The first time I visited Japan I thought I had a handle on what I was seeing: a microcosm of the human future, a densely-populated nation that has had centuries of cheek-by-jowl urban living, like the crew of a generation starship in flight towards the future, dragging the scars of ancient history behind them. A land of monorails and shopping malls and coin-operated ramen noodle stands and spas with twenty flavours of bathing feature. And all of this is true. But on further acquaintance, I find myself knowing less and less about Japan — or perhaps I'm just becoming increasingly aware of how little truth the tourist picture reveals.
If you take away the future, what makes Japan different? In a word, history. The present is a moving boundary, travelling from the past into the future — what lies behind it is history, and the further it goes, the more history we have. When we try to peer into the future to see where we're going, as often as not we're peering into a driver's mirror, watching the past unroll behind us. To understand a culture's future you must look at its history — for the history people have experienced defines the future they want.The essay continues and discusses a number of things, among them Edo Palace, a castle the size of a city which stood where Tokyo is now; a vast, imposing monument which took nigh-unimaginable labour to build and Charlie likens to the Death Star.
Charlie's 2007 account of his first visit to Japan (which starts with "They've got our future, damn it", and goes on in a similar spirit of wide-eyed awe) is here.
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