The year 2008 marks 150 years since the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce, an agreement which signaled the official commencement of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Japan.
Ever since these channels of communications were opened, Japanese and British people alike have often remarked upon the similarities between their two nations – despite the vast distance separating them. As a Briton living in Japan, this is something that I decided to take a first-hand look at for myself.
Perhaps the most obvious trait that the two countries share is geographical; on opposite ends of Eurasia, both are composed of islands that overlook large oceans on one side and comparatively small expanses of water on the other that separate them from the main super-continental landmass.
Such close proximity to oceanic currents induces unique climates in both nations, yet here this particular similarity ends; whereas Japan has four distinct seasons with warm summers and cold winters in most of the country, we Britons often jokingly complain that we have only a single season all year-round.
Certainly, the most compelling similarities are cultural, and incidentally one noteworthy quirk that we seem to share is our ‘island mentalities’.
Just as Japan traditionally sees itself as separate from mainland Asia, so too Britain thinks of itself as detached from mainland Europe. To this day it has refused to give up the pound sterling in favour of the currency of the European Union (the Euro), despite being one of its most prominent members for many years.
Indeed, there are also political likenesses. Both states have constitutional monarchies for governments, and ceremonial heads of state (positions currently held by Queen Elizabeth II and Emperor Akihito) – vestiges of long periods in the past spent as absolute monarchies.
It is arguable, however, that the Japanese of today more actively appreciate this aspect of their history than do their British counterparts, and the existence of an annual Japanese public holiday in commemoration of the incumbent Emperor’s birthday is perhaps the best evidence of this. Monarchs in Britain in fact have two birthdays – an official* and an actual one – and neither is a public holiday for the majority of British citizens (only civil servants are given a ‘privilege day’).
Possibly it is fair to say that one of the few areas where things are wholly different lies in language, something to which multilingual speakers of both English and Japanese frequently attest.
Surely, though there will always be differences between the British and the Japanese in all avenues of life, it would certainly seem that there are undeniable likenesses, too – whether they are political, cultural, historical, or even geographical. But personally, the most interesting ‘British’ traits that I have found I share with the Japanese are too unique and peculiar to be categorised.
They are my very British habit of talking about the weather to avoid discussing what’s really going on inside my head.
And my very British love of a good cup of tea.
Footnote: *For example: though Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21st in 1926, her ‘official’ birthday celebrations are held on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd June of every year. The tradition was initially begun by King Edward VII for purely practical reasons; prior to its inauguration, parades and outdoor celebrations to commemorate the birthdays of monarchs born in winter months were often spoiled due to bad weather!