On my second trip to Japan, standing next to a large bush of hydrangeas, I caught a fragrant whiff of its sprawling ancient culture. It’s sprawling because I imagine it like the endless suburbs of six-storey apartments, hundreds-of-thousands, maybe millions, bleeding into the horizon, piled on top of each other.

For over 2,000 years Japan has been generating people. 35 million live in greater Tokyo today. They’ve been making new human beings with new ideas for a long time.

In comparison, Australia has been its current anglo-shaped nation for 250 years. 4 million people live in greater Melbourne, a much emptier city filled with Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Vietnamese, Irish, English—ancient cultures that have coalesced into walking ideas, trying to get along, watching American television in a moderate climate, debating whether the Sudanese should stay.

In the early days, Japanese culture appropriated bits of Chinese, Korean and Indian cultures. Now they just call it Japanese. Buddhism, India’s great export, is unmistakably Japanese, in its own Zen way, for chrissakes.

So when a third-generation Greek named George asks a second-generation Italian named Don for a cigarette, walking the main street in the outer Eastern suburbs of Mooroolbark—where the Wurundjeri once stood and made their plans—thousands of years fly through their fingertips, one lighting the flame, the other raising the stick to his lips. George exhales and lets the smoke trail off into the distance, only disappearing visually, but remaining as particles in the air for others to breathe, to whiff, their lungs to filter.


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