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Eat, Drink and Be Merry
For a country that has assimilated foreign concepts so successfully today few Japanese think much of the overseas origins of baseball or curry the idea of exporting true Japanese craftsmanship is, indeed, revolutionary. That instinct is what led a 383-year-old Japanese brewery last year to begin offering up bottles of sake in what might be considered enemy territory. At the Wa-Bi Salon in Paris, customers can sample Fukumitsuya sake, including several varieties that will stand up well to the rich sauces of celebrity chef Dominique Bouchet, who owns the eatery. In the U.S., where imports of the rice-based spirit have doubled over the past five years, premium sakes now appear alongside wine on drinks menus at high-end restaurants like New York City's wd-50. "Over the past five years, foreigners have really begun to appreciate sake," says Matsutaro Fukumitsu, the 13th generation of his family to produce Fukumitsuya alcohol. "Japanese food is seen as healthy, and sake has ridden that trend."
So, too, has a man who makes an unlikely living selling bean curd. In 2005 Shingo Ito started a company, Otokomae Tofuten, that makes premium tofu. "When I grew up, everyone was going to work for banks or trading companies," says the 39-year-old native of Chiba. "But I thought, I want to create a symbol of Japan that's hip but also draws from our society." Just three years later, Ito's tofu is a cult favorite in Japan and is being exported to America and the U.K. "The great thing is that tofu is seen as cool in places like the U.S.," he says. "We in Japan have forgotten that."
The New Patriots
With his velvet jacket and free- flowing mane, Takanori Aoki has a bit of the alt-rock star about him, but he's actually a designer with Japan's smallest automaker, Mitsuoka Motors. The company can't compete with a Toyota or Honda, so it has focused mainly on building what industry insiders snidely refer to as "replicars." Working at a small, unorthodox company meant that Aoki, 31, was given free rein to experiment. What he came up with in late 2006 was a $110,000 supercar modeled after a mythical Japanese snake with eight heads and eight tails. In other words, this is not your average Camry or Accord. The curvaceous car, which looks like something Gaudí might have come up with if he dabbled in automobile design, has so far found 70 buyers across the world, from Bahrain to Malaysia. "We know that Japan's not isolated anymore and that all countries are interconnected," says Aoki. "In that context, I think it's important to display our nationalism and say, This is what makes Japan different from other places."
The phenomenon has an ugly side, of course jingoistic youth who can't understand why some Chinese or Koreans might continue to be miffed about comfort women or experiments with bubonic plague, particularly since Japanese textbooks still have a propensity to gloss over such wartime atrocities. But in an ex-imperialist country whose identity was so shattered that it ended up adopting peace as a national virtue during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics flocks of dove-shaped balloons were released into the air, underlining the not-so-subtle point that Japan wasn't about to declare war anytime soon the return to traditions is refreshingly, well, normal.
Japan's renewed sense of identity has also stoked a spiritual rediscovery. Under Shinto, the country's native religion, which blends a reverence for nature with Japan's founding myths, the Japanese Emperor is considered the direct descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu; it was in Emperor Hirohito's sacred name that Japanese soldiers fought in World War II. When a battle-vanquished Hirohito announced in 1946 that he was not, in fact, a god in human form, some Japanese distanced themselves from the animist tradition. While shrines remained and festivals continued, Shinto was initially condemned by the occupying Americans as yet another ideology that had led Japan to wartime disaster. But centuries of tradition are hard to eschew. Today, for film director Naomi Kawase, who was raised by her grandparents in the ancient capital of Nara, Shinto's nature worship is integral to her work and she's not about to apologize for it. Kawase won last year's runner-up prize at the Cannes Film Festival for The Mourning Forest, which celebrates man's mystical relationship with nature. "Because of the circumstances of my childhood, I never fell in love with the West, like many other Japanese did," says Kawase, 39. "My inspiration comes from our traditional culture, in which everything, even a little clump of grass, is divine."
Green Is Good
Shinto's veneration of nature fits right in with the world's new environmental consciousness. With 127 million people crammed ont0 a few small islands, Japan has for decades had little choice but to be green. But Japan's environmental fetish goes beyond separating bottles from cans or even designing eco-friendly buildings. Industrial designer Matsui, whose latest hit in Paris is a mannequin robot that interacts with passersby, named his seven-year-old company Flower Robotics. "For a long time, flowers were seen just as something beautiful, not a necessity," he says. "But the relationship between humans and nature, between humans and flowers, I think it's something we need to stay alive. We don't have to only make things that are useful. We can create things that give us happiness and have a sense of spirituality."
Matsui's pursuit of aesthetic pleasure is something Japan's traditional craftsmen understood well. Few nations imbue objects with as much import as Japan does. Tokyo must be the only government that designates the best potters or woodblock printers as Living National Treasures, or, to use the formal name, Bearers of Important Intangible Cultural Assets. The appellation currently applies only to artisans whose crafts have not strayed from the confines of the past. But with younger Japanese now introducing the world to updated versions of ancient culture, Japanese bureaucrats might do well to expand the definition. The new "Made in Japan" deserves it.