Keynote speech delivered to the inaugural
meeting of the 'Hamura International Exchange Association'
Of course the main point of our meeting today is
to talk about 'kokusai koryu' -
international relations, but let me start
in a bit of a strange place, and see if I can arrive at some
interesting points ...
I am now 41 years old, and have lived in dozens of
different communities during my life, of course mostly in England and
Canada. My parents liked moving a lot, and our family thus lived in
many different kinds of apartments and houses. I can remember 18 of
them, and perhaps there were more ... And since coming to Japan
nearly seven years ago, I have lived in or visited many different
kinds of living places, both old and new.
I have been thinking about all these different
types of living places, and have started to wonder about the
relationship between life-style and living space. Does our choice of
life-style determine our living environment, or is it the other way
around - is our life style dictated by the fact that we live in a
certain kind of home?
Of course, on one level, our structures are
strongly influenced by climate and other local factors such as
available building materials, etc. I understand that the traditional
Japanese house was best in summer, allowing cool breezes to come in,
but was thus terribly cold in winter. Of course, traditional Canadian
houses had to be designed for winter ...
But aside from these physical reasons, I am more
interested in the social reasons for the differences in our homes.
Presumably people in each society build structures that reflect the
way they want to live, structures that 'fit' their particular way of
Although all my previous western residences were
quite different in many ways - some made of wood, some made of stone,
some 2x4, post and beam, old or new, they all had basically the same
conception of what a living space should be. There was a room for
cooking, a room for eating, a room for relaxing, rooms for sleeping,
etc. etc. In all these homes, the 'core' room, he most important
room, was the kitchen. Obviously to westerners, the kitchen has a
special meaning. It was originally the source of warmth for the home
(first fireplaces, then later stoves). It was of course the source of
the food, and was also the focus of hospitality. In olden times,
guests would be received in this big warm room. I remember one of my
school history books, with a picture of guests sleeping on the
kitchen tables. Well, we don't do that any more, but even now, in a
typical western home, it is quite common for a guest to be part of
the kitchen activity, chatting with the host and hostess while they
prepare food, and then perhaps helping with the dish-washing
In comparison, the Japanese kitchen is small, out
of the way, and obviously not suitable for any kind of 'social'
activity. Of course, it has never been customary for Japanese to
entertain guests at home, so the living space reflects this.
Westerners frequently invite guests into their home, so the space is
designed to match. Different patterns of life have thus determined
different designs of living space.
Until recently, some of the differences between
Japanese and Western houses were cause for concern and sometimes
merriment. Japanese hosts worried that western visitors would take
soap in the tub, and western hosts worried that Japanese guests would
throw water on the bathroom floor. But nowadays, thanks to much
better communication and lots of travel experience, those days are
pretty much gone, and most of us are now at least basically familiar
with each others' living styles. We can visit without any
But can we really be comfortable when we spend
time in a 'foreign' home? I think not. If we grew up in one culture,
living in houses suited to that culture, of course we may be quite
uncomfortable in a different environment. It is sometimes difficult
for me to feel 'at home' when visiting Japanese homes. The people are
of course warm and friendly, but their actions and feelings are
circumscribed by their living environment. The 'lady of the house'
brings me tea, but she doesn't drink any herself. Doesn't she get
thirsty too? I am placed in the 'good' location in front of the
tokonoma. etc. etc. I can't move around, but must sit where they tell
me. I am made to feel 'honoured', but am unable to relax myself,
because all those about me cannot relax while I am there. Sometimes
when I talk with friends about this kind of behaviour, they just say,
"That's just the way Japanese people are." But I wonder about that. A
few weeks ago, I had an interesting experience that made me wonder
about the relationship between living spaces and patterns of living.
I was invited to spend an evening at the home of Mr. Hajime Harada,
who lives here in Hamura over near the sports center, in one of those
houses relocated by the street renovations that are going on over
thre. I had been told that a few other people would be there, and
although it sounded a bit interesting, I was afraid it would be quite
formal and definitely not relaxed.
I was wrong. Mr. Harada and his friends surprised
me very much. The evening I spent with them was almost exactly like
any evening with my friends back in Vancouver, Canada. We were
completely relaxed, eating and drinking as we chose, and talking
freely about this and that. We finally had to quit at about 1:00AM,
and even then only because my kids were finally getting pretty tired
... Why was this experience of being a guest in a Japanese house so
In a word - it was the living space. I don't wish
to intrude into Mr. Harada's privacy, but let me tell you a little
bit about his home. I did not 'step up' into the home from a formal
genkan, but simply came in through a side door straight into the
kitchen, right into the middle of the activity. I did not then go
into a low-ceilinged tatami-mat room, where I felt the weight of the
structure pressing down on my shoulders, but entered a bright, wide
airy open room. There was no tokonoma, and I sat where I pleased,
choosing my place around a huge wooden table, a table almost as large
as my entire workroom ... All the guests that evening brought bits
and pieces of food, and combined with the things prepared by the
hosts, these kept us well-filled through the whole evening.
I guess what I am simply trying to tell you, is
that in this new 'modern-style' space, the relationship between
'host' and 'guest' took on a completely different form. The Harada
family had no problem whatsoever having 'foreign' guests in their
home that evening (in addition to me, a lady from Thailand was also
there), and the foreign guests had no problem being there. Is this
because the Harada family are 'internationalized'? I don't think so.
They are perfectly typical Japanese. But because they are fortunate
to have a nice modern living space, they are able to enjoy this open
Does this mean I think all Japanese should throw
away their tatami, cover up their tokonoma, and ask guests to bring
their own food all the time? No, of course not. Please don't
misunderstand my feelings. I am not trying to say that the Japanese
way is bad, and that the Western way is good. But it certainly seems
that for people to enjoy real communication with each other (Japanese
to Japanese as well as Japanese to Westerner), we have to think about
how to use our living space, instead of blindly continuing to follow
the old patterns of life, in our 'old-fashioned' houses.
But I am not supposed to be here to talk about
house construction. I am supposed to be talking about inter-cultural
communication, about 'internationalization'. Well, I am trying to.
You see, I have this idea that Japanese people are actually among the
most 'internationalized' people in the world, but that this is a
great secret ... to Westerners and to the Japanese people.
Recently one of my Japanese friends, a middle-aged
lady, asked me "Do you think I am an 'internationalized' person?" I
couldn't believe she asked me this question. She studies English, and
speaks it quite well. She teaches Japanese to foreigners at the Fussa
Kominkan. She travels abroad (alone) at least once a year. She has
foreign guests in her house regularly, and is relaxed when they are
there. She has foreign tenants in an apartment her family owns. She
is interested in learning anything and everything about everything.
But still she asks me. "Do you think I am internationalized"! If she
isn't ... then nobody is.
If I think about a 'typical' Canadian back in the
country where I came from ... How is he internationalized? Well,
let's see ... He probably knows some people who came from foreign
countries, and who are now living in Canada. He eats in an ethnic
restaurant sometimes (Japanese, French, Vietnamese, Italian ...).
Maybe he took a vacation in Europe sometime. Maybe he ... Maybe he
... Hmmm. I can't seem to think of anything else. Has he ever read a
translated Japanese book? Never. Has he ever seen a Japanese movie?
Maybe he saw The Seven Samurai. Does he ever read anything about
foreign cultures? Not interested. Did he ever study anything about
oriental history in school? Don't make me laugh! What does he know
about Japan? Kimono, cherry and geisha ... and of course Toyota,
Honda and Sony. Realistically, he knows nothing about foreign
societies, and doesn't really care. And I'm sure you have the image
of Canadians as being very international people.
When we consider the situation in this country ...
information and influences coming into Japan, my mind staggers under
the thought of it all. We can start the list thousands of years ago:
writing system from China, pottery from Korea, religion from India
... The democracy, the education system ... The bookstores here are
flooded with translated material from all over the world. The TV
screens full of images from every society on the face of the earth.
Centuries-old food habits have been tossed out to make way for new
ideas. It seems that there is absolutely no aspect of Japanese
society that has not been transformed by international influences.
And the process continues to this day. Now that I think about it, I
can't imagine any society on the face of the earth that is as
'internationalized' as this one is. But do the Japanese people think
so? Obviously not, because for years now, they have been involved in
an endless search for 'internationalization'. The friend I told you
about a few minutes ago couldn't even recognize it in herself. We
have a saying in English that sometimes 'we can't see the forest for
the trees.' The thing we are looking for is actually right in front
of our face, but we can't see it.
Of course, when I speak this way I am ignoring a
very important aspect of this whole situation. I am focussing only on
the flow of information one way, from the West to Japan. That
Japanese word 'koryu' translates into English as 'interchange', and
of course this implies two-way communication. As open to new ideas as
the Japanese have always been, they have never been successful at
communicating with the outside world. In the Tokugawa days, they
didn't even try - zero communication. In the early part of this
century, they tried with guns, not ideas - zero communication. In the
prosperous years following the Tokyo Olympics they travelled abroad,
but only in large groups with flags and cameras - zero communication.
It is only quite recently that the world has been able to get to know
individual Japanese people, and thus to find out a bit of what Japan
is really like.
Examples now abound: the student exchange program
between our own Hamura City and Qualicum in Canada; the participation
of Japanese in UN activities in troubled countries; the many Japanese
groups involved in international assistance projects in the Third
World; individual Japanese now travelling overseas; and of course,
activities like the many being undertaken by cities like Hamura to
encourage contact and communication between Japanese and foreigners.
The international trade balance is a big topic in the newspapers, but
I don't really understand much about that stuff. What I do know is
that the international 'human contact' balance is doing alright.
Every year, more and more people around the world get to know a bit
more about Japan, by meeting Japanese people. They get to understand
just a bit better, that the Japanese are typical normal people, who
simply want to have a happy life, just like everyone else. Not
'inscrutable', strange people, but just the normal people who live in
'the country next door'.
Activities like the ones being undertaken by the
members of this 'kokusai koryu' group are a very, very important part
of this process. As you know, it is sometimes very difficult for
foreigners here to get to know Japanese people. Please do your best
to show them that you care about them, and that you want to enjoy
life together. And if you don't have an 'open, modern' living space
like Mr. Harada, please don't worry. It is your way of thinking that
is most important.
The rest of the world seems to be falling in
flames recently, with conflict, war, and trouble everywhere. War in
Bosnia ... starvation in Africa ... bombs in Northern Ireland ...
sudden death on residential streets in America. Has this society
found the 'formula' for living together peacefully? I think it has.
But the world is a very small place, and there is no way Japan can
exist in isolation. And here is a future role for Japan. Let's make a
trade. Accept their writing systems, and jeans, and religions, and
hamburgers, and movies, and this and that. And in return, let them
see how you have been able to create a society where people live
together mostly in peace and mostly happily. A society where everyone
will give, and everyone will receive. Communicate with them. Invite
them in, and show them by your example, that to make a liveable
society is indeed possible.
Thank you very much.