Friday, 4 May 2018

Italy and Japan, Italy in Japan: L'Italia più vicina (Part 1)

One of the fun things about writing a blog is seeing how many hits the various posts get and which countries the viewers are in. In my 100th blog post I listed the top 10 countries from where I draw my audience: at that time the top three were Japan, the United States, and Russia. Since then, however, Italy has come out of nowhere to be consistently top, with almost 700 hits a month and mysterious peaks of 60 views every two or three days. So as a special thanks to my Italian viewers (grazie per aver letto!) I thought I'd do a special post on the relationship between Italy and Japan.

Japan-Italian relations go back to Marco Polo who though never actually visiting the country wrote about it in his famous book, describing the failed Mongolian invasions, stressing the trade possibilities, and even introducing the Chinese pronunciation of the country, Cipangu, from which we get the name "Japan" today (the Japanese themselves, of course, refer to the place as Nihon or Nippon). The first Italians set foot in the country a few hundred years later, in the form of Jesuit missionaries (between 1542 and 1600, 18 of the 95 Jesuit missionaries were apparently Italian).

After the period known as sakoku (鎖国) when Japan was, for the most part, closed off to European nations - in part due to the perceived threat of Christianity as detailed in the recent Scorsese film "Silence" based on the Endo Shusaku novel - the Meiji Restoration (1868) saw Japan engage in rapid modernisation and industrialisation in a bid to "catch up" with the West. It is said that the Italian struggle for independence (1861) known as the Risorgimento was something of a blue-print for this transformation. See here for more details of the Italian envoys, merchants, advisors, and others who were prominent in Japan during this period as well as the some of the similarities and differences between the two countries.

Since the 1990s there has been a marked "Italy-boom" with a keen interest in Italian culture in Japan. Italy is one of the most popular destinations in Europe for Japanese tourists, and for Japanese females in particular Italy seems to hold a special attraction. Perhaps one reason for the appeal is that the countries are so different: Japan is a supremely organised, efficient, punctual, and rule-ordered society so perhaps the spontaniety, passion, creativity, and romance of Italian society offers a unique release from what can be a rather stifling local environment? Even inside Japan, Italian culture is everywhere: in part 2, I'll cover food and language in more detail. For now, I'm going to leave you with a picture of the magnificent Istituto Italiano di Cultura (itaria bunka kaikan =イタリア文化会館), in Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, a striking red building completed in 2005 and designed by the famous Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. In the meantime, I would love to hear from my mystery Italian viewers - send me a comment in the message box right!