China smiles while Japan shows its dark side

China and Japan staged major cultural events in London this week and their approaches could hardly have been more different.

The Chinese New Year celebration in Trafalgar Square was an enormous, colourful show, designed for a wide appeal and maximum impact on television.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme presented the dark side of Japan to a select audience of connoisseurs. Its title was intriguing: “People Still Call It Love” Passion, Affection and Destruction in Japanese Cinema.

I enjoyed both events. They emphasised important aspects of the way these two Asian countries see themselves.

Party in the square

China’s New Year party, staged under the famous statue of Lord Nelson, must have cost millions of pounds.

It carried a simple message: make friends with China and the benefits of international trade will flow your way.

I watched singers from the Peking Opera, some well known pop stars and troupes of dancers and drummers.

Belt and Road

Signs beside the stage drew the audience’s attention to the Belt and Road Initiative – China’s ambitious plan to restore the ancient silk trade routes taking goods from East to West. The project stretches all the way to London.

In fact, I moderated a conference about the Belt and Road the University of London last week, where many people expressed concerns about the implications of the project.

But the Chinese party in Trafalgar Square was not about political debate: it was a celebration, designed to show China in the best possible light.

Dark world

It takes less than five minutes to walk from Trafalgar Square to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the Japan film festival took place. It was a completely different world.

I saw eight films over the course of the ten days and was fascinated by all the stories and characters.

The festival was brilliantly curated by Junko Takekawa, Senior Arts Programme Officer at the Japan Foundation. It provided an opportunity to see dramatic representations of many aspects of contemporary Japanese society.

Fighting and screaming

It was particularly interesting to see stories about working class people and rural communities.

The overall tone was dark. Here were the Japanese committing crimes, having affairs, fighting and screaming.

One striking film about sibling rivalry was called Thicker Than Water and showed the tensions between two brothers and two sisters.

After the screening, I asked the director Keisuke Yoshida if Japanese audiences take a visceral pleasure in watching characters express fury and passion on screen, given the taboo on such behaviour in real life.

He replied that the Japanese are patient and tolerant people – but only up to a point. He said that when their self-control is exhausted, they explode.

Intimacy

Was it brave of the Japanese to show this explosive aspect of their character?

Is China ready to get a bit more emotionally intimate with foreign audiences, too?

Perhaps other events will give me a deeper insight into China’s complex society and its people’s emotions.

I also hope I can get close enough to Chinese people to learn how they behave towards each other when they are not putting on a smiling face for foreigners.

Marie Kondo and the stereotypes of Japanese women

“You may be cute on the outside, but inside you really mean business.”

That was the response of an American man who invited the Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo into his home.

Kevin Friend and his wife Rachel became the stars of a reality TV show made by Netflix about Marie Kondo, which provided an opportunity to notice some cultural gaps between the US and Japan.

But when the process of tidying was complete, Kevin was delighted. “Marie changed my life. It’s just insane how my mentality has changed. There’s a sense of relaxation in just doing all the things that we need to do. There is more time with the kids, especially when I come home from work.

“We’re really happy we’re just looking forward to living this way for the rest of our lives, hopefully.”

Fame and success

Looking at the show, I was struck by the persona Marie Kondo used on camera: cute, yes, but also empathetic and helpful. She didn’t resemble what a Californian American might think of as a business leader. But in fact, she’s now the most famous and successful Japanese woman in the world.

One great media source for business news about Japan is Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine.

It asserts that Kondo is a bigger celebrity in the US than in Japan. “In the US, the Marie Kondo method has become a how-to for self realisation,” says Satoko Suzuki from Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. “It is not about cleaning. Cleaning up is about how to help yourself, how to understand yourself and how to develop yourself. Whereas in Japan, it’s really more about tidying up, the process.”

Franchise queen

Bloomberg also explains that apart from her books and television series, Marie Kondo makes money from schooling others. Anyone aspiring to become a tidying consultant must first read her books and then submit photographs of their own homes which have been made immaculate according to her method. Those who want to teach the method further, must also must pay for training which can cost up to $2,700 and an annual fee of $500 to maintain certification.

The magazine implies this is expensive but I am not convinced. Is it a high price to pay to be involved with such a high profile international franchise?

Goodbye CDs

I must admit that I have a bit of a challenge in tidying my possessions, particularly my old CDs.

I love rock music and have assembled a big collection CDs over the years but I don’t play them much now and they are rather cluttering my home.

I recognise that it is time for me to take action but without Marie Kondo standing over me, I am finding my heart is not really in it.

Still, watching her on TV reminds me that I probably need to be more sophisticated in the way I view Japanese women, especially those in leadership roles.

As Kevin Friend observed on Netflix , they may be cute but their inner core is often marked by determination, focus and remarkable patience to ensure a task is completed properly.