Japan has come a long way since the era of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), arguably the world’s most famous and certainly the first Western Japanophile. Before Hearn, a Greek-Irishman who married the daughter of a local samurai in remote and rural Shimane Prefecture, and also took on Japanese citizenship, there had been virtually no one from afar who had immersed themselves in Japanese culture as deeply as him — or who served so prominently as a cultural interpreter between the East and the West.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and Japan is no longer the economic animal, the “Asian tiger,” it was feared to be in the 1980s. Instead, it has now more or less settled into being a “soft power,” with its global cultural offerings of manga, anime, costume play and more.
But there are still many people following in Hearn’s footsteps who are drawn to the Japan of old. Indeed, many such folks have delved deep into aspects of Japanese art and culture that most Japanese themselves have lost touch with — in the process overcoming the often introverted, if not outright xenophobic, establishment to gain not only acceptance but also respect and awe from top practitioners in their chosen fields.
Indeed, Japanese culture, and not just the economy, is a major reason why people study the Japanese language overseas. According to a recent report by the Foreign Ministry-affiliated Japan Foundation, some 2.98 million people in 133 countries were studying Japanese in 2006 — 23 times more than 25 years before. As for their nationalities, South Koreans topped the list with 30.6 percent of all students, followed by Chinese (23 percent) and Australians (12.3 percent). While those polled cited numerous reasons for studying the language, “learning about Japanese culture” came out on top, ahead of job prospects or interest in the language itself.
Evidence of mounting interest in Japanese culture is everywhere. In the world of sumo wrestling, Japan’s venerable national sport, 15 of the 42 top-division athletes today are non-Japanese, with the two yokozuna (highest-ranked) champions — Asashoryu and Hakuho — both hailing from Mongolia. Similarly judo, which was started by educator Jigoro Kano in 1882, has become so globalized that it has nearly 550,000 registered exponents in France alone — nearly three times the mere 200,000 people practicing the sport in Japan. The news last September that Los Angeles Olympics gold medalist and judo superhero Yasuhiro Yamashita lost his re-election bid as the International Judo Federation’s education and coaching director is a sour reminder that being from the birthplace of a particular art or culture does not give that country’s people a license to dictate its future.
But more often than not, foreigners who specialize in Japanese arts and culture make immeasurable contributions in their fields; without their passion and sensibilities, many of the existing Japanese art forms would have long ago become stale or even died out.
This week’s TIMEOUT features six such experts, in fields from the universally popular to the almost extinct — ranging from geisha entertainment to ikebana flower-arrangement to enka music — as they recount their introduction to their respective art forms, their struggles and their artistic aspirations.