Sue Perkins embarks upon a trip around Japan, exploring a nation caught between the demands of a hi-tech future and the pull of a traditional past.
Part 1: Tokyo
Sue Perkins starts her journey in Tokyo, Japan’s glittering capital city and home to 36 million people. She finds a nation caught between the demands of a hi-tech future and the pull of a traditional past, where people work long hours but struggle to find time for love and relationships. Birth rates are falling and the population is shrinking. What does the future hold for this resilient and innovative country?
Japan will host the next Olympic Games, but the country’s most traditional sport is still stuck in the Dark Ages when it comes to equality. Sue trains with a female sumo wrestling team trying to bring change to this male-dominated sport.
After a night in a robot hotel, Sue visits a family who live with robots, helping out with household tasks like homework and bedtime stories. Sue falls in love with Aibo, the robot dog.
Outside Tokyo, in the shadow of Mount Fuji, Sue takes part in Hell Camp, Japan’s toughest business school. Here she sees how Japan’s strict corporate culture has created some of the world’s most successful companies, with its traditional values of hard work and discipline.
But this commitment to work comes at a cost. Back in the city Sue meets Rina, a beautiful twentysomething taking part in the latest craze: a solo-wedding. Young women, concerned that they will never marry, are paying to have all the trimmings of the special day – hair, make-up and a big dress – but with no husband. Professional photographs are uploaded to social media.
Kawaii, or cuteness, is big in Japan and Pop Idol is a cultural phenomenon – a huge industry of manufactured girl bands. Sue goes to a Pop Idol gig in downtown Tokyo and is surprised to find that the audience is made up of middle-aged men in suits.
Later, Sue leaves Tokyo in search of a different side of Japan. The landscape outside the city is a revelation – forests, mountains and islands. In the sacred Kii mountains of Wakayama Prefecture, she has a go at shinrin-yoku or forest bathing. The Japanese believe that spending quiet time among the trees is good for body and soul.
The Japanese are a nation of nature worshippers. Sue joins pilgrims at a Shinto festival celebrating the autumn leaves. At the base of a sacred waterfall, she meets a priest who tells her that Japanese culture is all about finding harmony with nature.
Part 2: Kyoto
She starts in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital city and home to the iconic and secretive geishas. Sue wants to understand what it takes to become a geisha and whether there is any truth to the perception of them as rich men’s playthings. In a traditional tea house outside Kyoto, she meets Kikuno and her apprentices, who are working hard to keep geisha culture alive as Japan becomes more open to the outside world. Dressed in a kimono and wearing full make-up, Sue helps entertain clients with drinking games and music.
The Ise-shima Peninsula, south of Kyoto is famous for its seafood, its pearls and for its ama divers, the women of the sea. There were once thousands of these traditional free-diving women working along the coast, but now there are only a few hundred left and many of them are in their eighties. Sue spends the day diving for shellfish to sell at the local market and finds a sense of humour and community very different from the vast megacities of modern Japan.
The amas come from a generation of Japanese people that witnessed terrible suffering. Sue’s next stop is Hiroshima, where allied forces dropped an atomic bomb to end the Second World War. She meets Mr Tetsushi, an 84-year-old survivor of the blast. He was just ten-years-old when the bomb hit, travelling on a tram with his mother, just 750 metres from the epicentre. Sue joins Mr Tetsushi on a tram through Hiroshima and hears his incredible story of survival.
After the war, Japan set about rebuilding its shattered economy. Sue rides the bullet train back to Tokyo, the engine of Japanese growth. Within 40 years, Japan had risen from the ashes of the war, to become the world’s second largest economy, with huge global corporations. But this transformation, built on the Japanese values of hard work and sacrifice, has come with a cost. Modern Japan is struggling with some new problems – some people work so hard they have no time for love or family. The marriage rate is down, the birth rate is falling and the country’s population is shrinking.
Back in Tokyo, Sue explores how the Japanese are finding ways to combat these modern challenges. Ms Megumi runs a rent-a-family business. It’s an agency where lonely people can hire actors to play the part of loved ones for social occasions. Sue meets Ms Megumi as she auditions for the role of wife to a busy businessman and his lonely mother. Rental families are now big business in Japan.
Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities on earth and real estate is at a premium. Increasingly, there’s not even room to bury the dead. Sue visits the Koukoku-ji Temple in Ruriden, where they now have an LED cemetery. Instead of graves, they have a bank of glowing Buddhist statues, that light up when you enter the pin code of your loved one. Here you can store the ashes of the deceased and come to pay your respects without the fuss and expense of a traditional burial plot.
Sue’s last stop in Japan is a Konkatsu event. Konkatsu means ‘marriage hunting’ and these events are designed to try to alleviate Japan’s celibacy crisis by introducing young people looking for love. It’s state-sponsored speed dating. Sue joins the young hopefuls one morning as they make mayonnaise together to break the ice and watches as they overcome their shyness to exchange business cards.