A country obsessed with the past

During my childhood summers spent in Yokohama, Japan, my obaachan (grandmother) would take me on afternoon strolls through her neighbourhood and teach me the names of all the flowers we came across. The cicadas would shriek over her soft voice and the humidity would cling to my body like a second layer of skin. When we returned home, the two of us would cool off over ice-cold glasses of mugicha (barley tea). “Am I your favourite grandchild?” I would ask her. My obaachan would smile and whisper, “Yes.”

My obaachan passed away in April 2019, and last summer was my first one without her. Now the taste of mugicha takes me back to our precious summer strolls. “Natsukashii,” I always think as the taste hits my tongue.

Natsukashii is a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past. It’s a word you exclaim as a smile creeps across your face. For instance, when you hear a song you loved as a teenager, or when you come across an old train ticket stub in your pocket.

In some cultures, nostalgia is often full of sadness. But natsukashii – which derives from the verb “natsuku”, which means “to keep close and become fond of” – indicates joy and gratitude for the past rather than a desire to return to it. In Japan, natsukashii is a reminder that you are fortunate to have had the experiences you’ve had in life. The fact that you cannot return to those experiences makes them all the more poignant.

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“A positive frame put around longing is the essence of natsukashii,” said Christine Yano, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii, whose research focuses on Japanese popular culture. “It’s part of the emotional foundation of Japan. A glass half empty is a glass that’s full and beautiful.”

“I think in Japan, nostalgia has to do with an aesthetic,” she continued. “This is the aesthetic that sees beauty in imperfection, in something not being quite complete, in longing, in yearning, in evanescence, in impermanence, wistfulness, in melancholy. It is an aesthetic invested with emotion and beauty at the same time.”

Aesthetic concepts in the traditional Japanese arts were developed in pre-modern Japan. One of the earliest to emerge was wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy rooted in Buddhism that finds beauty in imperfection and impermanence; examples include deliberately misshapen bowls used in tea ceremonies and bonsai trees displayed even after they’ve shed their leaves. Yano suggests that Japan’s approach to nostalgia is akin to wabi-sabi – but it’s life, rather than objects, that’s being celebrated for its imperfections.

Sumie Kawakami, a writer who teaches liberal arts at the International College of Liberal Arts (iCLA) at Japan’s Yamanashi Gakuin University, echoes that sentiment. She describes natsukashii as a bittersweet form of reminiscing. “We miss the time – but it’s better that way,” she said.

In today’s digital age, people seem to be more obsessed than ever with nostalgia. But in Japan, paying tribute to the past goes far beyond sharing the occasional #ThrowbackThursday post on social media or binge-watching an ‘80s TV show reboot.

On any given night of the week, Tokyo businessmen can be found blowing off steam in yokocho, traditional alleyways containing bars and restaurants. These cramped, cash-only establishments surrounded by glowing lanterns and cigarette smoke are a portal to another era, as they were originally part of black markets that cropped up in the city following World War Two.

And last summer, Japanese Twitter went wild after someone shared a video they made using an app that replicated the VHS camcorder recording quality of the 1980s. Tens of thousands of people rushed to find out what the app was (VHS Cam), then share their own videos using it.

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