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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 living.

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 afterwards.

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 disasters.

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 different ...?

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 communication.

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.