Colin Marshall sits down seven stories above Kawaramachi, Kyoto, Japan with John Dougill, professor of British culture at Ryukoku University, blogger at Green Shinto, and author of books including Kyoto: A Cultural History, In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians, and Oxford in English Literature. They discuss the commonalities between the Kyoto geisha and the English gentleman, who practice their respective cultures’ ritual, regulation, and repression; form’s dominance over function in Japan, as exemplified by one young fellow in a Union Jack t-shirt; how he got a handle on Japan by writing a book on Kyoto, and how in the process the scales fell from his eyes, revealing the “magical paradise” he lives in; his ambivalence toward the “sprawling urban mess” that has built up around modern Kyoto; Oxford, the other city in his life, and the formula of “old buildings and young people” that makes it ideal; his early feelings of isolation and anger toward Japan, and how he overcame them; coming to represent British culture in Japan, using Marmite and other traditional tools; his attractions to “earth religions,” particularly Shinto, which he considers to be the true essence of Japanese culture; the Japanese tendency to contextually follow a variety of religious traditions and honor a variety of “equally valid” though sometimes opposing truths; how Japan’s “hidden Christians” created and protected their own mixed folk religion; his current project, a book on Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the problems inherent in a place becoming one; how Kyoto’s younger generation has preserved and repurposed traditional machiya buildings; and the process by which he has come to see his own country through Japanese eyes, which means he sees a great deal of “rudeness, dirtiness, and lack of efficiency” — a different Britain, in other words, than the one he grew up in.
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