25 March 2014
modern japanese

Italy and Japan -- opposites attract!

Italy and Japan could (and should) learn a lot from each other, argues Santo Tripodi, an "Italo-Australian" student at Tokyo's Sophia University.

Italy and Japan could (and should) learn a lot from each other, argues Santo Tripodi, an "Italo-Australian" student at Tokyo's Sophia University.

The relations between Italy and Japan have been surprisingly strong in the past, especially taking account of their great distance, vast cultural differences and distinctively dissimilar histories.

First contacts between Europe and Japan began with the famous Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, who worked as an Eastern regional ambassador for 17 years. It was during this time that he was able to gather information about ‘Cipangu’ (Japan). Despite not having ever actually set foot on Japanese soil (therefore not able to provide completely accurate information), Polo emphasised important reasons why the West should engage in merchant agreements, or even capture the nation.

"In their country there is gold, a lot of it; no man goes there, so no merchant takes away the gold, even if there is plenty … They have many pearls, and they are red, round and large … The richness of this island cannot be counted."

Polo went on to point out the geographical obstacles that had prevented foreigners from landing in the country thus far. He explained that failed attempts were primarily due to ‘kamikaze’ (lit. divine winds).

Japan therefore was able to maintain relatively insular for most of history and was ‘untouched’ by Western influence until the 1500’s. In 1542, the first European ship landed in Japan: a Portuguese boat filled with Jesuits. Merchant trades began, the most notable imports into Japan being gunpowder and Christianity.

Of the 95 Jesuits who worked as missionaries in Japan up to the 1600s, 18 were Italians. In the early 17th century, Japan built trade relations with the Netherlands and England. Although England withdrew from the operations due to lack of profitability, the Netherlands continued to trade with Japan and became the only European country to maintain trade relations until the 19th century.

By the end of the 16th century, the Japanese mission had become the largest overseas Christian community that was not under the rule of a European power. The first official envoy from Japan in 1582 sent four Japanese nobleman to Europe. They were treated to a grand tour of Europe and in 1585 the Pope assigned the church of Santa Maria dell’Orto in Rome for religious service to the Japanese delegation (it is still used today by the Japanese Catholic community).

If we skip ahead to the 19th century, the comparative timeline of Japan and Italy now becomes important. The Italians are struggling to obtain independence (1861) in the process known as the ‘Risorgimento’. The Meiji Restoration, events that led to enormous changes in Japan’s political and social structure, occurred also in the second half of the 19th century.

The Meiji Restoration was accompanied by a modernisation of the country on Western lines. It is likely the Japanese considered the events of the European revolutions of 1848 and of the Italian Risorgimento. Thus, modernisation and industrialisation started at roughly the same time in the two countries, with the state and the banking sectors playing a major role in promoting economic development.

The first Italian merchant ship arrived in Nagasaki in 1860. In 1866, an Italian warship visited Japan to pursue a diplomatic, commercial, and natural history agenda. In the same year, the first friendship treaty between the two countries was signed. The treaty opened to Italian ships the ports of Kanagawa, Nagasaki and Hakodate.

The relations between the two countries developed effectively due to the diplomatic action of the first Italian envoys (1873-1896). Italy became an important power in the opinion of the Meiji ruling elite.

Several Italian advisors served in the Meiji government. General Grillo led the military arsenal of Aosaka, where the first modern cannons were cast. Edoardo Chiossone served from 1872 as the director of the paper currency factors in Tokyo. And Alessandro Paternostro from 1885 to 1890 was legal consultant for the reorganisation of the legislative system.

The Japanese artistic sphere was also heavily inspired by Italians. During the Edo and early Meiji periods, the Japanese government hired Western advisers, teachers and engineers in an attempt to transform the country. The painter Antonio Fontanesi and sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa were among the notable artists who contributed to the establishment of Japanese modern art. Their contribution greatly influenced the developments in Japanese modern art, which is widely recognised by Japanese art historians today. In the 1920’s the Italian Futurist movement planted a seed in Japan for the development of Japanese modernism, further indicating strong cultural influences.

Italian’s creative influence branched out to other facets of the Japanese fine arts. Appreciation for the Italian opera fostered development of a musical entity in Japan called ‘Japanese Opera.’ This went on to reciprocally inspire Italian Opera.

In 1904, at La Scala Theatre in Milan, the premiere of the opera ‘Madama Butterfly,’ of Giacomo Puccini, was presented. The story takes place in Nagasaki. This opera is an indication of the Italian influence in Nagasaki. While the British and Americans dominated the more visible aspects of the Western community, Italians shaped the so-called ‘Western Exoticism’ that survives in the city to this day. This exoticism was captured by the common reference to Nagasaki as the ‘Naples of Japan’ or the ‘Naples of the Orient'. Both cities, Nagasaki and Naples served as the major southwestern ports of their countries.

Full and complete diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1913. Japan and Italy were allied in the First World War with England, France and the USA against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

In 1936, Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, joining the Axis powers of (Rome-Berline-Tokyo: RO.BER.TO). Strong efforts were employed to foster Japanese-Italian friendship at a public level. Most notable was the mission of Baron Kisitiro Okura who visited many Japanese cities, farms and factories attempting to underline the geographic and historic analogies between Italy and Japan, in order to garner approval of the relationship by the public.

Although a predominantly positive relationship thus far, Italo-Japanese relations took a turn following the Italian armistice of September 8th, 1943. Italian subjects living in Japan, now on the Allied side, were rounded up and placed in concentration camps characterised by harsh conditions. A camp for Italians was located near Nagoya and another in Korea.

If we fast-forward to today, we note that current relations between the two countries are excellent and have even been recently commemorated. Last February, the Italian foreign embassy rolled out ‘Italy in Japan 2013’ - a program designed to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Japan’s first official envoy to Italy and Europe. Italian Ambassador Domenico Giorgi described the event as ‘a rich and important programme in the run-up to 2016, the year that sees the 150th anniversary of Italian-Japanese bilateral relations.’ This varied programme promoted cultural initiatives, the ‘Made in Italy’ brand, and devoted ample space to extending Italian-Japanese scientific collaboration.

I will now highlight both similarities and differences between the countries before suggesting possible economic potentials for their relations.

Despite being almost on the other side of the planet, Japan shares some geographical features with Italy. They both exhibit a similar shape and a similar surface area (Japan 372.19km2, Italy 301.102 km2). They are both predominately mountainous with the occurrence of major volcanoes and islands. The main difference is in their population. The current population of Italy is 61.4 million whereas Japan’s is 125.6 million, double that of Italy and consequently almost double the population density.

Both nations have essentially natural geographical boundaries. This was important in fostering the identification of a national culture and helped sustain distinctive regional cultures in both nations. Although geographic isolation may have hindered foreign invasions in Japan, Italy saw countless migrations, invasions, raids and occupations.

Both Italy and Japan are old civilisations but late-developing modern nations. They have traveled parallel courses to modernity and ended up with very different national identities. Italy and Japan began the foundation of modern nation-states with the Risorgimento and the Meiji Restoration respectively. These countries both saw the failure of early liberalism, beginnings of fascism, imperial endeavours, wartime defeat and reconstruction as American democratic allies.

There are parallels with Italy’s economic miracle of the 1950’s and Japan’s economic bubble of the 1980’s. Both phases represented a cornerstone in the economic and social development of both countries. They were transformed from poor, mainly rural nations into major industrial powers. Although the ‘made in Italy’ craft differed greatly from industrial and electronic production in Japan, both countries held/hold significant weight in the automotive industry.

In fact, the 1990’s saw the beginning of what is still known in Japan as the ‘Italy-boom’, i.e the appreciation by the Japanese people for the culture and traditions of Italy.

Italy, with the US, is the preferred destination of Japanese tourists. It is no coincidence that the most commercialised electronic game of all time made by Nintendo is marketed under an Italian name (with Italian principal characters): Mario. The same is true for many Japanese car models.

Perhaps the most important comparison between the two countries suggests the possibilities for mutually beneficial Italo-Japanese cooperation. Japan is a society commonly associated with efficiency, order, and restraint; while Italy is notorious for disorder, spontaneity, creativity and passion. Japan is a model of unusual social unity and consensus, while Italy is associated with division and contestation.

Even after living in Japan for only three weeks, I believe that despite all the historical parallels, there are no two countries less alike. Italy is a sphere of social unrest, individual passion, eccentric creativity and fiery pride, while Japan exhibits organisation, cleanliness, efficiency and social unity. It would therefore be fitting to say that these countries could (and should) learn a lot from each other.

Currently, cultural diversity, combined with legal and protectionist barriers, are the main causes for limited business and investments between Italy and Japan. I believe that if both countries were to exploit their stronger points, that is, the craft and creativity of the Italian sector and the efficiency and business ethic of the Japanese, this would have significant positive implications on their economies.

In conclusion, while Italy and Japan maintain friendly relations today, there is still much they can learn from each other. A business that combines the creativity, ingenuity, eye for detail and passion of the Italians with the efficiency, organisation and business ethic of the Japanese would be the ideal business endeavour -- and if applied to a state level, even the ideal country!
Tags: japan, italy, Nagasaki

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