It is virtually impossible not to find Western influences in Japan. Walk along the Nakasendo and within a mile or two the traveler will pass a roadside shrine no bigger than a doll house. Somebody will have left off a small bunch of flowers, perhaps some wild flowers, perhaps some weed flowers, carefully placed in a Coke bottle.
Japan has been alternately receptive or closed to outside influences. For centuries, the only civilization high enough to make an impression was Chinese civilization, although often mediated through Korea. In the past century and a half, however, Japan was met with another civilization which, if not higher, was more powerful. Even before Commodore Perry forced diplomatic relations on a reluctant Japan, the Japanese were aware of the West. They realized its strength in the 19th century through the Dutch mission at Nagasaki and many began to study its science, technology, and languages.
After the Meiji Restoration, the West was taken as the supreme model for nearly every significant aspect of life, and many insignificant ones too. Popular assemblies, government bureaus, schools, the banking system, clothes for policemen and military men, and the pre-1945 constitution all were based on one or other Western example. Hair for both men and women was re-styled according to European fashion; beer was brewed as an alternative to sake; beefsteak, baseball, and the cravat were considered smart.
The 1890s saw a reaction against the onslaught of Western influence. Naturalists argued in favor of the best that was Japanese, but they did so in a thoroughly Western frame of reference and could identify little of exclusive value aside from the physical beauties of Japan, especially Mt. Fuji. World War I saw a resurgence of Western influence. City people began wearing Western clothing exclusively and flocked into shops serving coffee and classical music. The next war saw another rejection of most Western cultural influences, yet even then, the model for government and cultural achievement was provided by Italy and Germany under their fascist leaders.
In post-1945 Japan the overwhelming theme has been Western influence. Particularly in popular culture, American and European influence is strong. Movies, rock music, and fashion all take their Western counterparts as reference points. Even foods follow Western patterns with fast food hamburger and pizza outlets the popular gathering points for most children and young adults. Youngsters’ preference for Western food is so strong that farmers have succeeded in having a law passed which requires that rice be served at least three times a month in school lunches. Although outside influence in these areas has threatened to overwhelm Japanese influences from time to time, outsiders will recognize adaptations which reflect the essential Japanese core. Nevertheless, because of the popularity of things Western, Japanese are generally far more conversant with things to do with the West than Europeans and North Americans are with things Japanese.
Particular places in Japan are closely identified with things Western. For summertime vacations, recreation, and as a place to get married Karuizawa is famous for being a breath of the West. In Tokyo, Harajuku, located between the large commuter centers of Shibuya and Shinjuku, is full of trendy shops and, on Sundays, groups of youngsters dancing to every beat from the 50s to the 90s or skateboarding or roller skating through set courses. Yokohama and Kobe, two of the first ports open to residence and trade by Westerners, attract crowds to their Western districts.
The extent of Western influence has increased steadily over the last century and a half despite the occasional period of rejection of things Western. It causes Japanese, Asians and Westerners alike to ask seriously whether Japan is Oriental or Occidental, but the questioning doesn’t seem to change the general trend.