Ever since my trip to Japan some two weeks ago, I have not been able to forget how simple some things were. The general effort was towards making things clutter free and minimalistic, coupled with an excellent aesthetic sense especially in the use of space. This was quite contrary to the idea of Japan I had grown up with. My last trip to Japan was confined to Tokyo and Mt.Fuji, but this time I could see more of the countryside and the smaller towns. In my mind, Japan was this futuristic society where people were more mechanic, and everything had to be done by pressing a button here, another there. On the contrary, I was struck by how the Japanese kept things simple and well-maintained.
Walking round the mountain trail in Miyajima, I saw a toilet that looked like an ordinary Japanese traditional house, tiled roof and all. It was pretty basic but extremely clean, almost inviting. It was a beautiful structure, the off-white and dark brown colours fitting well with the green forest surrounding it. Nearby, there was a wooden sign showing the directions in English and Japanese. In other towns off the oft-beaten track, there was more of the same simple, efficient and clean way of life. These towns were dotted with small stores, marts, mom and pop stores, dry cleaners. The roads were smaller and so were the cars. I don’t recall seeing even one big SUV or sedan in the small towns I explored. One can bet it wasn’t a question of affordability, but being practical trumped everything else.
I have since been thinking how, in India, we are quick to think of brick-and-mortar solutions when it comes to development. Local funds would likely be used to make a concrete structure, no matter how expensive it may be, especially in the North-east. So in a quiet village, the town hall with a shiny foundation stone would be a white elephant and the concrete public toilets would not only look out of place, but will likely be dirty. A clean toilet whose structure is made of bamboo or mud would have more utility.
Being advanced as a society is more about mentality than gadgets. To be sure, Japan uses less gadgets than Korea and the internet is less ubiquitous. In most estimates, India is the second largest smart phone market in the world with more people having access to internet every year. In the smaller towns of Japan (and Korea), people seem to have cleared the clutter from their lives and become more minimalistic while living clean, efficient and hardworking lives.
Moving ahead as a society, it is worth mulling over why we need to choose more local, practical solutions before rushing for the oft-beaten path. In Nagaland, we definitely need to put more effort in keeping our towns clean in the way our villages are clean. We can’t be a Seoul/Tokyo overnight but we can definitely add the touches and carve out our own corner. Even small things like signage could be easily made by talented local artisans. Instead of the frantic pace of multi-storeyed structures, we could tone down and build simple structures with a touch of tradition in the mix. The focus should be driven by a marriage of utility and aesthetics. This is the hallmark of East Asians in the way they use space.
I am prone to think that the East Asians are this way because deep down, they are also extremely proud of their land and conscious about keeping things clean and tidy. As I hiked along the old Seoul Fortress Wall, there were signs asking people not to litter or draw graffiti on the wall. There was no trash and no graffiti. How many open toilets have we seen beside the main roads in our cities and towns? The deed has been done in the open umpteen times without blinking, while the fund for the concrete toilet is likely in a private pocket. All that’s left is the stench, a reflection of the pride we have for our land.