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British Culture Reading in the Summer of the Olympics

Akiko Shimbo
Part-time Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

The United Kingdom has been receiving fresh attention as the host of the Olympics this summer. It seems that the "UK" which has been generally accepted in Japan is associated with nostalgia, tradition and relaxation. When we look at a list of books on UK published over the last two years, academic publications cover diverse areas such as literature, history, politics, law, medical care, welfare and education. On the other hand, among general publications, in addition to travel and language, there are many marked by particular keywords such as tea, gardening and the countryside.

It is not easy to understand any culture only in one book. In a class on contemporary British culture that I taught for two years until the last academic year in the School of Social Sciences, we read Michael Storry and Peter Childs (eds.), British Cultural Identities, and learned together about the British identity from various angles each lesson. For example, we looked at the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) as well as rural/urban areas, immigration, education, social class, politics, family and youth. More recently, I learned of Masaya Shimokusu (ed.), Introduction to British Culture. This book introduces the country from a great many chapters: geography, history, culture, religion, music, films, art, sports, education and politics. It provides a good opportunity to have an overall picture of British culture in Japanese.

What is Britishness? Of course, it varies depending on the person who is answering this question. Some people lament that although there are wonderful goods to buy in the UK, they are expensive, there are fewer items and shops than in Japan, and some stores close early in the evening. My personal impression of the south of England where I have stayed was that I saw few people who were frustrated in shops and train stations; many people had a conversation with strangers while in a line waiting for something; and people often shared newspapers on trains. However, in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century where I was doing research on the relationship between producers and consumers in the period of industrialization (referred to as the “Industrial Revolution”), what caught my attention was that there were fewer vending machines than in Japan, and even if there were, people would line up to purchase directly from a human being.

I was reminded of this scene when I read the following text in News from Nowhere by William Morris (1834-1896), a craft designer, poet and social activitist: "... men make for their neighbours' use as if they were making for themselves ... we have now found out what we want, so we make no more than we want ... and in all work which it is a pleasure to do by hand machinery is done without ..." In this book, the main character who lives in the latter half of the 19th century travels to Great Britain of the future, and these words described above are some of the many words that he hears from residents in the country at that future time. At the end of this story, the main character returns back to the 19th century. However, he realizes that he is not despondent about that. Furthermore, while he was in that utopian society, he had an awareness that he was looking on from the outside. (Moreover, from all his words and deeds, we can even see that he does not appear to believe every aspect of the utopian society.) Then, he hears the voice of the hearts of the people he had met in the future that his hopes are raised by having seen their society, he can become happier than before, and he starts working on creating a new age step by step.

Whether it is an overall or fragment, a different culture that captured our attention reveals what we are seeking. This is because such a different culture asks us why we are attracted to it and how we would like to expand what we find in it to our own homes, towns, people or structure of society.

Michael Storry and Peter Childs (eds.), British Cultural Identities (3rd edition) (Routledge, 2007).
Masaya Shimokusu (ed.), Introduction to British Culture (Sanshusha, 2010).
William Morris (trasnlated by Tatsuo Matsumura), News from Nowhere (Iwanami, 1968; original publication: 1890).

Akiko Shimbo
Part-time Lecturer, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Akiko Shimbo acquired a Ph.D. in history at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2007. She has been in her present post since April 2012 after working as an assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University (April 2010 to March 2012). She specializes in 18-19th century British cultural, social and design history. Furniture-Makers and Consumers in England 1754-1851: Design as Interaction is a special book based on her doctoral dissertation at the University of London. This book is scheduled to be published by Ashgate Publishing (UK). Her papers include "The Role of Dialogue between Producers and Consumers: The Design Process of Custom-Made Furniture in Late Eighteen-Century England" (Design History: Journal of the Design History Workshop Japan, No. 9, 2011), among others.