By Ekaterina Nikova (Institute of Balkan Studies, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Sofia, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1999-2000)


Everybody in comparative studies knows that you should never compare apples to oranges, even less so apples to daikon. Yet ever since I arrived in Japan, I half-seriously began playing the game of juxtaposing these two so very distant lands, finding both striking differences and striking similarities.

My first reaction was close to shock. For someone coming from the turbulent, neurotic, bankrupt, desperate Balkans in the midst of the fifth Yugoslav war, Japan felt entirely different. The serenity, calmness, silence, and feeling of safety gave the sense that everything works here, that everything is taken care of competently and promptly.

What can be more different from the isolated archipelago of the Japanese islands than the small European peninsula, situated on one of the world's busiest crossroads (though they are curiously comparable in area and population)? What can contrast more strongly to the homogenous, tightly-knit Japanese nation than the mosaic diversity of peoples, racial types, religions, and cultures of the Balkans?

The landscape, the colors, particularly the mountains were so different from those at home. Later I was struck by the simple elegance of the Japanese culture, poles apart from the multi-colored, flamboyantly bright folklore and art of the Balkans.

People made the most shocking difference. Before my arrival a friend warned me never to boast or to complain in Japan. God, I said to myself, what else shall I talk about? He was right - the reserved, often non-verbal, modest, shy Japanese were so different from the talkative, hyperemotional, gesticulating, fiercely arguing, theatrical inhabitants of the Balkans. I found the modesty of Japan - from personal relations to international matters - to be such a contrast to the exaggerated self-importance of the Balkans with their claim to a grandiose past, exceptional qualities, huge contribution to civilization, not to speak of their fatally central place in world politics.

Further on in my stay I discovered the similarities. When I first saw traditional textiles from Hokkaido, I thought someone was playing a joke on me - I could have bet they were Thracian. Once, in a Kamakura temple, I felt as if I were in an Orthodox monastery. There were other parallels, too - I found a similar hunger for knowledge, a high esteem for education, a responsiveness to children, and an emphasis on the family and personal relationships. I was surprised to detect in Japan the same hedonistic culture that in the Balkans is an Ottoman legacy ・the same love for physical pleasures, including a very serious attitude to food and drinking (who said that the Japanese do not drink?). The onsen reminded me of the Turkish baths where my grandmothers used to take me as a child - the onsens of course are clean. Our raki is three times as strong as sake and the spicy, juicy, abundant cuisine of the Balkans contrasts splendidly with the exquisite, gentle, aesthetically presented Japanese food. Yet my feeling was that with the Japanese the love of pleasure is separated from more serious affairs, while in the Balkan philosophy of life it is central.

Societies make another huge difference - the hierarchy, the set roles, high trust and discipline of Japan versus the socially amorphous, organically democratic Balkans. Historically the strict social order was built during the two and a half centuries of Tokugawa feudalism. Around the same time the Christian Balkans were subjected to an alien, brutal reign, which, however, was easy to cheat and resist by cunning and corruption. In Japanese tales, the authorities always punish the bad guys. Balkan folklore glorifies the hayduks/klephts. Obeying the law, the rules, is a virtue in Japan; in our lands cheating the authorities, from tax evasion to traffic regulation, is a national pastime. The Japanese sense of duty and collective obligations, the acceptance of one's rank in a hierarchical society, the preeminence attached to consensus and stability differ dramatically from our faith in freedom and fight, from our fierce individualism (seeking at the same time the protection of the small group). While the Japanese try to avoid conflict, in the Balkans confrontation and rebellion are the rule, opinions are strong and fiercely debated, compromise is a dirty word. After all, the entire Yugoslav tragedy can be interpreted as a failure to renegotiate the old federation. I also found the historic limitation on personal weapons and armed self-defense in Japan an interesting contrast with the great importance attached to the gun, the sword and the knife in the Balkans.

If you come from the confessionally torn apart Balkans, where so many battles have been fought for or in the name of religion, where religion is a main identifier, you cannot but be amused by the super-tolerant, nonchalant, sacrilegious to the verge of comic relationship between the Japanese and their Gods.

Japan is a fascinating place to observe change. Changes in Japan occur smoothly, within continuity. Japanese do not like revolutions; even when they happen (like the Meiji Ishin), they prefer to call them Restorations. The history of the Balkan people is measured by catastrophes; if there has been any continuity, it is the continuity of discontinuity, each new stage beginning from zero.

Throughout their modern history, both the Balkans and Japan have shared the same obsession - the need to modernize and catch up with the developed West. Having started at about the same time under approximately the same initial conditions, Japan was successful, ending up as an economic miracle and superpower, an example for all latecomers. The Balkans remained the European laggards and troublemakers, with a greater gap now than at the beginning. Modernization in both places had very similar characteristics - the crash growth, achieved through high accumulation and high pressure, the crucial role of the state (as in all late industrializers), the same strong ruthless elites, scarifying living standards and generations, even the same slogan "Strong nation, strong army." In both places a keen observer can detect the same bitter-sweet attitude to Western modernity, the same struggle to preserve one's own identity and yet be modern. I was amazed by the ease with which the Japanese import foreign words and customs, while in the culturally European Balkans each new word, even the computer lexicon, is resisted or translated. I suspect that the Japanese sense of superiority is so deeply rooted that it allows them to be modest and humbly learning, while the proud Balkans suffer from an unannunciated historical sense of inferiority vis-a-vis the West.

Having seen my world, the world of Eastern Europe collapse, I was particularly sensitive to Japan's problems and I was aware of the depth of its current crisis. It might sound overstretched, but the challenges ahead of the prosperous and proud Japan are not different in essence from those of the impoverished, desperate Balkans. The winds of global change require from both a profound restructuring of their political and economic systems and an unprecedented opening to the outside world. The new times shatter their social equality and stability; they will require both areas to come to terms with the past and discover a new soul and identity.

A year in Japan - if you open your heart and mind - marks you for life. It changes your eating habits, your attitude to people, to work, to nature and society. Somewhere in the middle of your stay, you stop stealing flowers and dutifully return the overpaid change. A year in Japan is not enough to learn to slurp your noodles but you pick up the habit of apologizing profusely and also bowing - quite inappropriate for the rude shop assistants of Eastern Europe.

This comparison is, of course, half serious - it is typical-stereotypical, neither scholarly sounding nor politically correct. I know the rules and the taboos of comparativistics. Yet I do believe that one of the greatest advantages of the Slavic Research Center goes beyond the rich library, the warm collegial atmosphere or the ease secured by Monbusho - so deservedly acknowledged by all the fellows. A year at Hokudai exposes you to Japan, to its unique culture and experience. For most of us, confined in our small fields and very specific problems, it broadens horizons and mends optics. A year in the Slavic Research Center is a real presento.


Source: http://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/eng/news/no8/enews8-essay1.html