Posted by: Paul | July 17, 2010

Konnichiwa!

Finding myself with a spare hour on Thursday afternoon during a trip to London for a meeting, I sought out one of my favourite places to spend a little bit of time.

The Japanese Galleries at the British Museum are a haven of peace and quiet away from the crowds of the rest of the building. They’re also air conditioned, which was a welcome relief after the slog up a stuffy, hot staircase in order to reach them.

Japan, and the Japanese, are a keen interest of mine. I try to make every other book I read either a novel by a Japanese author, or a non-fiction tome about some aspect of Japanese life. Many of these are travelogues written from a western perspective by the likes of Josie Dew, Alex Kerr or the late, great Alan Booth. If you have the slightest interest in Japan or in going to Japan, I recommend you check out anything written by these three. Booth was a great documentor of moving through Japan, including on his semi-famous walk from the northernmost to the southernmost extremes of the main islands, The Roads to Sata. Kerr writes informatively on the realities of life in modern Japan, and Josie Dew tells a great yarn about being a lone female ‘gaijin’ traveller in the country – met with almost universal horror and deep concern everywhere she goes.

I’m not sure what it is about Japan that I find so interesting. Perhaps it’s the enormous differences in society from here to there, that makes it almost like an alien civilization. Or the enchanting traditional culture and architecture – of which precious little evidence now remains. Or maybe it’s the technological developments and enthusiastic and entertaining popular culture. Whatever, I have an instinct to devour anything Japanese (oddly though, not really the food!)

So it’s nice to sometimes come up to these rooms and immerse myself in another culture for a while. They’re laid out as a potted history of the country from ancient to modern, and even the novice can come away with a broad appreciation of Japan’s geography, history, and interesting place in the world – cut off under self-imposed restrictions for so many centuries until forced to open up by the US navy in 1853.

What I always find on my visits here is that although the visitors are far fewer than to the more popular areas of the museum, there is always a very high percentage of Japanese people! Is it wanting to see how other cultures view your own, simple self-obsession, or a desire to feel connected to home when so far away? I do find it slightly odd, though it just underlines another difference – as an English tourist, when I’m away I have no desire to seek out medieval suits of English armour in a museum!

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