Notes on Japan

Words and photographs by Kate McAuley

A friend asked me recently, after reading my wabi-sabi essay in our latest issue, if there’s anything else about Japanese culture that I’ve applied to my daily life – an intriguing question that got the cogs turning.

Japan was the first of the many countries I’ve lived in since leaving Australia. Arriving after a massive false start (the first plane I caught to Osaka fell out of the sky), I had never felt so foreign in my life. It was the mid-90s and there I was: 19-years old, 6-feet tall with blonde wavy hair to my waist and blue eyes. To say I stood out is an understatement.

Perhaps if I’d been living in Tokyo or one of the other mega-cities the differences wouldn’t have been as acute, but I spent most of my time in Kanazawa, a picturesque university town, and on Kikai-Jiima, a tiny sliver of an island in the Ryukyu archipelago so remote that most Japanese people have never heard of it.

For the most part, the attention I received was well-intentioned curiosity, but it took me a while to come to terms with feeling so different as well as being the open topic of public conversation – a fact I was all too aware of as I learned to speak the language.

In Japanese the common word for foreigner is gaijin, which literally translates as ‘outside person,’ a fact that’s unsurprising given the countries unique relationship with the rest of the world. They did, after all, deny entry to most foreigners for over 200 years as part of the Sakoku policy that held fast from 1639 to 1853. And it’s this sense of the other – along with with fact that I can fold a mean origami crane and make the best okonomiyaki this side of Cape Irizaki – that I’ve carried with me ever since.

Growing up in Australia, I always felt uncomfortably out of place, but spending two years in Japan taught me to embrace my differences – and eventually use them to my advantage. There is something very powerful in being an ‘outside person.’ You become more daring. You can disarm. And failure seems to mean less. It’s an attitude I’ve tried to embrace everywhere I’ve either lived or travelled to since – and it hasn’t let me down yet.

This post was inspired by Kate’s essay, extracted below, on wabi-sabi in the Japan issue of Lodestars Anthology.

I’m kneeling at a low table, legs folded politely but painfully beneath me. My host, the wife of a university professor tasked with welcoming me to Japan, has invited me to tea. I rest my cup, which is more of a bowl as it has no handle, in the palm of my hand. I run my thumb over its mottled earthy surface, tracing with my fingernail the gold-flecked cracks that highlight rather than hide its so-called flaws. I notice that the rim is not quite symmetrical as I raise it to my lips. 

At the time – it was the first week of the two years I would spend living in the country – I didn’t realise that the aesthetic I was admiring was actually a small example of something far more philosophically relevant – a notion so deeply rooted in Japan’s culture and identity that it even had its own name: wabi sabi.

To read the rest of the essay, as well as immerse yourself in 160-pages of Japanese art, culture and travel,
pick up a copy of our latest issue, available for purchase here.

















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