Preserving cultural heritage, no matter how small
- By Misheel Lkhasuren -
- Mar 22,2023
As soon as I entered Narita International Airport, I got “acquainted” with the culture of bowing. After returning to Mongolia, I even noticed that I learned to walk on left side of the sidewalk. Even though I was in Japan for only seven days, I learned about such a simple culture. A country with an “immunized” culture seems to have the power to change any person in a short time.
JENESYS (Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths) Program implemented by the Japanese government since 2007 gave this rare and valuable opportunity to get to know the culture, history, and lifestyle of Japan to 50 people from Mongolia this time and thankfully I was one of them. We were divided into three groups: sports, IT and culture. The Japanese are principled people who carefully plan any task and act accordingly. Therefore, all tasks, no matter how small or big, are hourly planned. Even they eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at fixed times. It seemed to have a big impact on their healthy lifestyle.
As everyone knows, there are many things to praise the Japanese like this. However, in this short period of time, I realized many good qualities and skills of Mongolians that Japanese people do not have. The Japanese noticed this and accepted it, as well. In particular, according to Jun Miura, an official in charge of Mongolia’s transport, urban development, environment and tourism at the East Asia and Central Asia Department of the JICA, Mongolians are good at making decisions or managing. They also described that Mongolians have a high ability to solve timely problems, improve and update work in a short period of time. They think that the Mongolians are better at understanding each other and building relationships. According to them, we are “worse” than them in terms of management and teamwork skills.
Meanwhile, what I never expected was the open attitude of Japanese youth, which changed my perception of Japanese people as practical and principled. When walking through the bustling districts of Tokyo, such as Shibuya and Shinjuku, which are the centers of fashion, culture, entertainment, trade and services for young people, most of the young people passed me by smiling and some even came up to me for a conversation. They were very happy to hear that I came from Mongolia and asked many things about the country. That’s how I made three Japanese friends outside of the program.
Another thing that confirmed the openness of Japanese youth was the maid cafe, which is subcategory of cosplay restaurants. In these cafes, waitresses, dressed in maid costumes, act as servants, and treat customers as masters (and mistresses) as in a private home, rather than as cafe patrons. There was a person who came alone, and the young people were having fun together without worrying about anything.
I feel like I visited the parallel world of Mongolia. It is unbelievable that in Tokyo, where millions of people are bustling, there was no traffic jam during that period. The streets and squares are as clean as the floor of my house. Even homeless people in subway stations were seen wearing clean white socks. But to emphasize one thing here, not all Japanese people are moral and civilized. In the youth district Shibuya, there is a lot of litter. But unlike Mongolia, they clean all the garbage at dawn and even spray streets with water.
On top of that, the biggest difference was their mindset. For example, it seemed that Japanese people want to express that they are working and living like a young person. It may be related to their lifestyle and longevity. In specific, our “culture” of giving a seat to someone older than us in bus is an insult for Japanese people. They explained if a person is offered a seat on the subway, train or bus, they feel insulted as an old person.
MIRACLE OF ONE PERCENT - BENI
I realized during my trip that the Japanese are a patriotic people who protect, preserve and spread their culture at any cost. The most obvious example of this is beni, which was used by geishas and Japanese women from the beginning of the 17th century to paint their lips, cheeks, eyes, and even their nails. Beni is a natural cosmetic that is made only from a red pigment extracted from safflower petals. Today, there are various chemical-based cosmetics, but Japan is still producing natural cosmetics by hand since the Edo period (1603 to 1867) until now, which is a valuable and interesting historical “artifact” of the country.
Beni is said to be native to the Middle and Near East and Egypt, and introduced to China via the Silk Road. However, Japanese preserve it as its great cultural heritage. In order to pass it on to their descendants and make it known to the public, they extract it from safflower that grows in July in Mount Yamagata in the traditional way. The most amazing thing is safflower petals contain only one percent red pigment, which means extracting beni is a time-consuming task and sophisticated skill and knowledge are required to produce beni-based dyes. In particular, the flower has many thorns, so it is picked at dawn when it is soft.
Some beni used in makeup shines iridescently when dry. This iridescence is said to be proof of good quality, and the technique to achieve this has been kept a trade secret by the respective beni merchants so as not to be leaked to outsiders. Beni fascinated to women of the Edo period, who favored a makeup called “Sasa-beni” made from iridescent beni, which shone green when applied. Even modern-day science can’t fully clarify the mechanism behind this iridescence. With all of its mysteries, beni appeals to people all the more.
Of course, there are few people who use it regularly, so the Beni Museum presents its artifacts for free of charge to people on a voluntary basis, without the help or support of the government. Moreover, only two masters in Japan produce beni and meet the needs of the museum.
We also got acquainted with aizome (indigo), a traditional Japanese method of dyeing cloth. It is admirable that they have taken out their “brand” blue color and spread it to the world. For example, there is a world celebrity who used this color as the main color of his solo album and even named it “Indigo”.
Producing a beautifully deep blue color, aizome is the result of two different fermentation processes where indigo leaves are first dried and fermented, then fermented a second time with other natural ingredients before eventually becoming indigo dye. Aizome is defined as Japan blue around the world. A total of 48 colors can be produced with Aizome, and among them, Asagi, or light blue, is the most popular. Various designs can be painted and this technique was used in ancient times for divination. For example, if there are winged animals flying in the sky, dragons, or butterflies on the fabric when adding color, it symbolizes that good things will happen soon.
MEDITATION IS KEY TO LONGEVITY
As of last year, the life expectancy of a Japanese person was approximately 85, while that of a Mongolian was 70. We always wonder how they live so long. As mentioned before, it seems obvious that the Japanese people’s longevity is greatly influenced by their food. The food they eat is healthy and fresh. Their culture is very different from ours, where they drink ice cold water or green tea after eating, and it was hard to get used to. Maybe it’s because the food they eat is low in fat.
Apart from food, their religion and beliefs seem to be the main secret of longevity. We visited Meiji Jingu Shrine and Sensoji Temple in Tokyo and Kenchoji and Kotoku-in temples in Kamakura and got acquainted with the country’s traditional Shinto religion. These temples and shrines were landscaped like gardens, providing the citizens with the opportunity to rest, relax and meditate. There, people pray by throwing five JPY coins into a big box.
We experienced Zen meditation at Kenchoji, which has strict rules and regulations and the highest-ranking Rinzai-zen temple in Japan. Zen meditation, also known as Zazen, is a meditation technique rooted in Buddhist psychology. Its goal is to regulate attention. It’s sometimes referred to as a practice that involves “thinking about not thinking.” During the first ten minutes of meditation, I thought about many things, I couldn’t concentrate, and I ended up falling asleep with great difficulty. If we fail to control our mind in this way, we can signal to the priest and get hit on the back with a long stick. The priest of the temple explained that by doing this, everything bad goes away and it helps to concentrate. The second time I meditated, I plucked up the courage to get hit by him. It felt like a new birth. The chirping of the birds, the whistling of the wind, the gurgling of the stream, and everything that was happening outside could be heard, and that’s when I felt the true sense of peace.
The Japanese learned how to calm themselves down by meditating, and learned to be at peace. I really liked it, and I sincerely wanted every Mongolian to practice it every day.
It was a bit of envy to see how they love, pre- serve and carry such cultural heritages as the main line of their lives, whether big or small. I wish Mongolians would learn at least a little from this.