I think every country has something I call “cultural neuroses” – or at least I started to about twenty seconds ago. Something in the culture that lives deep inside the cultural zeitgeist and underlies invisible assumptions that a culture makes. In my opinion, this is one of the primary reasons to learn a foreign language – but for two reasons, not one. One reason is to try to see the cultural neuroses in other cultures that are invisible to them. And another is to try to see the cultural neuroses in your own culture that are invisible to you.
The former is easy, but the latter is far more difficult.
I live in the United States, and have lived here all my life. I think because of my background I’m a little more perceptive to many of our cultural neuroses than most – primarily because in a very real sense I have never truly been a part of this culture. I think in America, one of our biggest cultural neuroses is that of liberty. Perhaps because of many things that have happened in our past, many, if not most, Americans are deathly afraid of losing their individual liberty, and protect it at all costs – sometimes to the point of being paranoid or neurotic about it. Rules, restrictions, and regulations that other cultures might see as a balance between the good of the individual and community (though, of course, due to their own cultural neuroses, they never quite that get that balance right) appear onerous and intolerable to people from America. Americans around the world have a reputation for behaving as if they are culturally superior to others, and I think many even feel that they are. But that comes, I think, from the fear of submitting themselves to a system that does not value individual liberty as much as, or in the same way, that our culture does.
Of course, this is not the only cultural neurosis, but it’s one of the most prevalent. Perhaps another is the fear of impending scarcity that came from our forefathers, most recently from the times of the Great Depression. Much of our current materialism has probably evolved directly from these times of economic scarcity.
The Japanese are not immune from cultural neuroses. There is something about their culture that has never quite seemed right to me, and upon reflection, I think I’m picking up on one of their cultural neuroses. One of their biggest neuroses, I think, is that they have a difficult time facing their “dark side”. Whenever that is exposed, they seem to react with denial and shame, which is seen by other cultures as not owning up to mistakes made in their history. I think this is why they have such a fascination with cute and innocent (kawaii) characters, but also, why anime and other forms of media seems to have such a dark and dystopian bent. They see their dark side, but it is culturally suppressed, and comes out in unexpected and sometimes violent ways. I confess to not having seen very much anime, but I have yet to see an anime that does not, in some ways, have either an underlying current of darkness and dystopia, or is extremely cute and innocent. I do not see much introspection. And I think that is because they are afraid of what they might find.
Of course, this is just a theory. And I put forth one of my own cultural neuroses because the point is not that this is something that is unique to Japan – it’s something that every culture has. For example, Germany is still, eighty or so years later, reeling from their role in the second world war and the horrible stuff that they did as a country. You can see elements of this particular neurosis in the way they treat certain kinds of speech – they seem deathly afraid that the dark side that manifested in their culture might show again. And perhaps for good reason, that was not completely eradicated with their loss. But it’s still useful to note. A country’s history is not lost with the death of a generation – the cultural wounds live on.
It is, perhaps, one of my flaws as a human, that I have a difficult time respecting people that are not introspective, while I am sometimes envious of them in the same breath. This is my biggest challenge with the Japanese culture – it seems to discourage introspection. Going with the flow and not making waves was probably an incredible survival strategy in the eras of the shogun, but these days, it seems to lead to a fractured culture that is having a difficult time finding their way in a world that has, in some ways, left them behind, even at the same time as they are some of the most innovative and creative people in the world. It is my biggest struggle with the Japanese culture and learning Japanese – it’s hard for me to get past that.