Japan 9: A trilogy of Icons

Written by

Andrew Millar


January 11, 2008

There are three things that symbolise Japan for me.

They represent the traditional, the emerging and the modern.

The modern symbol of Japan has to be the Bullet Trains or Shinkansen. These marvels of masterful technology rip across the landscape at over 300 kilometres an hour. They cover the equivalent distance from Sydney to Adelaide in around 8 hours. It takes the Indian Pacific 36 hours. One of the great thrills of travelling in Japan is to stand in a station platform somewhere when one of these trains passes through. It is an amazing experience to be standing just metres from a speeding bullet. There are special platforms for them that are fenced off with aluminium rails so you don’t become dizzy and fall into a speeding train. There are three types, Kodama (Spirit), Hikari (Light) and Nozomi (Hope or Wish).

The second great symbol of Japan has to be the huge metal pylons that support the power cables strung across nearly every valley in Japan. They became iconic because Godzilla seemed to love attacking them in films released during a period when Japan was attempting to recover its reputation from the Second World War. The power pylons featured in these cheap science fiction films as a symbol of Japan’s honest attempts to pay her own way in a world that demanded reparation for war sins. ‘Look’ Japan seemed to say, ‘We are industrialised and therefore honestly toiling to earn our keep. We are in transition between being a closed nation of rice farmers and a modern industrial society. We can be powerful.’ Godzilla was the embodiment of old superstitions and old ways. He was an angry collective deity. He, of course, was defeated in the end.

But the third symbol is the most important. It embodies all that is Japan in the past, present and I pray, the future.

Mount Fuji is an almost perfectly formed volcanic cone that rises some 4000 metres above sea level. Fuji is Japan. It symbolises the harmonious connection between art and nature, which the Japanese blur nicely.

It is the linchpin around which Japanese life revolves.

It is a sacred mountain to Shinto worshippers. Up until 100 years ago Fuji-san was only climbed by priests and pilgrims. Women were not allowed to climb until 1872.

But it is not just religious tradition that binds it to the Japanese. It is a constant reminder that their hold on this group of islands called Japan, is tenuous at best. Fuji for all intents and purposes, is still an active volcano. It last erupted in 1707 and first erupted over 10,000 years ago. Occasionally the sleeping giant turns over in its sleep and the earth moves. The group of islands that make up modern Japan was brought into existence by volcanic activity which is still prevalent. If Fuji stirred again, the consequences would be disastrous for the 8 to 10 million people who live within 100 kilometres of its snow covered cap.

It is little wonder then that when Buddhism first came to Japan, the locals embraced its teachings of harmony with one’s surroundings. You can’t fight a lava spewing mountain. You can’t hold your hand out and stop a typhoon. You can’t beat a Tsunami back with a stick. You just have to live with the threat and get on with it. The idea of harmony blended nicely with the idea that Fuji was a powerful deity and the lines between Shinto and Buddha became a blur. (More about harmony in Japan in a blog to follow…)

Today Fuji is criss-crossed with walking trails, roads and train lines. It is surrounded by fun parks and cheap souvenir stalls. And trying to photograph it without having power lines running through the foreground is almost impossible.

I can’t help thinking the deity might just stir one day and bring harmony back into equilibrium by dramatically finishing the work Godzilla started.