Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

From enlightened strolls to 10,000-step goals: How Japan learned to walk the walk

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

Whatever intriguing cultural differences we may have as human beings, it would appear that there are certain fundamentals that remain the same wherever you go — eating, sleeping and walking, for example.

Yet, if you think about it, even these fundamentals vary radically from place to place. Different countries have their own unique types of cuisine and use different utensils to eat them, and things such as sleep, which almost seem “culture-proof,” are in fact anything but. Consider for example the Japanese habit of inemuri or “micronapping” — sometimes while standing on the train or even when sitting at the dinner table.

But walking? Surely that doesn’t differ from place to place. But indeed it does. The concept of the leisurely walk or “stroll,” for example, was largely a post-Enlightenment, Romantic invention, demonstrating that the person doing it was not a bound serf, but a person possessing freedom of both body and thought, who understood that walking clears the mind, reunites the body with the great outdoors and stimulates original, creative thinking.

The incorporation of multiple, vast parks into the designs of modern cities is intimately connected with this concept of “freedom as walking.” Feudal societies simply did not have this notion.

When characters in Jane Austen-style dramas comically enquire of each other if they would like to take a turn around the ballroom, or when terminally ailing Capt. Lawrence Oates fatally disappeared out of the frozen, wind-beaten tent on Capt. Robert Scott’s doomed walk across the Antarctic with the words, “I’m just going outside and may be some time,” they asserted something about how the culture and values they believed in were connected to the freedom of walking.

When Japan first came into contact with the West in the mid-19th century, this idea of walking-for-the-sake-of-walking was an unexpected, new one from the “southern barbarians,” which had certainly not existed when Japan had previously interacted with European nations in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The Japanese even had to invent a new word, “sanpo” (stroll) — adapted from the Chinese classics — to get the concept over, just as they had to transform some of the grounds of the former daimyō mansions and temples in Tokyo to create “parks.”

Previously, in the Edo Period (1603-1868), Japan had such things as ornately decorative “promemade gardens” (kaiyūshiki teien) offering a carefully schematized series of tableau (shakkei) that aimed to remind the viewer of famous scenic spots throughout Japan, but these were tightly cultivated affairs and had little of the air of free-range wandering about them.

In typical Meiji Era (1868-1912) enthusiasm for everything new and Western, educated circles in Japan soon embraced the concept of the “stroll.” Enlightened thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) and authors such as Kunikida Doppo, Tokutomi Roka and Shimazaki Toson were all enthusiastic “strollers.” But the king of the walkers was perhaps Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), who while resident in London at the turn of the century, enthusiastically wandered, in the fashion of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle, all over the capital. Today, one of the hundreds of book in Japanese about Soseki is titled “Sanpo Suru Soseki” (“Soseki the Stroller”).

Japan’s strolling intellectuals — the cousins of the flaneurs sauntering along the boulevards in Paris or the Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg — soon cottoned on to the concept of walking as a form of social scrutiny and self-exploration. When Edogawa Ranpo (1894-1965) penned his famous 1925 short story, “Yaneura no Sanposha” (“The Stroller in the Attic”), “strolling” around an attic became a metaphor for exploring some deeply repressed parts of the human psyche.

Yet even today in Japan, there is still a slightly imported nuance to the leisurely, recreational walk. More recently, the katakana word “wōkingu” (walking) has entered the Japanese lexicon to convey this sense of deliberate and exclusive act of walking for the sake of walking. (You can indeed purchase a book titled “Soseki Nijikan Wokingu,” which follows walking trails around Tokyo to sites connected to the famous author.)

Japan has a venerable history of pilgrimage walks and poetic travels, but does its relatively late embrace of “walking for walking’s sake” have any wider implications? We live in such a global, culturally interconnected world today that it’s slightly tricky to ascribe the exact reason for certain modern habits, but I’ve always been fascinated by a certain observation: That every ad for a housing unit for sale or rent in Japan tells you the precise number of minutes — four, seven, 13 — it takes to walk to the nearest train station.

In Europe, you are far more likely to be vaguely told that “a train station is nearby” or, if a rounded up figure is attached, you’ll be told that it’s roughly 10 or 20 minutes away, as if it’s really not that important — the walk will do you good anyway.

Tell a Japanese person that your house is 15 minutes from a train station and they are likely to pronounce that it is “chotto tōi” (“a bit far”). Is the Japanese precision about minutes spent walking a historical echo of a culture in which there was no tradition of walking around neighborhoods for pure pleasure?

Yet, paradoxically, you could argue that no nation has got the rest of the world walking quite as much as Japan. There was a recent revelation that the recommended target of activity devices throughout the world to walk 10,000 steps every day was due to a marketing ploy of a Japanese company in 1965 who randomly noted that the character for 10,000 — 万 — looked rather like a walking person.

These days, the centers of nearly all cities, east or west, prioritize “convenience” above all else — hence the forest of skyscraper apartments clustered around train stations. But I wonder to what extent this type of real estate is intrinsically “anti-walking,” both in terms of removing the need to walk to get there and often plonking towers in areas where there are few parks.

If free-range walking was one of the means by which we broke out of a feudal mindset and fostered the creativity of the individual, is there an anti-freedom, feudal effect of putting people back into nonwalking environments? How are people’s psychologies affected by the aspects of the buildings we place them in — and how do they psychologically rebel against not being allowed to walk very much?

Every city is a balance between the desire to keep people settled and to allow their walking forms to wander: The character of the city around you not only affects this balance but subtly influences the psychology of everyone who lives inside it.