Japanese has a word: shimaguni. It means ‘island nation‘. Unremarkable, you might think. Yet bottled in four syllables is a distillation of a supposed national spirit, the adduced explanation for everything that is unique about Japan. Not just island nation, but island mindset, island culture, island existence. You can apparently see shimaguni in the excessive focus on harmony and consensus in Japanese culture, the strange fads, the jumbled up religious loyalties, and the double economic miracle that the country enjoyed in the early 20th Century, then again in the 60s and 70s. Fervent nationalists will tell you that Japanese simians have more peaceful social orders than mainland monkeys, and that Japanese people love the cherry blossom because they have a unique appreciation of fleeting things. Some will even claim that Japanese people hear music with a different part of the brain than Europeans or the Chinese. Serious-minded academics will swear that Japanese people can communicate heart-to-heart by a kind of telepathy due to their shared values, entirely missing the fact that those shared values may just cause both sides to make the same assumptions independently. It’s hardly magic.
Across the Water
Like any half-decent biologist, I recognise the power of islands. Away from the mainland, new flowers bloom and species fill unexpected niches. In New Zealand, giant, blue headed cassowary birds stalk the rainforests; in Madagascar, lemurs adaptively radiated to become finger-sized fruit eaters, kangaroo-hopping lone foragers, and snow-white socialites that only mate on one day each year (the silky sifaka, definitely my favourite lemur). My own home island, Great Britain, has an unusually high plant diversity, including- seriously- a rare efflorescence1 of ferns and mosses.
However, if islands reinvent the wheel using different parts, the end result is still some kind of wheel. So with human cultures. Inevitably, island cultures develop their own quirks, from competitive flower arranging and Zen Buddhism to skeptical empiricism and warm ale. As you all know by now, I deeply love Japanese culture, and no doubt being an island nation has profound effects on Japan. However, far less of Japanese culture is uniquely Japanese than the island’s inhabitants like to pretend. Buddhism, for example, was a roundabout import, from India via China and Korea. Virtually all Japanese people know and acknowledge the strong influence of Chinese culture on Japan, but not everybody realise that Korean culture has also had a profound influence. I suspect a lot of Japanese people would be surprised to discover that certain Shinto rituals have suspiciously similar counterparts in Korean traditional religion- contacting the dead through dance, or a strong belief in sacred mountains, for example.
Still fewer people would be happy to hear that the roots of sumo wresting may not be Japanese! Engishiki dolls from the tenth century depict wrestlers in obviously Korean dress, while older paintings on the walls of a tomb in Tung’kou, North Korea, show wrestlers in Japanese-style garb and using sumo grappling positions. At the very least, this suggests some cultural cross-pollination; in fact, both forms of wrestling may have their origins further away, in Mongolia. In fact, some truths are so sensitive that they literally can’t be unearthed. The government refuses to excavate the tombs of the earliest Yamato2 emperors, on the grounds that they are sacred turf. However, many historians suspect a different reason; early Japanese emperors may well have intermarried with Koreans, and borrowed ideas of kingship (and queenship) from Korea.
The Other Side of the Biscuit
So much for Japan. What about the archipelago I currently call home? The British isles, and particularly Great Britain (we’ll get to Northern Island later) has its own version of shimaguni. Since I came back from Asia, I’ve felt the full force of it, and I’m increasingly aware of how much the island mindset shapes my homeland.
It works in different ways, of course. British people, less inclined towards mysticism than most of the world, are hardly likely to claim they hear unshared music in the buzzing of cicadas. The distance is important, too. Whereas 200 km of ocean separates South Korea’s second city Busan from northern Kyushu and Honshu, only 33 km parts Dover and Calais. While Japan hasn’t been successfully invaded, or experienced mass migration, since prehistory3, Britain was colonised on several occasions, and has been settled (and enriched) by Huguenots, Eastern European Jews, Afro-Carribeans, South Asians and any number of other diasporic communities. Although Japan has had a mainland empire on three occasions4, it has never run a territorial system anything like the British Empire at the height of its power.
However, shimaguni is a British mindset too. You can see it most obviously in Britain’s tortuous sixty-year relationship with the European Union. Despite the organisation being made up of representatives from all countries, including the UK, and despite English being one of its official languages, the EU has typically been seen as a foreign institution. ‘I don’t like Brussels telling us what we can or can’t do’, in the words of one Brexit voter. ‘We can stand on our own two feet’. Now, I have my own views about the failings of the EU, but this always seemed like a weird way of thinking to me. I’m absolutely convinced that the mental separation is made easier by the lack of road links between Brussels and London. The USA, separated by a vast ocean, often feels closer.
Britain’s long-standing lack of everyday cultural curiosity about the continent is another symptom of shimaguni. I once spent a fruitless afternoon trying to examine the effect of European integration on the British pop charts for an ill-advised Masters degree5. Turns out there’s been none whatsoever. Check out the Top 40 this week, and you’ll see Brits, Americans, Canadians, an Australian, but the only representatives of the continent are DJ Regard from Kosovo, and one third of an EDM collab6. It’s just pop music, I hear you say; but go find the rock album charts from last year or the hip hop charts, and I bet they’ll tell the same story. The same thing applied to mainstream cinema and TV until very recently. A wave of Scandi-noir crime dramas and Deutschland ’83 have made people less afraid of subtitles, but ten years ago you’d barely stumble across another language on primetime TV or at the Odeon.
The remarkable unwillingness to learn languages is another facet of shimaguni. Japanese people and Brits alike aren’t great language learners. Japanese high schoolers are famous for trying to rote learn language from textbooks, but being unable to manage a basic conversation. English students mostly don’t see the point in trying. Unfortunately, I include myself in that; I was a poor, uncreative, unenthusiastic language student at school, and I couldn’t see the upside to learning French. It’s only once I moved to Japan that I started to actively learn a language for the first time. Meanwhile, how many Europeans did I meet on my wanderings who combined flawless English with two mother tongues, and perhaps a fourth language thrown in for good measure?
Instead, when I was warned of culture shock, I actually saw a lot of unexpected similarities between British and Japanese culture. Both societies have historically placed a strong emphasis on the importance of doing your duty, as the British-Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro powerfully portrays in his books. Both societies have a firm appreciation of personal space, both kept their weird, archaic monarchies, and both have a deep, ingrained love of the seasonal cycle. Both are standoffish with strangers, but like to have endless conversations about the minutiae of the weather. Both have serious delusions about their place in the world, although let’s be honest, that seems to be a worldwide malady at the moment.
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I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far. The United Kingdom is different from Japan in a lot of profound ways. However, it’s worth noting that both countries share a sense of being cut off from their nearest neighbours.
So is this cultural separation a surface thing, or is it important? Few people would dispute that being an island has defined both Japanese and British history. What’s more surprising is that, in an era of global trade networks, cheap air travel and international bodies, the island mindset is still so important. Next time I’m going to explain why I think the shimaguni mindset continues to shape British history. Also, I’ll try and fathom why not all of the British Isles is equally susceptible to that mindset, and how it’s made the split between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland basically inevitable. Controversial? Maybe.
1- a poor choice of words for non-flowering plants, I guess.
2- Yamato was a powerful kingdom in central Japan in the fifth and sixth centuries, which eventually unified Japan for the first time.
3- between 300BC and 300AD, Japan was settled by waves of migrants from the mainland, probably via Korea. They fought with the existing people, but also probably traded and intermarried with them, and they bought new rice farming techniques, so, s’cool.
4- from 369 to 562, Japanese seafarers ran parts of southern Korea, and in the sixteenth century, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi tried to invade Korea again, pissing off more or less everybody including his own generals in the process. Only in 1910 did Japan establish rule over all of Korea.
5- I never finished the Masters, unsurprisingly.
6- lots of artists, like Dua Lipa, have parents from other European countries, but they were born here and became famous here.