John Shelley

John ShelleyOccupation:
Time in Japan:
11 years

Originally I came to Japan because when I was living in England I became really interested in Japanese art, especially woodblock prints, and through that I got involved in an Anglo-Japanese society called Anjinkai, met loads of Japanese people and a lot of people who had lived in Japan and thought I' like to come here and see what it was like for myself. Basically I wanted to sketch, to study the culture and learn a bit about the language; I thought I'd be here maybe two or three years, and here I still am.

Before I arrived I had a surface idea about what Japan would be like?I knew what it looked like and had some idea about Japanese culture?but the subtle ways of Japanese society took me by surprise, particularly the contrasts and extremes I saw in, for example, the neatness and tidiness of Japanese society and the general untidiness of the towns, layouts, buildings and so on. Also the pace of change and apparent lack of regard for the past struck me, especially when I came to Tokyo and went looking for places connected with Japanese history and found nothing except a little board saying, "This is the place where something once happened".

You know, I used to live in Nezu and there was a whole row of traditional Japanese houses there, six of them all in a line, and they were beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Anyway, I moved and didn't go back to the area for a couple of years but when I did instead of there being a row of houses there were three houses, a gap, and then two houses, and in the gap they'd built this shoebox type Lawsons or something, and I was like "oh God. What's happened". That pace of change can really shock you sometimes. Japanese people have often said to me that to get into the heart of the Japanese and their feelings about their country, you shouldn't look at the physical aspect; that it's not a physical thing, and I guess that must be true, especially when you see things like that.

I used to get to travel quite a bit with my work and I think that when you get out of Tokyo you see a really big difference between the city and the countryside. Outside the city there is a far greater connection between the environment and people's lifestyles, whereas I find that in Tokyo people lead their lifestyles despite the environment they live in. Sometimes when I go away I come back and wonder how people can live any kind of life in the city.

There are lots of good things about living in Japan: the convenience, the ease of access, the general optimism of Japanese society, the way that new things are not generally criticized. There is a very optimistic, bright attitude, especially towards products, and I'm not necessarily interested in products at all, but that kind of freshness to have around you is quite uplifting.

I've always said that the things I love about Japan I can't find in England and the things I love about England I can't find in Japan. I hate it if people say, "Which is better?" because everywhere has its good points and its bad points. There are things I miss about England, like the sense of cultural identity which seems to run through almost everyone in the country rather than just a handful of people who are interested in it, the attractiveness of the towns, and the level of criticism and debate that occurs there; things you just don't find in Japan.

If I could change one thing about Japan, I would change that "link" way of progressing through life that goes on here. Like to get to a good university or to get a good job you have to go to the right kindergarten, which sends you to the right primary school and so on, and if you can't get on that right train at the beginning of your life, basically you're finished. You know, if you have talent, if you have ideas you want to express, then society should make it as easy as possible for you to express them. It shouldn't matter who you are, where you're from, who you know, what school you went to, but that all seems to be so important here.

I think I'll stay here for a while yet. In the past I've always had this just-two-more-years attitude and this sense of wondering whether I am really living in the country or just staying here. But about a year ago I thought it was time to make my mind up about where I wanted to live and decided that this is where I'm happy at the moment. So yeah, I've no plans to move on, yet. I don't want to die here or anything though; I'll stay as long as I'm young, fit and healthy and doing things that I enjoy.

John Shelly spoke with Richard James.

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