Perspectives from Japan: Times of Isolationism, Transition and Opening Up 

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4 mins read

By Celine Hedin

BUSINESSMEN IN BLACK SUITS walking by with hurried steps, students in uniforms with heavy backpacks and books in their hands, men and women patiently standing in line to enter the subway trains – compartments already almost filled to the brim. Standing squeezed between the faces of strangers and white masks. 

Taking the morning metro in Tokyo is in many ways an astounding experience. Almost 7 million people use the Tokyo Metro every day; and what would result in utter chaos in many other countries, the Japanese handle it like clockwork. 

The land of the rising sun has for centuries tickled curiosity abroad, for its nature, culture, technology, as well as practices of its people. Through a mentality which heavily emphasizes respect, harmony, and punctuality – the Japanese are often known for their strong work ethics along with hospitality. With perfectionist approaches to cleanliness, among other things, many visitors hold deep admiration for the standard Japan holds itself to in many aspects. But as with any blank surface, cracks appear in due time, and the mentality that allows Japan to hold itself to such a high standard is also responsible for societal norms imposing shame, narrow mindedness, not to mention unproportional pressures on the individual and family. 

During spring 2023 I had the privilege to spend six months in Tokyo – peeking into facets of Japanese society through an internship at the Swedish embassy. In many ways, it was a time of transition – for me personally, the embassy and society at large. Here I aim to reflect on those experiences and place them in a wider historical context and in our globalized world. 

I arrived in cold January. Throughout the months I witnessed the shifts of the season – from bare trees, cherry blossoms, to hydrangeas collecting rainwater. My exchange took place while the Covid pandemic was nearing its end yet still very present – face masks being the rule rather than the exception. Even with official restrictions loosening up in March (although, as a foreigner, often around other foreigners – things were a bit laxer).

In its attempt to battle the virus, Japan had during these three years implemented strong policies to prevent its spread; from quarantine measures to strict border controls. It wasn’t until April the country lifted all related measures, allowing for a sense of pre-pandemic life, travel, and international tourism to make a comeback. 

Similarly, work at the embassy was at a stage of preparation for change. In a physical sense, a big renovation was underway – with staff moving out, practical work of sorting and prioritizing through the objects and archives which had accumulated over 30 years. But also diplomatically, as meetings and events with Japanese officials, media and civil society were picking up pace following the pandemic. During my internship, I got to meet many people from diverse fields, as well as participate in internal and external meetings, seminars, exhibitions, along with several receptions hosted by the embassy. The importance of relationships cannot be stressed enough in diplomatic settings, in which receptions and visits are important aspects of maintaining key contacts with the Japanese government, media, business and cultural institutions. 

One meeting and one conversation at a time, the processes which are integral to globalization unfolded before my eyes. Regarding bilateral exchanges in concrete terms; from music and food to innovation and politics. It became clear that Japan and Sweden enjoyed a good relationship on many fronts. Economic and science-related relations are exceptionally strong between the two. 

While there are many striking differences culturally, one of them being the strict hierarchical systems most Japanese live within, it struck me that both countries have much in common. Both cultures have a rather introverted disposition (relative to many other nationalities), consensus-seeking and an appreciation of stillness and nature. On a negative note, drawing parallels to the Swedish problem of segregation, many foreigners living in Japan for an extended period share similar experiences of difficulties creating deeper bonds with the Japanese. Stemming perhaps from having a rather homogenous population, putting high importance on national cultural practices, as well as the contemporary reality of modern Japanese life – leaving little energy to explore relations outside of work and one’s closest social circle.

As with many post-industrial countries, the price paid for the country’s development and economic growth may be that of imposing difficulties on the individual, in terms of time for relationships and emotional and social needs. That being said – one of the greatest challenges Japan is facing concerns its aging population and falling birth rates. Young adults are opting out of traditional family functions. 

“Japan has previously experienced long periods of isolation from the outside world. One could speculate that it has played an important part in putting the country on the trajectory that makes it unique today in so many aspects.”

Drawing from history, Japan has previously experienced long periods of isolation from the outside world. One could speculate that it has played an important part in putting the country on the trajectory that makes it unique today in so many aspects. The most prominent one was the self-imposed Sakoku period, lasting almost 200 years. Foreign relations and trade were minimal, and the approach was established both as a response to internal instability and wariness of Western influences and colonialist endeavours. 

The self-imposed isolation ended abruptly with the arrival of ‘the Black Ships’ under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry. The following Meiji Era came to take a completely oppositional turn where Japan embraced a rapid modernization process and imperial ambitions. If there is one historical takeaway, it is the unpredictability of change and influences.

It is interesting to reflect on the pandemic years as a little ‘Sakoku-period’, although forced upon the global world. However, the extent of interconnectedness we see today makes for a completely different international context. As states and people have turned inwards – for better and worse – trajectories are changing and the question is where we will end up on the other side? 

If I were to make one simple conclusion from my experience; just as friends turn to strangers without proper maintenance – growing distant from each other’s needs and perspectives – globalization in all its complexity and the relations of states rests on similar principles.

By: Celine Hedin

Photography: Aleksandar Pasaric

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