Japan: tradition and modernity in popular culture

I recently saw an advert on the London Underground from the Japan National Tourism Organisation who have launched a campaign entitled Japan – where tradition meets the future and it reminded me that I’d been meaning for a while to write a post on this very theme. I wanted to examine this theme using images of fashion, traditional dress, signs and cultural artefacts to illustrate the interplay of Western influences and Japanese culture and tradition.

When I was in Shibuya, Tokyo in late 2015 I was having a coffee at a trendy bar and asked the guys in the picture below if I could photograph them. I liked their style – their immaculate trainers, the white clutch bag,  the (Acne Studios?) please call me girl oversized sweatshirt. We had a nice chat.  When the guy on the left heard I was from London he went: “Savile Row… I like Savile Row!” The iconic street of British tailoring held mythological status for him.

At another Tokyo cafe, this time the ubiquitous Starbucks. Starbucks, Western and global, a familiar modern safe haven with its free wifi and toilets. When you’re a vegetarian and not in the mood to experiment with unknown foreign cuisine, Starbucks offers a quasi-identical menu in Seattle, London, Tokyo or Shanghai.  (I found the egg sandwiches to be much tastier in Japan than in the West though!).  This young woman had a short, edgy haircut and was working on her laptop, whilst wearing more traditional dress:

And this one in Starbucks in Kyoto:

Another young girl in full traditional dress crossing the road – I like the contrast between her and her conservatively dressed parents:

Again in Kyoto – It was closing time at a shrine and these beautifully dressed young women were happy for me to take their photo:

Also on the grounds of a temple, the little boy has changed out of his trainers which have the words superstar on the strap and into the traditional geta footwear in preparation for his ceremony.


Juxtapositions in architecture of traditional shrines and modernist high-rises, you can just see the woman paying her respects at the steps:

In the picture below I like the coordinating colours of the ultra-modern building and the blues and ochres of the wall art adorning the Ebiya Art & Antiques gallery. The artwork is a depiction of Ebizo Ichikawa by Shyaraku, an 18th Century woodblock artist noted for his depictions of Kabuki actors.

In Osaka I was interested to see this 21st century variation of traditional Kapanese taiko drums,  rows of which are played in Pachinko gaming parlours:

This week I went to see an exhibition at The Barbican Centre called The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945

One of the exhibits is a cherry wood model of a house called Face House in Kyoto, designed in 1974 by Kazumata Yameshita.

I’ve always liked seeing faces in inanimate objects and have several journal posts on the subject, most recently Seeing Faces: the phenomenon known as pareidolia. The exhibition information describes the facade as a visual pun – the public face of a private house, and that the architect’s private joke was an attempt to humanise the city through “the simple manipulation of external articulation”.

Here are a couple of examples of humanising the city by putting cute faces on traffic cones and construction sites. The concept of cuteness in Japanese is known as kawaii. The following picture was taken in Kyoto:

The picture below was shot the Shinjuku area of Tokyo and features the iconic Hello Kitty:

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.