Easy peasy Japanesy

The Japanese past is best known in the west for its periods of withdrawal. Now, despite economic ins

This time around, there are no sumo wrestlers to grunt the ritualistic grunt, throw salt, or grapple on the mat. Ten years ago, when London hosted a £30m Japanese festival of the arts, expense was no problem. The corporate capitalism of the island kingdom was delivering the goods of material abundance.

But times are harder. For a decade, the Japanese economy has been struggling. The Nikkei index is two-thirds down from its 1990 peak and Japanese banks are carrying bad loans of some £168bn. Government cash flow is "approaching a state of collapse", said one outgoing finance minister last year. And so, rather extraordinarily, we arrive at Japan 2001- a sprawling fest of theatre and tea-making, flower arranging and gardens, architecture, calligraphy and scrolls, prints and pictures, music and masseurs, film, sake drinking and martial arts, ceremonial pots, lacquer and ceramics. The whole impressive and bewildering prodigality is being run on a shoestring of £15m - peanuts by the standards of grandly international cultural celebrations, when nation is encouraged to speak unto nation, and then listen to the tills ringing.

Leaner times dictate a different style. The 1991 festival was performance-arts-oriented, a demand-led economy of culture that lasted for just a few months. Japan 2001 is responsive to local enthusiasm and ideas thrown up by UK-based Japanese companies. It is a mixture of things that might have happened anyway and events that fit naturally into the cultural timetable of the theatre and concert season. Over it all stands the umbrella organisation Japan 2001, which emerged from a conversation between the then foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, and his Japanese counterpart in 1995. It boasts corporate sponsorship of £4m from British business and just over £2m from the depressed Japanese private sector - for the thousand events that will spread over Britain until March next year.

Japan needs to attract foreign investment. But if that were the whole story behind Japan 2001, it would be a failure from the start. Even for a culture that values the implicit and the subtle, it is remarkable that the festival programme lacks an obvious mission statement. Japan 2001 is, in fact, the latest chapter in an ancient story: the encounter between Japan and the west, as culture meets politics. And so force fiscale determines that this will be a meeting of peoples, of culture in its widest and most popular sense - of the streets and the school, of the matsuri in the park and the make-over in the shopping mall.

Few nations suffer more from the contrived and contradictory cliche than Japan. Refined yet cruel, aesthetically controlled but capable of inchoate passion, formal and public, yet bent on preserving private space, the Japanese contrasts - both imposed and self-attributed - beguile and baffle the western observer.

This sense of cultural distance is essential to Japan 2001. At a time when our culture elevates the banal, the easily understood and the collusively downgraded, Japan offers something bracing. This sense of the difficult comes at us most obviously in Japanese theatre. Kabuki operates at the more interpretative level - at one remove from the austerities of Noh - although it is still awesomely hierarchic. It started in the 16th century as a theatre of the people, and its earliest, female, stars caused scandal by their association with prostitution. The subsequent change to all-male casts of performers (which persists to this day) did little to diminish the scandal, with the male stars of the 18th century making extra money as expensive rent boys.

Nakamura Ganjiro III is the greatest of the onnagata actors, and at Sadler's Wells early this month, he could be seen in fully controlled, lachrymose flow. In his 50-year career, this 69-year-old man has repeatedly played the role of a romantic courtesan preparing for death, as the result of the humiliation endured by her lover - now played by Ganjiro's son (this is theatre as a family corporation). As the voice coos in a piercing tragic falsetto, death hovers. The embrace of the heavens beckons with a glittering razor poised at the heroine's throat when the curtains fall.

To be humiliated is still the most terrible thing that can happen to a Japanese person. It is the root of the culture's difficulty in adapting to American global capitalism. Management textbooks for foreigners have to advise on how to deal with the sensibilities, on how to criticise without imposing a sense of shame, that most public and socially derived emotion. This is, thankfully, the country where the focus group has only a tenuous foothold, where it is practically impossible to persuade an individual to express strong emotions (for fear of offending others), and where the entrepreneurial spirit - without which the Japanese economy did so well for so long - remains a most un-Japanese thing.

It was tough when Renault took over Nissan - a question of national pride, as well as competence. But as Japan 2001's director, Christopher Purvis, points out, there is a long Japanese tradition of gaiatsu - or outside pressure - with the foreigner being used to effect change when the domestic situation cannot produce such pressure itself. Commander Perry, who entered Tokyo Bay in his gunboat in 1868, has his successors.

But before rushing into the embrace of the received wisdom about east being east, west being west, and the twain never meeting, with its inescapably western roots of "liberal individualism", it is best to pause for the longer view.

The kabuki stars are centre stage, but also on stage are the musicians - whose strumming, singing commentary operates at a distance from the action. They remind us of the chorus of Greek theatre and of how kabuki's beautiful rituals, like the cadences of Aeschylus, serve to root theatre in its religious and sacrificial sense of order, disrupted and restored.

What is striking about Japan 2001 is the range of innovation, something that perhaps reflects the way in which the country is experiencing economic turbulence. It has to break out, move on and adapt. Capitalism has its avant-garde cultural consequences. Some of this is a venerable exercise in modernism. Over at the V&A, Fumihiko Maki's architectural designs hit a cool, 73-year-old hipster's note. This is modernism that, as in his celebrated Hillside Terrace development in Tokyo, operates in a subtle local spatial context. An ancient shrine and kofun burial mound are incorporated into one of the courtyards, as the traditional Japanese ambivalence about the relationship between inner and outer space is eloquently exploited.

And the fustian will be most powerfully undermined later this month with the arrival of the modern Noh plays, rewritten by Yukio Mishima, Japan's greatest 20th-century novelist, and directed by its living national treasure (a formal accolade of the state), Yukio Ninagawa. We remember Mishima as the most famous novelist to commit hara-kiri or ritual disembowelment - out of shame at Japan's loss of martial virility and cultural authenticity (not perhaps an option tempting to many modern English writers) in 1970. But in these reworkings of the plays, Mishima takes Noh away from its roots in Japan's Shinto religion - one of the few cultural elements genuinely native to the island kingdom. Mishima places Noh (like kabuki itself) in the realm of kanno-teki - a kind of enveloping aesthetic of tactile and voluptuous values - "the most indecent, romantic, violent work", as Ninagawa describes Mishima's achievement. Here, the tame timidities of reinterpretation, the counsel of T S Eliot's "tradition and the individual talent", are taken to an extreme of liberation rooted in historical recognition.

English Japanophilia has its own traditions, even if they are often founded on tired truisms: both islands, both wet and windy, both densely populated; we once had a king-emperor, Japan still has an emperor to whom vestiges of divinity cling; both enjoy a complicated relationship with a continental land mass; both like gardens; neither is especially religious; both value privacy, even secrecy. Other festivals have opened English eyes to Japanese treasures. The 1910 White City exhibition enchanted the seven-year-old Kenneth Clark. Arthur Walley's translations of the Tales of Genji, William Empson's poetry and Edmund Blunden's prose all show the literary continuum. Benjamin Britten's Curlew River was an excited lift from Noh theatrical traditions. There is an affinity here that goes beyond the parodic fun - itself rooted in pre-20th-century affection - of the Mikado.

Sometimes, we pay the Japanese the ultimate compliment of regarding them as Brits removed to the east. Even the maps do this. The usual image of the four major islands running north to south makes them look like Britain from Land's End to John o'Groats. But Japanese maps often run from east to west, suggesting a very different sense of identity and history.

Etiquette, alas, binds us together. How to behave and what the neighbours will think are serious questions for both nations. But, more importantly, there is a common question of identity at stake. There seems to be no end to the stream of books about what it means to be British; similarly, in Japan, such self-examination has been going on since the sixth century. The Japanese neurosis is rooted in uncertainty about the culture's own derivative status. Japan owes everything in art, religion and politics to Korea and China. Even the emperor is probably more Korean in his ancestry than native Japanese. Buddhism swept in from China and was assimilated with Shinto, along with waves of invaders - especially through the Korean peninsula.

Paradoxically, this has produced a country of extraordinary homogeneity, in contrast to Britain's mosaic of national communities and ethnic diversity. But despite this apparent uniformity, Japan is capable of brilliant and sustained national reinterpretation and reincarnation. Meiji Japan, for example, reinvented Shinto for a modern purpose, much as the Victorians recreated Christmas rituals. And the persistent use of Mount Fuji as a national symbol shows how the image can be presented and represented in an endless creative exploration of what it means to be Japanese.

The country's past is best known in the modern west for its period of sasoku - of withdrawal from the world - which lasted from the mid-17th century until 1868 and the Meiji restoration. But expansion is the more typical Japanese keynote. Even apart from the disastrous nationalist imperialism of the 20th century, there were the earlier campaigns in the 16th century to invade China and Korea. When times were hard, Japan withdrew and inspected its self-image - all the better to be dangerous to the foreigner. It is a remarkable thing that now, thrown on the high seas of change, it breaks with this precedent to actively seek out the rest of the world.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat