Japan is the country, where tradition and modernity meet. In this edition of our series „Interview in Japan“ we talk to Luca De Pasquale about his life in Japan, his love for Japanese history and the old traditions, which are still very much alive today. Luca was born in southern Italy and has had a strong connection to Japan, especially professionally, long before he finally moved here in 2020. What makes Japan so special for Luca, and what are the dangers of dwelling too much on the past? We also talk about the role, that the country’s culture plays in Luca’s work.
The German Version of this interview, can be found in this article.
Hello Luca, first, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about yourself. How did you come to Japan, what are you doing here professionally, and have you already gathered some interesting experiences that you might want to share?
Hello Sebastian and thank you for having me today, it is a pleasure to share with you some of my experiences and thoughts about Japan and about some interesting aspects of living and working in such an amazing country!
I was born and raised in the south of Italy, in a small touristic seaside town. Being able to see tourists firsthand on a regular basis, I quickly realized that my interest lies in the travel industry and in foreign cultures. This led me to studying tourism at a university in Rome, and then I applied for a Master’s degree in the Netherlands. Once I completed my studies, I found a job as a destination expert on cruise ships, and after sailing across the seven seas I was assigned to be the main expert for Japan. This is how I firstly got in touch with the land of the rising sun and its culture. This was in June 2015.
Since then, I visited Japan for work several times, mainly by cruise ship, seeing even remote regions like Hokkaido in the north and the Yaeyama islands in the deep south. My work naturally led me into studying about Japanese history, culture and heritage and by doing so, I also got in touch with professionals based in Japan. It was at this time back in 2018 that I first got in touch with Japan Travel, and it was about time, that I became an employee myself, in January 2020, when I moved permanently to Japan, where I happily reside today.
How did you develop an interest in Japanese history and its traditions?
I was always an enthusiast about history. I always thought that history can teach us so much about a country and is a great way to know its people and its culture as well, so as I mentioned earlier, as a lecturer I was in my prior occupation studying and learning on a daily basis and this greatly helped develop my love for Japanese history and its traditions.
Japan likes to call itself a country where tradition meets modernity. What are your thoughts on this advertising slogan? Do you agree with it? What do you think has more impact concerning these two important aspects?
I could not agree more with this slogan. Japans unique geographical location and its unique history made it possible, that this one-of-a-kind contrast between modernity and tradition is still so evident and present in everyday life.
You see, this mostly was possible due to the “Sakoku 鎖国”, the period going on from 1639 to 1853 for a total of 214 years for the almost whole duration of one of the most famous and crucial periods of Japanese history, the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 to 1868). I know it’s a lot of dates to crunch, and I will get done with it and just explain further why I believe these two centuries have been the key to create this distinct contrast and coexisting of modern and traditional.
Basically in this period Japan decided to completely shut its borders, and you know being an island nation this was quite simple, considering that only few people had the ability to sail long distances that would bring them outside the country. Anyway, during these times there were still some very isolated cases of interaction between Japan and the outside world. Japan traded with China, Kora and even the Netherlands, who had a very special permission to establish a trade station in the Nagasaki harbor, where an artificial island was built. This island was called “Dejima 出島” (literally the „exit island“), where few Dutch merchants were able to live, without leaving the fort premises.
Being enclosed in this “bubble” made Japan a unique country, leaving it ignorant to the progress leading events that took the rest of the world by storm such as the Industrial Revolution, while at the same time gaining extra time for Japanese society to develop traditional arts in a very authentic way which had little to no influence from external sources.
When then under the emperor Meiji the country realized that the world, they were living in, was much more advanced technologically that they were, a push for progress started to spread within the country and so the major Japanese history milestone called Meiji Restoration began. This period was characterized by the obsessive search for modernity, and it led to an enormous development where Western culture was seen as an ideal example from which they wanted to take as much as possible in the minimum amount of time.
It’s during this time that the Japan as we know it today was born. Colorful and delicate kimonos were replaced by formal suits and hats, the education became universal and experts from everywhere were brought to Japan to teach complicate subjects such as architecture and medicine. The feudal system that was still in place was abolished, leading to the disappearance of the iconic samurais, that were replaced by a regular army. The list could go on forever, but I hope that this gives an idea of how impactful this moment in history was and how much it played a major role in creating this yin and yang of modern and traditional that we have in Japan today.
What do you think are the most beautiful aspects of Japanese culture that still play a major role in the lives of many people today?
The so called “Ikigai 生き甲斐 “ can be translated in “reason for being” and is a complex and transcendent concept that can be applied to many aspects of live. Generally, I believe that this is one of the reasons Japanese people can be so dedicated and respectful towards family, work, nature, artistic expression and so on. Many Japanese martial arts, or figurative arts, strive to achieve this status of meaningfulness that is given by fully embracing the Ikigai.
Japan has a rather turbulent past with many wars, revolutions and, with the Meiji period, the full restoration of the country. Which part of history interests you the most, and why especially?
Japan has indeed a very colorful and suggestive past, as I believe the more modern time is mostly well known. I did already talk briefly about the Meiji Restoration, so I would like to talk about my favorite period, the time of legends, when the basis for the endemic religion of Japans Shinto was established.
At this time, the Japanese history faded into mythology, with books like the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki. They narrate the coming to the world of the first emperor of the people of Yamato. This is how Japanese were mainly known in the past. The books also tell the story of how the several deities created the archipelago of islands, with the main 4 islands of Hokkaido, Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu.
As important as it is to preserve them, old traditions can cause problems, such as neglected equality, or even accompanying danger. Some traditional festivals, like the Onbashira Matsuri, not only cause injuries but also the death of the attendees. Another example that caused a scandal was in 2018, when the mayor of Maizuru city collapsed inside the holy dohyo (ring in sumo). When women wanted to provide first aid, they were asked to leave the ring. Saying woman cannot enter a holy place is a statement that shouldn’t have a place in modern society, and especially not in a case of emergency. How do you see this subject?
This is the dark side of the shiny moon that is Japanese culture, the more hidden aspects that surface rarely, but that are more of concern for obvious reasons, and this is connected to the contrasts and its reasons as we were talking about earlier.
I think that it is true that Japan is often too rooted in the past and is not open to flexibility on very relevant themes such as gender equality and human rights. Just in the last Tokyo Olympics that took place in the summer of 2021 there were a few scandals among the Olympic committee that placed the whole country under the spotlight and revealed some very archaic and bigotry behaviors which led to the dismissal of some high level representatives, but this happened mostly because of the attention and the pressure given by the foreign media, and perhaps episodes like these would have gone unpunished as they still occur occasionally in modern Japan.
As someone who was brought up in Europe, I can definitively see how distant and diverse society is here, and there is definitively a long road to go when it comes to this topic.
Sometimes it seems that nobody wants to be held accountable and so decisions are rarely made quickly. The strong sense of community I was covering earlier has also the downside of often removing the sense of individualism and the ability to take responsibility, and I think this is something that brought hardship to Japan in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
But at the same time, with that said, I also noticed that things are moving faster these days than they were few decades ago, and an ever-growing young generation is pushing for a change and for a more proactive and fresh society which will be more able to address social issues and global problems. This is something which is becoming desperately important these days, also considering the many precarious political situations and the fast decline of the environment. There is still hope for Japan, and we are there to lend a hand.
As much as tradition still guides modern Japan, it also happens that old traditional arts are losing more and more importance. Take the Noh theater, for example, which has had a hard time reaching young people and has thus made a gradual effort to reach an international audience. If traditions and arts do not manage to adapt, they may not only lose relevance, but also die out. These adaptations have happened many times in the history of the country. What are your ideas on this topic in general? How can it be improved, so these valuable traditions and arts still have a meaning for people in the future?
The decline of traditional arts is something dear to me, as I am fond of many of these fascinating art forms, that are an intangible cultural heritage in Japan. Noh, a theatrical art very closely tied to the Shinto religion, has seen a steady decline of interest in the last years.
To change these art forms might be dangerous, as they would easily lose their identity and their support from fans who might admire particular ancient and traditional aspects of such art. I understand that there is often a need to modernize and to keep the pace with the taste of this age, but perhaps there is a more efficient way to do so, and I believe that this goal could be reached through a careful and well-designed promotion through tourism.
To me, tourism is definitively key to rejuvenate such arts, as tourists are commonly more able to appreciate something with which they are not familiar with. Before the halt of tourism in the early 2020 my company was involved in the promotion of Noh with the innovative upgrade of using 3D subtitles through reality enhancement glasses. This was, in my opinion, a fantastic way to use modern tools to promote traditional arts, and I am hopeful that this can be quickly resumed once the borders will be reopened in the near future.
You do not only work as a travel agent, but are also very active as a guide for virtual live tours or more elaborate video productions. Has the topic of traditions a high value for digital content, maybe in relation to pop culture? And is this a topic that has a particularly high value with your viewers? Perhaps you can give us an interesting example.
The traditions of Japan are normally known only superficially, so they tend to attract less interest than the modern takes on more widespread pop-culture. As a tour guide and a tourism professional, I feel the need to try to change this trend and will often try to involve my guests into discussions that involve these aspects.
We also have some particular tours which offer the chance to both promote local family run businesses and to delight guests with unique interactive experiences. We are currently working on enlarging our range of partners through our network of local artisans and traditional Japanese craftsmen. In the last year, we involved several businesses from across Japan in entertaining virtual events, such as one in the historical town of Echizen, in the Fukui prefecture, where were presented the workshop and the works of families involved in the production of Japanese paper called Washi and Japanese knifes.
Both families have been in the business for decades and their skills have been passed down from generation to generation, using the same techniques that were used back in the Edo period, when Kyoto was the capital of Japan and was in high demand for such high quality goods.
And again, I believe that through tourism we can revitalize and offer a yet unlocked potential for these businesses to once again thrive while at the same time promoting the most authentic and fascinating side of Nihon.
There are of course many clichés about Japan, and it happens from time to time that Japan is unfairly reported, or people are simply disappointed. What is a cliché that you think is wrong or possibly misinterpreted.
There are many that come to mind, but I would like to highlight two which are closely related, the first is the idea that working in Japan is equal to hell, and the second is the idea that commuting by train is equal to becoming a sardine for the whole duration of the trip.
These misconceptions were probably once true, back in the 80’ and 90’ when Japan was the second ranked economy in the world. Today, I notice an easing of the work philosophy with more regulations, for example women are offered a longer and more advantageous maternity leave from work, and they do not have to fear to be fired or to lose their position within the company for being mothers (something which was actually happening not too long ago).
Regarding the public transportation, the big cities of Tokyo and Osaka are probably the only places where you could still witness a very impressive rush hour with thousands of people pressed in a train, but this would only happen in specific train lines and at a very specific and minimal time of the day. As a daily commuter, I can guarantee that getting around Tokyo by train is not a nightmare experience as the popular culture has led us to think.
With that said, it is true that there is always a part of truth in these clichés, and these unique features are also sometimes the reason many foreigners who move to Japan are pushed to move out of the country as they cannot stand the differences in relation to their home countries.
Is there anything you would like to say to our readers in conclusion? Maybe a tip, a request or a warning regarding the topics discussed above?
First, I would like to thank Sebastian and Susann for offering me the chance to share my thoughts about a very well selected and interesting variety of thematic questions. I hope readers will find this small piece of my experiences in Japan useful and at the same time pleasant. I hope that you make it this far so that you can read this and that you leave this page with something more than when you started reading.
This is a collection of my own personal points of view, and it may not be the same point of view for other people with a similar situation as mine. In that case, I am always happy to discuss further anything that has to do with Japan. For this, I will share some contact information in case you would like to connect with me, write to me or to simply get to know more about my life here in Japan.
Facebook: Luca Travel Japan | Facebook
Linkedin: Luca De Pasquale | LinkedIn
Thank you, Luca, for taking the time to answer all the questions in such detail.
Cover photo: Luca De Pasquale
Although Luca talks a little about his work here, this article is not related to his employer Japan Travel KK or its direct partners.