Andrew Thompson's Japan Residency Blog: 3

News 11 Mar 2020

In his final blog Andrew sums up his intercultural findings and nuances we might miss as visitors to Japan.

Andrew Thompson, a tall, dark haired and bearded man, stands in front of an elaborately painted doorway. The door are painted with vivid tiles with images of flowers.

Japan is a bundle of contradictions. Its eccentricities seem custom built for attracting tourists but they’re not. They were born from Japanese tradition and are created for the Japanese people. They’re certainly open to the idea of tourism and encouraging an outside understanding of their culture, they just don’t understand why there’s all these tourists around trying to understand their culture.

It’s all about understanding.

It’s not uncommon for a bar or restaurant to have about six seats for customers, and also to be frequented by six regulars. It’s not that you’re not welcome, it’s understanding that an hour of your time and money is not worth the owner running the risk of upsetting his regulars, because tomorrow you’ll be gone, but they won’t.

A wall display of stern faced white masks. Each is painted with striking red and/or black marks that portray different patterns and emotions. Underneath each mask is an interpretation panel in Japanese.

All the marketing blurb and online forums in advance highlight how all travellers should “experience Maid Café’s and Host Clubs” for a taste of Japan’s quirky sense of style, but these things weren’t created for Western attention, they were created to serve a genuine need. Loneliness and fear of loneliness is a very real issue in Japan and especially cities like Tokyo. The idea of visiting a café where the waitresses dress up as French maids - or riffs on that theme - play games and ‘flirt’ with the patrons seems from the outside to exist purely for the tinge of sex it expresses, and, in a way, it is about pleasure, just not in that way. The pleasure of company. The pleasure of attention. To be made to feel like you matter. In a busy world where it’s easy to feel invisible, for a small fee, they offer the chance for you to feel seen.

It ties into the roots of traditional Geisha culture but has grown to reflect the modern world - it is our outside eyes that add the sexual element. We might think we’re getting something authentically and uniquely Japanese but we’re not, because we’re not approaching it with the right heritage. We don’t understand what it’s for. The language barrier also means these Maids or Hosts struggle to fulfil their role for Western visitors. In many ways we just can’t understand each other.

The National Theatre of Japan: a large, rectangular, modern looking building made of white stone with four stories. It is fronted by an avenue of tall trees and lit by internal orange lights.

The situation is similar when visiting temples and shrines. They are open, they are available to tourists to a point, but the majority of the experience is not for you. It’s for Japan.

This residency is supported by the British Council Scotland and Creative Scotland partnership to take part in the British Council’s UK in Japan Season 2019-20. This project is additionally made possible through support from The Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.