The Spirit of The Cherry Blossom

In my own limited knowledge of Japan, its arts and culture starts with the country’s anthropology. It is an island culture and island society, which is to say if something goes wrong you cannot run away; to survive one needs to be polite. So essentially, it’s a very polite society.

In terms of its economy, Japan has only about 15% arable land. They were never able to grow enough food to eat, and they never ate meat before. The sea was the only available source for harvest.

As for its religion, Japan is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism and Shintoism - Shinto being the Japanese version of Chinese Taoism. The result is pretty tantric and spiritual. Shinto philosophy is based on empty space, on zero, and is therefore very sparse and very limited in its expressions. Every aspect of its arts and culture has the Shinto philosophy behind it. Look at the vases; why do they have such a small mouth? That’s because ikebana uses minimum flowers or twigs to create a beautiful arrangement.

It’s generally the culture of not what you see from the outside, but from inside. I saw once a woolen coat for 80,000 dollars. When I asked why a normal black coat was so expensive, they opened it up and every square centimeter inside was hand-painted in gold. This is very much Japan, you look at the inside and you don’t show off so much on the outside.

Historically, Japan had a feudal society structure for centuries. The country was basically enclosed until the 1850s. Since the 12th century, it was a military culture, with about 600 years of uninterrupted Shogun and samurai rule under an emperor who had no real power. The Shoguns gained their power through constant bloody battles against each other, and the samurai were mercenaries, like the Prussians or Swiss of Asia. These samurai lived in tremendous splendor. And they moved around every 3-4 months to a different place where military demands took them. Everything had to be movable, but everything had to be luxurious. The dresses were fantastic. The armour was unbelievable. And of course the art around sword making was extraordinary. Shoguns and samurai retained the services of craftsmen, particularly ironsmiths, who developed greatly detailed and precise craftsmanship and produced quality swords and armour for their masters. The mercurial aspect of Japan is a very masculine part of world interest – armour, swords, weapons.

The country was closed to foreigners until the Americans opened up Japan for trade in the late 1800s, which led to the modernization of Japan very rapidly under the Meiji regime. It was under the Meiji regime that the samurai disappeared. The craftsmen who used to produce beautiful swords had no more work, and started to produce tea pots and other iron items for the household. There are several special metal working techniques that they have mastered, such as layering different types of metal on top of each other, then beating and rolling it until you end up with natural patterns in the metal – a technique known as mokume. There are metal vases made in this technique. Another technique is called murashido where the metal object is dipped in oil immediately after firing to create a unique effect. As a result, no two pieces are exactly alike.

Historically, Japan is a moonshine culture of China; most of the cultural injections came from China, and whatever they took from the Chinese, they digested and improved on it. Lacquer was one of the things the Japanese produced in excellence, to an extent that all lacquer in the world up to 1900 was generically called “japan”, like porcelain was called “china”. Japanese lacquer is of a quality that is beyond imagination; you can only guess how much time it takes even in just the polishing process. Some of the ashes used in the production process cost 1,000-2,000 USD/kg. Huge efforts are used to create these lacquer pieces. What we will have in our collection is old, and if we were to reproduce them today, most likely it couldn’t be done in the same quality, and would be sold at very high prices.

In the Russo-Japanese War from 1904-1905, the Japanese won the famous sea battle against the Russians, the first time an Asian country had won against a major western power. The Japanese became the admired Asian race all over Asia including China and Thailand. Everyone looked in admiration at the Japanese for defeating a western culture which ruled the world at the time.

I have been lucky to have accumulated a large number of beautiful pieces which I have been collecting for decades. The reason for this is that the Japanese do not tend to hold on to their possessions, simply through lack of space. They live in a very constricted area, and therefore everything second-hand has a diminished value. They want to have a beautiful kimono for a wedding, and will spend 30,000 USD on it. After two years, they might sell it for 1,200 USD. It’s part of the culture.

There was an old restaurant with a large storage space for their porcelain and lacquer tableware that they would change with the seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter.  But eventually all the storage space needed for this did not make commercial sense so they had to sell off the porcelain and lacquerware. This is the changing face of Japan. And so what we were able to take advantage of was the availability of lacquer, beautiful textiles, baskets and porcelain.

Contemporary Japan was able to quietly introduce and impress their arts and culture on to the rest of Asia. And since they revoked visa requirements for Thai tourists, the Thai people have been travelling to Japan by the millions to discover Japan. They are impressed by how orderly it is, how beautiful it is! And Thai people are also impressed by Japanese fashion, Japanese animation, electronics and most of all, Japanese food!

Yet most of these things were not originally in the Japanese culture. But like with lacquerware, whatever the Japanese adapt, they do it very well. Today they have introduced whiskey, and meat, and very soon champagne – in 3-4 years they will soon have sake champagne which will be fantastic. Whatever they adapt, they concentrate on it, they do it with intensity and to perfection. That's their culture.

The world has recognised that the Japanese are exceptional people producing work of exceptional quality. So what we have in that exhibition is something for those who have been to Japan and have an interest in Japanese culture. Within half an hour, you will have a chance to see some of the most extraordinary things that Japan has produced in one location.

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