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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