My first exposure to Japanese was watching idol group variety shows, so I guess it’s somewhat forgivable that that is generally the lens through which I see Japanese culture. Their culture, as it currently is, is defined by a mishmash of their own culture and language and some very powerful foreign influences that have completely reshaped their culture over the past hundred years or so.
But I was reminded that theirs is a much more ancient culture than ours, and to define their culture by how it currently appears is dangerous, as you start to see their culture through a western window. It is currently extremely heavily western influenced, but that’s by no means the whole story, and we ignore that at our peril.
There are several things that brought me to this realization. Perhaps the biggest is the discovery of a storytelling form called “rakugo”. I knew nothing about this, and I’d bet that anyone reading this probably hasn’t, either. Basically, a comedian comes out, sits on a pillow, and tells a story with minimal props, and without moving from the pillow. The stories are engaging and funny, and a good storyteller can keep people enraptured until the very end, which is a kind of very Japanese punchline.
If you look at Japanese culture through the lens of its modern productions, eventually you will be disappointed. The Japanese are very prolific at manga, anime, and other “otaku”-type productions, but at the end of the day, it’s shallow. It may tell you something about Japanese culture – and what it does tell you is valuable, especially for someone unfamiliar with the culture – but at the end of the day, it’s not really useful for those who want to understand what actually makes the Japanese people tick. Eventually you discover there’s much more below the surface – some very amusing and entertaining, some very dark, some beautiful, some ugly, but all of it completely Japanese.
The hard part is knowing where to look. It an take years before you even start to see the glimmers of what lies underneath the current media-driven culture.
I suspect the same it true for other cultures too. Chinese immediately comes to mind (even though they are currently a hot mess and pretty much everything after their cultural revolution is really not worth much, in my opinion), but even the more familiar Eastern European type cultures have their own histories that we in the west can kind of steamroll over, as our culture is incredibly powerful at the moment. I don’t mean to imply that our culture is inferior – there is a reason that it is so incredibly influential all over the world. But at the end of the day, its very influence does run the risk of causing every other culture to be seen through the lens of ours, and when that happens, something valuable is lost. I am not a fan of “multiculturalism” – some parts of cultures are objectively superior over parts of others – but that doesn’t mean that all parts of one culture are superior over all parts of another. I, for one, was very happy about the fact that masks have become popular around the world where they were culturally accepted in Japan and China, for example. If only because it lets me hide my face.
If you’re truly serious about learning Japanese, find the things that aren’t commonly known – that’s where the true gems are. And the true stinkers too, but you can’t have everything, I guess.