middle-class Westerners have such a great affection for Japan? It’s only matched by Palestine and, perhaps, Tibet among the lands English kids idealise. It’s even among the archives of Stuff White People Like. To some extent it’s due to its production of culture phenomena that are original enough to appear esoteric yet sufficiently accessible to be widely enjoyed. Hipster fodder. Yet I’m not a fan of manga and don’t much like sushi. There has to be more to it than this.
One factor – not unrelated to its art, cuisine and so on – is that despite the encroachment of consumerism many of its people maintain an aesthetic sensitivity. Their designs, for example, appear to be created not with cold utilitarian efficiency or modish opportunism but an awareness of the subliminal implications of surroundings. This is symptomatic of a mild independence that distinguishes the Japanese. To the outside world they’re as close as entire peoples come to an enigma: neither the cultural exhibitionists of Western capitalism or the hostile puritans of theocratic tyrannies but a nation that calmly gets on with its business and can sometimes be glimpsed in an appealing style or with a fantastic product that makes access to its inner sanctum all the more tempting.
There are, of course, multifarious other factors that might attract different people: its traditional ideals; its art; its countryside; its paradoxes. (With regards to the latter, I’d like to get more of an insight into how a people that have elevated “cute” to the position of a national ideal also boast figures like Kazuki Sakuraba, Takashi Miike and Jun Kasai.) For many, though, I suspect the more general attraction is the fact that it has a fairly distinctive image. That, of course, is less for show than for maintaining its internal cohesiveness – hipsters, for obvious reasons, can identify with that.