Beyond the ocean of iconic cultural markers Japan has thrown up for us there lies a far greater history that paves an unbroken road to the Japan we know today. In our lifetimes Japan has long held it’s allure as a nation of wonder but before that Japan was for a long time an imperial might with a long history of invasion, occupation and destruction clouding it’s history. Through pristine high-tech train stations it’s all modern world splendour until the western gate of Tokyo station reveals a patch where even the relentless skyscrapers take a break, the imperial palace of Tokyo.
In comparison to other great ruins and castles we’ve seen on this trip, the moat walls form perfect lines undisturbed by time while immense stone walls rise up from the waters with typical Japanese perfection. The powers that built this beast were never conquered, never abandoned their seat of power and never self destructed. Japan’s capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo over time but that never stopped Japan reaching its influence far and wide, initially spreading to parts of China, Korea and Russia. This relatively localised domination kicked up a gear as the world ignited in WWII and Japan made bold plays further into China and throughout Asia including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Borneo, PNG, Guam, Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Hong Kong and more. The beast had awoken and even Australia was attacked in Broome, Newcastle and Darwin but thanks to the shared efforts of Australia and PNG the Japanese forces were largely stopped short of an all out attack on Australian soil.Of course then there was the famous Pearl Harbour. To understand the horrific and obvious military blunder that was the bombing of Pearl Harbour we need to understand the hubris of Japanese imperialism, this is where the story of Japans rise and fall truly takes shape. For centuries the shogun family known as the Tokugawa ruled feudal Japan despite the Emperor in Kyoto being the official ruler. The Shoguns had never sensed threat, never faced genuine opposition and certainly never been defeated; The emperor was more or less divine, invincible and the might of Japan was assumed. This traditional romanticism to hierarchy was of course misaligned with modern reality and when the rising beast of Japan poked the American bear the blind assumption of invincibility met a harsh reality check in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The rest, as they say, is history.
Just like the imperialistic ambitions of the former Japan, the imperial palace is now a modern rebuilt relic, only the grand walls we stare at now are true reminders of not only the power but the beauty that has always been Japan. We tour the magnificent east gardens, the only section of this colossal space open to the public to take a snapshot of the elegant dance between power and grace that outlasted the powers that created it. Through large lawns of formed trees the city rears up but the wall of skyscrapers reveals not a single logo to face the palace in this neon mad city; reverence to imperial might remains in muted form.Of course this history remains unbroken even though Japan was occupied for the first time in its history after surrendering in WWII. Centuries of build up and a cataclysmic fall on the back of gargantuan hubris brings us the Japan most of us know today. A demilitarised Japan threw its might to industry, technology and economy while clinging tight to it’s more peaceful ancient traditions to make the unmistakable mish-mash of refined cultural perfection and modern pizzazz that can be matched by no other country. In recent times Japan can only be admired for its virtues, but it’s hard to ignore that this nation of wonder has more than enough shame in its story, a shame that some accuse even current Japan of not acknowledging completely.
Stepping away from the palace we embark into what we commonly call ‘get Charlie food now or someone’s gonna end up in tears’. Through the ultra posh district of Marunouchi we pass up sandwiches that need a mortgage to buy and make the dash back to Shinjuku to watch some rugby. From the severe imperial heights of Japan’s Tokugawa shoguns we barely avoid a Charlie hangry meltdown with some ramen noodles before it’s off to the game. In a twist of fortune, Japan is playing a world XIV team as a world cup warm up and with 14 Aussies in the team we can’t pass up the chance to watch a game of rugby in Japan. After the Argentinian ticket fiasco that defines Latin inefficiency and an inconvenient South African schedule It’s finally game day.Through bustling crowds that keep to the rules too much to feel like a crowd as we know it, we pour into a perfect stadium through a procession of impeccably dressed ground staff bowing at every pass. This is not quite the raucous affair of going to the footy at home. We sit politely and cheer for Japan along with the typically restrained crowd that barely raise a fist pump at a Japanese try despite the mildly wild gesticulation of the Japan mascot; guess who that might be? If you said Astroboy you get a gold star, yes the Japanese rugby team mascot is the cartoon boy hero that shoots rockets from his bum; only in Japan. Sadly the world XIV wins comfortably but as the saying goes, rugby is the winner on the day as the sun sets over the perfect grass and a crowd filing out of the ground in perfect order. Japan has given us the live rugby fix that no other nation has managed; and we bought the tickets from a convenience store which still feels strange.
From the historical might of the legendary shoguns to a national sporting team with an animation boy mascot from Saturday morning cartoons the link from imperial Japan to now seems to be time alone. Japan’s not invading anyone anymore, not reaching for power across the globe, the rising sun was eclipsed after attempting to shine its light on too great a domain. But just like any eclipse, a moment of calm is followed by light from the same sun that never went too far away. Japan invaded the world again more effectively than the might of the shoguns ever could with Japanese culture, technology, cars and style sweeping the world from this small island nation. After the war the world stole away the guns but not the power, the rising sun may have been eclipsed for a time but still it sits high in the sky, nowhere near a horizon to settle behind.