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6
Nov

Japanese Culture: Episode Five

Friday was another national holiday here in Japan: Bunka No Hi or Culture Day. Of course, culture day, along with a day off from classes, got me to think about Japanese culture, as I had explored it in my fifth episode, which premiered last week.

What is contemporary Japanese culture? What is any country’s culture? I’ve been here for nearly two months and seen a lot of Tokyo and surrounding cities. I’ve been to Kyoto in the south, Gunma and Nikko in the north. I’ve spoken to a sociologist who has lived in Tokyo for nearly two decades. I interviewed Donald Richie, who has lived in Japan for 60 years and has written 40 books on Japan. No one can really define the culture. It is too large and too diverse, not to mention the Japanese people do tend to take on styles from around the world. Especially here in Tokyo, there are so many contrasts.

But, I thought I had to try to mince through the culture. If I had been here in Japan for three years I doubt I could talk about the culture, let alone three months and then try to define it in three or four minutes.

What I can try to do and attempted in that episode was to try to show you what you might expect out of Tokyo. And that is crowds, busy trains, technology, from beautiful cars to wicked cell phones. It is a taste of the traditional with not much of the tradition left, from sumo as sport, festivals as parties and more Japanese people taking photos of shrines than praying at them. It is every big American city with just a bit of a twist, from innovation to different fast food, to driving on the wrong damn side of the road.

It is a society that appears to hate to discipline, yet is disciplined. I suppose that is directly related to this country’s devotion to blending in. The kids seem to love their uniforms. I see faceless groups of students all dressed in their school uniforms well after the final school bell has rung. Individualism is growing, but still hardly a Japanese priority. In that way, rather than school teachers coming down hard a student, rebellion is put down by the “enormous social weight,” to steal a phrase from Donald Richie, that being Japanese puts on its citizens.

My fifth episode, Geisha, Sumo and Sushi, in which I pursue Japanese culture:

An often quoted national proverb fits well: “The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” Still, it is a fight to understand what is theirs, what is Japanese, because so much has come from elsewhere. The clearest example is with the language. The Japanese love their language and are eager to consider it the hardest in the world. Nothing makes many Japanese people happier than to hear from a foreigner that the Japanese language is difficult to learn. However, of course, the kanji characters that make reading the language particularly difficult – hiragana and katakana are generally considered easy enough to learn – come from China. Those 3,300 characters that the Daikanawa Jiten estimate a person needs to know to be a literate adult and the 6,000 in the Japanese language, as estimated by Monash University, the largest university in Australia, can’t be, whether they’re simplified or not, Japanese, can they? (Roughly 50,000 kanji characters have been created in Chinese civilization, though most of those refer to specific places or insect and plant names).

It is in this way that there is a constant debate as to what is Japan, what is Japanese. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. ..I’ll let you know when anyone figures it out.

Jaa mata,
Christopher

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