Every time you pass under the four colossal pai-fang (牌坊) style gates designating the entrance of Yokohama’s Chinatown, you can see in glaringly and beyond any shadow of doubt the big, unconfessed truth of the Japanese: the enormous influence the civilization of East Asia’s giant had on theirs. And although, like all Chinatowns in the world, Yokohama’s Chuka-gai (中華街) is in essence little more than an endless restaurant and souvenir shop, anyone who has stayed in Japan even for a while will realize that a lot of what they see –writing, architecture, cuisine, dress- and they don’t see –organization of society, philosophy, religion, aesthetics- are also there and they probably were there long before what we call “Japan” today was created.
This is not necessarily a bad thing: as I have often written in previous “Letters”, the Japanese internalized the elements they took from the Chinese and transformed them into something quite different. Still, whenever coming across something authentically Chinese you can, if you use your imagination, to guess (or at least suppose) the evolutionary process that took place since their first recorded conact in 57 CE when emperor Guangwu of the Chan Dynasty offered a golden seal to the “King of the Na State of Wa”. And with it, gave Japan its first name: “wa” (倭) loosely translated as “harmony” still remains –although written with the character “和”- the word the Japanese use to refer to pretty much everything related to their country and its culture.
I wrote that it takes some imagination because differences do exist and they are often quite big; I haven’t been to China so my opinion is obviously limited but its image as seen in the Chuka-gai is definitely noisier, pushier, more extravagant and more majestic than that of Japan. At the same time one should be extremely biased to overlook that the understated Japan keeps a self as colorful and loud as that of its Chinese cultural ancestors. And this is perhaps the most concrete proof that their relationship is deeper and more organic than what the purists of the Japanese islands –the extrovert with their political cries and the more quiet which are probably the majority of the Japanese people- would like: the Kanteibyo temple in the Chuka-gai might not bear any resemblance to Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera but it’s only one breath away from Edo/Tokyo’s Kanda Myojin.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.