Friday Food For Thought: What is your heritage?

With this week’s Beyond Japan episode and my presentation at the Japan Foundation-BAJS Postgraduate workshop, a question has been recurring in my head: what is my heritage? Through my research, I have had to define Japanese heritage, using Japan Heritage as a sort of standard for its national heritage image. Have a look at their video below and see what you think:

If an alien were to watch this video, they may well think that Japan is full of devout Buddhist monks and horse-riding archers with kimonos being the fashion of the day. Of course, none of these elements represent the day-to-day life of the average Japanese, yet they are meant to represent what it means to be Japanese. It’s important to understand that heritage doesn’t happen by accident and is rarely a bottom-up phenomenon, something comprehensively explained by Professor Aike Rots on this week’s Beyond Japan. Laurajane Smith’s seminal book on Uses of Heritage (available as eBook via UEA) is an excellent place to read more about how heritage originated as a nation-building project with most influence still held by those with financial and political influence. This becomes complicated, however, when you begin to think about heritage on an individual scale.

British identity, for example, is an especially tricky one. Putting myself forward as a case study, while raised in England, I am ethnically mostly Welsh. However, I know only a handful of Welsh words and, while I love visiting family in Wales, feel no strong bonds with the culture or nation. I can’t say I particularly have strong bonds with England either. Studying my undergraduate in Sheffield, I realised how little a connection I had with my hometown when comparing the proud Yorkshire accent of a child of the Steel City with my own neutral Queen’s English. Even historically there is little known about my family heritage: my grandmother on my mother’s side was adopted and little is known about my grandfather; my father’s side is known to have moved to Wales during the industrial era and prior to that they were humble farmers in Gloucestershire as far back as we know. The only heirloom from that side is an enormous 17th century musket rifle on top of the cupboard in my Grandad’s kitchen. In all, not much to form a strong identity on.

Regarding national heritage, it’s tough to find an aspect to be proud of, even though heritage is often cited as a source of pride. I remember seeing the recreation of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind in Bristol, an impressive ship which was the first to circumnavigate the globe, yet I learned in my history BA that the man himself was an egotist who during his circumnavigation liberally raided Spanish port towns in South America of gold and silver dug up by indigenous slave labour. I love visiting London and the British Museum, but cannot help but wonder about the ethics of the wealth of the architecture and artefacts found there with strong links to British colonialism. The closest source of pride I have found in my nation’s history has perhaps been the early merchants of England who travelled the frozen seas to Russia, navigated the treacherous piracy of the Mediterranean and sought trade in the culturally diverse ports of Asia. Prior to the naval tyranny of the British East India Company, many examples can be found of Englishmen deploying tact, humility and cultural negotiation, such as William Adams in the Shogun’s Japan. As a traveller of Northeast Asia who has immersed himself in the culture, language and history, perhaps there is some English heritage there I can identify with.

What do you consider to be your heritage? Do you think that national notions of heritage should define our individual identities? I would love to hear your thoughts, so let me know what you think in the comments below.

Image credits:

Eikan-do Momiji by Oliver Moxham

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