A vacation in Japan makes regular appearances on bucket lists, and it really is a country like no other, a nation where ancient traditions and super modernity live side by side and where you can see both robots and kimonos when you enter a hotel. Whilst visiting Japan remains a distant dream for many, it’s still possible to see and enjoy Japanese culture wherever you live, for these three very different examples have conquered the world.
One of the keys to Japanese culture is that the simple can often convey great artistry, meaning, and beauty, and origami is a perfect example of this. Translating as ‘fold paper’, the art involves taking a large piece of the said material and folding it, without cutting, into often highly intricate designs. The earliest reference to it in Japan comes in a 1680 poem, but it’s thought to be many centuries older, and from the twentieth century onwards it has become popular right across the world. The internet is helping a boom in interest in origami, as it’s now easy to find instructions on how to make a hat using origami, for example, or what folds can be used to create anything from a boat to a tiger.
Manga is one of the greatest artistic and cultural phenomena of the late twentieth century and has evolved greatly from the original Japanese comics that bore their name. It’s now a multi-billion-dollar industry in Japan, the United States and worldwide, but its origins are much older than many realize. In fact, the first Manga picture books appeared in the late eighteenth century, with twelfth-century scrolls also believed to be early examples of the art form. Today, it can be found in comics, books, and anime films, and is the driving force behind comic conventions around the world. Whatever country they originate from, Manga fans often adopt a modern, even futuristic, yet distinctly Japanese style of dress and behavior that has become known as ‘otaku’.
Karaoke actually means empty orchestra, but most karaoke renditions are anything but classical in their nature. Singing along to music is as old as music itself, but the first karaoke machine appeared in Kobe, Japan in 1971, the brainchild of an innovator called Daisuke Inoue. It quickly spread across Japan and then to all four corners of the world, and it’s estimated that the karaoke industry is worth in excess of ten billion dollars today. Anyone who’s ever been to a karaoke bar knows what a joyous experience it is, whether you sing or not. Great singers are enjoyable, but bad singers are even more fun, and it all takes place alongside a background of sheer conviviality, and often more than a few alcoholic beverages.
Karaoke is the new Japan, vibrant, loud and uninhibited, whereas origami represents the still and precise Japan of tradition, and Manga the evolution of one art form into another. All of these Japans continue to exist, not only in the islands themselves but in a diverse range of countries across the world. Japanese culture is becoming increasingly popular in America and beyond, and that shows little sign of stopping.