Caught Between Past And Future Japan


Modernization is necessary, but not at the cost of one’s own traditions. This is exactly what Japan has done, the so-called Japanese Miracle. As a child, my first image of Japan was a war film, “Tora, tora, tora”, in which Toshiro Mifune played a Japanese general. 

In my early youth there was the Shogun series on TV, and Kurosawa’s fabulous films like Rashomon, The Seven Samurai and Ran! And finally Japanese literature: Kawabata, Kenzaburo Oe, and the haiku of Basho, not to mention the inimitable paintings of Hiroshige, Utamaro and Hokusai.

Despite being fagged out after a close to 12-hour flight, we immediately hit the streets of Osaka - Shinsaibashi Avenue, Osaka’s answer to our İstiklal Caddesi. To get photos of a Japanese lady with straight black hair and slanting eyes who must be lurking somewhere in a colorful kimono, brandishing a fan and stepping with tiny mincing steps among the chrysanthemums, we began glancing about, cameras in hand.

The first girl we saw had blue hair and blue eyes (contact lenses) and she gave us a big smile. Her eyes weren’t at all slanted either. There must be some mistake! At first we thought it must be jet lag, and that we were seeing things. Where were the girls of Utamaro’s paintings? We kept on walking.

This time we encountered even more girls, full of life, posing for us as they smiled and made the “V” sign. They seemed to be coming from a masquerade ball. With blond curls and frilled Victorian and Empire-style gowns, they looked more like French than demure Japanese maidens.

Let alone their beauty and the joy they exuded, we had the feeling we were caught in a time warp until, unable to believe our eyes, we had taken several turns up and down this famous avenue. Osaka’s most renowned thoroughfare was a virtual stage where a Shakespeare or Molière play was being enacted before our very eyes.

This intriguing fashion has spread in the extreme among Japanese girls of late as a reaction of Japan’s youth to the galloping pace of modern life, and in an effort to reinvent themselves in a dizzying variety of persona.

I must hasten to add that these young women, whose getups first strike one as surreal, are actually neat, painstakingly well-groomed and chic as well as being eminently consistent (right down to their shoes, hair and makeup!).

It’s as if a costume ball has spilled over into the streets - with the difference that this is not a carnival that lasts for three or four days once a year, but a carnival atmosphere that pervades the city every day and night and is constantly changing.

Literally “Japanizing”, Japan has succeeded in becoming even more itself by assimilating and refining all the cultural and philosophical forms it has borrowed from its neighbors. We can seek the reason for Japan’s remaining a unique culture and society in the fact that the country closed its doors completely to the outside world for almost 270 years (1603-1867) during the ‘Edo period’, when it was essentially an island culture.

No longer able to resist when the West, which was gradually beginning to modernize with the start of the Industrial Revolution, began to force open those doors to engage in trade, the Japanese realized they could no longer remain self-sufficient in isolation from the rest of the world. 

Paying a price for the Edo period in centuries of gradual impoverishment, they finally put an end to the hegemony of the samurai and the shoguns and opened their doors, for good or bad, to all the influences of the modern world.

The foundations of the Japanese industrial giant we know today were laid in this period, known as the Meiji Restoration. Deciding with great caution to modernize and westernize, Japan sent thousands of students to universities in the West. As western industrial experts were being invited to the country, Japanese envoys were also making forays into the outside world.

The first official contact with the Ottoman Empire got under way in 1871. When Sultan Abdulhamid hosted his a member of Japanese Royal family, Prince Komatsu at the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1887, it ensured a significant warming in these already friendly relations. The Prince reciprocated by presenting the Sultan with Japan’s highest honor, the Order of the Chrysanthemum, thereby cementing their warm, friendly relations. 

Unfortunately, however, those early years of friendship would also witness tragedy. The frigate Ertuğrul, dispatched to Japan in a gesture of friendship in 1889, was enthusiastically received there after a lengthy voyage only to sink in a storm on September 15, 1890, the day it set sail on its return.

Five-hundred and thirty-eight Ottoman sailors lost their lives in the accident. Japanese Year in Turkey in 2010 coincided with the 120th anniversary of the Ertuğrul disaster. As for the friendship, we hope it will last forever…

Did you know that the word ‘manga’ was first used in the 18th century?

The art of Manga, which combines the traditional Japanese art of painting with modern pop culture, is in vogue not just in the Far East but all over the world.

We are visiting a temple said to be the source of the bonsai culture in Kyoto. Learning that this temple, called Ikenobu, was founded hundreds of years ago in the name of the Japanese art of flower arrangement, occasions some surprise.

One of the first examples of Japanese culture that spread to the West, the folding fan was invented earlier in China, in non-folding form. By merely folding it, the Japanese succeeded in putting it into the pockets of their loose-fitting traditional garments.

Elegant temples in the quiet of nature form a sharp contrast with the intensity of urban life in Japan’s big cities. According to many, Japan’s appeal lies precisely in this contrast.

Traditional temples and wooden houses give way to skyscrapers as one approaches the city centers. But traditional arts like bonsai and ikebana persist even in the urban environment.

Many Japanese devote years of labor to preserving the natural appearance of the tiny trees they grow in flowerpots. Zen gardens bring peace to the soul in the fast pace of urban life.

The Japanese, who have used the sword since the earliest times and turned it into an art, also created a mystical ceremony surrounding the drinking of tea, which they took from the Chinese. The tea ceremony gives the Japanese an opportunity to display their hospitality as well. 

Conducted in a tranquil setting, it is an expression of the elegance unique to the Japanese people.   I wonder if today’s beverages that have been confined to plastic containers for rapid consumption don’t secretly envy the taste and fragrance of this naturally flavorful tea...

The rapid proliferation of noisy, congested avenues creates an intriguing contrast in a culture where silence, simplicity and meditation are the highest values. Intimidated by the incredible dynamism of urban life and ruthlessly competitive social environment, countless Japanese young people spend their entire lives in front of the computer screen.


Buy a PASMO card and ride the Tokyo metro more economically.

This card, whose price ranges from 1,000 to 20,000 Yen depending on how many days it is for, can be bought in any Tokyo metro station. For schedules and other information about the Tokyo metro visit

If fugu fish is not your cup of tea, you might try sushi, one of the staples of Japanese cuisine. Not only fish, but crab, shrimp and octopus can be used to make sushi with its tasty blend of rice, seaweed and soy sauce.

Starting with Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan’s cities offer a wide range of accommodation alternatives.

Japan is a real shopper’s paradise. You can find everything from electronic gadgets to traditional handicrafts and original gift items.

Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market is a hive of activity from five in the morning as giant tuna, lobsters and dozens of fish you’ve never seen before await buyers.

Three highly recommended books about Japan:
1. The Sound of the Mountain (Yasunari Kawabata)
2. A Personal Matter (Kenzaburo Oe)
3. Fear and Trembling (Amélie Nothomb)

The best times to visit Japan are March-May and September-November. Spring is at its best in March in this land.

Following a traditional Japanese breakfast taken Japanese-style sitting on the floor, you can visit Tsukiji Fish Market. After visiting the city’s must-see Edo-Tokyo Museum, head for Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Stadium to watch some Sumo wrestling. And when you’ve seen the classic Tokyo sights like the Sony Building, the Leica Gallery and International Forum Plaza, it’s time for the Imperial Palace Garden.

An hour south of Tokyo, Kamakura is a key stop on any trip to Japan. This ancient city, which boasts 65 Buddhist and 19 Shinto temples, is also the home of the sacred statue of the Buddha.

Films for getting to know Japan: Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950), Tokyo Monogatari (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), Tampopo (Juzo Itami, 1987), Maborosi (Koreeda Hirokazu, 1995), Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003).

Baths built of chestnut wood with high arched roofs and light seeping through are famous throughout Japan. Found more commonly in hotels today, these baths give guests a sense of the ocean.

Head for the island of Miyajima to see Itsukushima, commonly acknowledged to be Japan’s finest Shinto shrine. The island, which can be reached by ferry from Hiroshima, is readily recognizable by the temple’s red door.

The incredible cost of transportation in Japan precludes your traveling around the country for months on end. A ride of less than three hours from Kyoto to Tokyo on the Shinkansen high-speed train costs 170 dollars per person.

Some traditional fests in Japan, land of festivals.
* Setsubun (Bean Throwing Festival) February 3rd or 4th
* Hina-Matsuri (Doll Festival) March 3rd
* Hana-Matsuri (Floral Festival) April 8th
* Tanabata (Star Festival) July 7th
* O-Bon (Lantern Festival) July 13th-15th, August 13th-15th
* Shichi-Go-San (Children’s Shrine-Visiting Day) November 15th

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