Almost sixty years have now passed since 1949 when my father moved FUJI-TORII, a Japanese artwork and antique shop from Ginza to its current Harajuku-Omotesando location. As the person running the shop today I am proud to head what is now the oldest shop on Omotesando as, in the early 21st century, FUJI-TORII is a registered duty-free shop often visited by both foreign customers, diplomats included, as well as by Japanese.
Omotesando Street, now as globally famous as Champs-Elysesse in Paris and Fifth Avenue in New York, was originally the approach to Meiji Jingu Shrine so it might be considered strange that Japanese people hunting for overseas brands would have to come to this part of town to find the high-end designer brand shops. In contrast, people from overseas come here to buy Japanese works of art and something of a 'reverse phenomena' has occurred.
As a fine arts dealer and being Japanese, I accepted a request to write this column for both foreign and Japanese readers of The International Herald Tribune / The Asahi Shimbun to help Japan re-identify itself.
By conversing with large numbers of non-Japanese, initially about works of art, I have a feeling that those foreign people living in Japan today know rather more about the country than today's younger Japanese generations. This is especially true when considering Japanese artwork and culture; the foreign customers at FUJI-TORII are far more knowledgeable than their Japanese counterparts.
I have always believed that Japanese people must first learn about Japan if they are to truly internationalize our country and in the shop in Harajuku-Omotesando, it is often hammered home to me how little the average Japanese knows about his own country, how little interest they have in the nation and how sparse is their knowledge when measured alongside non-Japanese customers.|
I often tell frequent foreign customers that they should not address questions on Japan to Japanese people - particularly if such questions are about antiques; a business about which precious few Japanese have any real knowledge. Imari wear, maki-e (lacquer work), netsuke and u-kiyo-e (Japanese wood block prints) attract much attention from non-Japanese and are items that deserve the respect of expert analysis and commentary.
Recommending such a seemingly drastic course of action notwithstanding I must also say that it is quite natural that your average Japanese person in the street wouldn't know about Japan. Indeed, even with my criticizing them now, had I not been born in a world of antiques and art work, I too would probably not have been interested in Japanese antiques, art and the like - much less have had any reasonable amount of knowledge on the subject. Furthermore, since time immemorial, it has really only been the limited numbers of upper class Japanese that used Imari ware and lacquer ware decorated with maki-e. Ordinary Japanese never had opportunities to touch or even to learn about such items, let alone use them. In addition, by the start of the 20th century, netsuke and u-kiyo-e had themselves gone out of production due to the various forms of westernization in areas such as clothing and printing technology then sweeping Japan.
After the devastation of World War II, the people of Japan were struggling to survive and could not afford the time or energy required of an interest in Japanese works of art. Economic growth and a return to the international fold in the decades following were then significant turning points on the road to national reconstruction and the people of Japan worked hard towards their relationships with other countries. An unfortunate side effect of this outward looking period though was the tendency to forget about their own land, their own country - Japan.
Nowadays, in the early years of the 21st century, I believe the number of Japanese who have been to watch Kabuki might total less than half the population. Numbers for those who have witnessed Noh and Kyogen might be lower still at fewer than 30 percent. I myself have never visited the Kokugikan in Ryogoku to watch sumo! This trait may of course be repeated overseas. In the USA, it might be true to say that not all Americans are interested in baseball and that not all Europeans like to watch the opera.
Everything depends on individual preferences, likes, dislikes and hobbies and for this reason, it is not reasonable to expect all Japanese to know everything about Japan. To that end, I would strongly recommend readers of the International Herald Tribune to improve their knowledge of Japan by asking the experts in various fields for the latest and most up to date and credible information available, and not only relying on friends and acquaintances.