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On Japan
Sunday, 2005 August 14 - 10:27 pm
My thoughts on Japan and its culture. I had intended to write something like this two years ago, but that was before I started blogging, so I didn't have an outlet for it.

I finally saw Volume 2 of "Kill Bill" the other day. And this weekend, I watched "Lost in Translation" again. I find these movies interesting because they reveal a fascination with Japanese culture, but they don't seem to fully understand it. I think Japan is a mystery for a lot of Americans.

The last time I went to Japan, a couple of years ago, I mused to myself that I had a unique perspective: I'm both an insider and an outsider. I grew up with native Japanese parents, nearly all my relatives live in Japan, and I even lived there myself, when I was little. But I was born in the United States and I've spent most of my life here, and I definitely think of myself as more American than Japanese. I think that makes me all the more aware of the subtleties of the Japanese way of living.

If you go to Japan, one of the first things you might notice is the state of the road system. What we would call an "alley" in the U.S. would probably be a major two-way thoroughfare in a Japanese city. Cars, trucks, pedestrians, market stands, utility poles, and all kinds of other obstructions share a fifteen-foot-wide passageway, making navigation hazardous and slow. Yet everyone manages to navigate these perilous roads without too much difficulty, and without the incessant honking of horns that you'd get in, say, downtown Manhattan.

You see things like this elsewhere: in homes with tiny rooms, in stores with crowded aisles, and in office buildings with cramped workspaces. People push by each other without complaining, without anger, without frustration. People in Japan just accept these conditions as the way things are, the necessity of crowded living. That, to me, is the essence of Japanese culture: acceptance of that which is necessary.

Amongst all the crowding and clutter, you'll find islands of serenity. You might see an immaculately-kept Buddhist temple between two gaudy mini-marts. A cramped home might have a room or corner dedicated to a neatly-kept ancestral shrine. That is another important part of being Japanese: preserving beauty in small places, between the constraints of necessity.

There is, noticeably, very little of the American value system of "bigger, better, more". In fact, showy excess is usually frowned upon as being disharmonious. Harmony is a big deal in Japan, to the point that conformity is a more valued trait than individuality. The greatest achievement lies in becoming a successful part of society, not in becoming more rich or powerful than everyone else. This is surely again the product of necessity: you couldn't fit 125 million rugged individualists and overachievers on an island the size of Montana. For the country to survive, much less succeed, everyone must pull together.

It's interesting to see how the Japanese define success. Unlike some countries, in Japan one can be successful without being envious of those who are "more" successful. There is competition, to be sure, but everyone is also working toward a goal of being a proper part of society. That seems to be the greatest goal. Such national unity and harmony would be the envy of any Marxist; yet the Japanese have gradually developed this system through centuries of refinement, rather than having it imposed upon them through revolution.

One sign of the value of unity is the fact that everyone wears uniforms. In Japan, uniforms are cheerfully accepted rather than being a constraint on individual freedom. You see this even among "rebellious" youth. At first glance, one might see their wild hairstyles and funky clothes as elements of individual expression... until one realizes that everyone has the same wild hairstyles and funky clothes. This must be a marketer's dream... if one can establish a fashion trend, it is sure to spread like wildfire throughout the population. (I don't think Japanese are ncessarily more gadget-crazy than Americans; it's just that people feel they must have a new gadget if their neighbor or coworker has one too.)

Conformity has its price, of course. It flies in the face of the American ideal of finding value in diversity. The problem that tends to happen is that if everyone is a follower, then who is the leader? Maybe that's why the Japanese are so quick to adopt American fashion and pop culture... especially, anything that's cute. Cuteness seems to be a national obsession, as if all the marketing companies thought the entire population was made up of ten-year-old girls. Every product seems to be accompanied by a cartoon mascot and a catchy theme song. In the fish section the supermarket, a tape recording plays a cute children's song about the nutritional value of fish, and that seems perfectly normal. No one seems to mind this cuteness.

Really, anyone under the age of 25 seems to be expected to be cute, wide-eyed, and enthusiastic about life. And fortunately, most of them are. Young people are beautiful in Japan. The youth are a marvel of lean, fresh-faced energy. Maybe it's just me; maybe biological instinct is part of what makes me see Japanese as so beautiful.

But I can point out a few bits of empirical evidence. For one thing, obesity is rare among the Japanese. This is probably due to the combination of a low-fat diet and an urban infrastructure that demands a lot of walking. (You won't find the Atkins diet very popular in Japan, and yet people remain thin. HUH.) So the girls are lithe fairy-like creatures; and the boys are limber, inexhaustible, and seemingly incapable of putting on weight.

Another thing is that people are fashion-conscious; it's an outgrowth of the pervasive social conformity I discussed earlier. That means that slovenly appearance as a form of free expression is rare, except as a deliberately crafted "look" to imitate a celebrity or other hero.

Probably the main thing, though, is that Japanese people smile a lot, with round dimply cheeks and merry little eyes. It's the nature of the Japanese to be polite, cheerful, and optimistic: it's part of the necessary social order, required to maintain harmony in cramped living conditions. Beauty is a fortunate by-product of this.

I wonder, in the face of globalization, whether Japan can retain its sense of harmony, optimism, and beauty; or whether the encroachment of Western values will destroy all that. Don't get me wrong: I have a great appreciation for our American culture. We are a curious, earnest, and fun-loving people, and we're a marvel of diversity and openness. But America is America and Japan is Japan, and I hope the uniqueness of Japanese culture is something that never fades.
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Posted by Ken in: commentaryinteresting


Comment #1 from Jenny (Guest)
2005 Aug 16 - 3:18 pm : #
Interesting, Ken! I loved the summer I spent in Japan as a teenager.

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