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I Think I Messed up.

… but I’m not sure I could have done it any differently.

This blog originated with a single premise: a Gaijin learning Japanese. Not much more to it than that. I was learning Japanese, about the Japanese culture, and for some reason I wanted to share it. Probably something to do with ego and a misplaced idea of what people might be interested in reading, but here we are. This was at least two years ago, probably closer to three.

As I started learning Japanese, I learned about their idol culture. I learned about Morning Musume (which makes sense, as they’re the reason I started this whole debacle in the first place). I then learned about AKB48, about Yamashita Tomohisa, Kaneda Tomoko, and a few other media characters. Their media is well-produced, funny, engaging, etc. I like a lot of Japanese media for the most part.

But at the same time, I learned about their dark side as well. I learned about how they sometimes treat their workers and performers. I learned about their work culture and karooshi. I learned about some of the atrocities that they did in the second world war.

There are and have been many things I respect about the Japanese, but the more I learned about them, the more respect I lost for them and their culture. Please make no mistake – this isn’t quite where I screwed up. This was warranted. It’s pretty impossible to look back into Japanese culture – particularly imperial Japanese culture – and not think “that’s so messed up”. They’ve been a major influence on their region in the past – and not a positive one.

But where I screwed up is letting that negativity define them in my mind.

I have a rather unusual personality, it’s an engineer’s personality. Extremely rational and scientific, almost to a fault. Because of that, I don’t tend to think too much of good things. I acknowledge their existence, of course, but I always gravitate right towards the flaws, to the things that are bad, that need to be improved. For an engineer, this isn’t at all a bad quality. After all, when a product is doing what it’s designed to do, you don’t generally put too much energy in looking at it with satisfaction. You hone in on the flaws and try to make it an even better product. For some types of engineering, this is a literal matter of life and death. Not so much for my type, but it’s still an important quality to have.

This doesn’t work too well for people, though. In fact, it does the opposite of working well.

The Japanese have many good things going for them. They are an extremely industrious people with an incredible work ethic. They are not originally creative (they typically do not come up with brand new things, though of course there are exceptions), but they are particularly skilled at taking existing products and ideas and improving them, sometimes in ways that wouldn’t be obvious to anyone else. They love cute and beautiful things, and tend to turn away from ugliness, even so much as pretending it doesn’t exist. They are a very orderly and rules-oriented people, creating a particularly clean and well-ordered society.

Every single one of these characteristics I mentioned comes with a dark side. They work themselves to death. Their extreme adherence to rules and order tends to squash individuality. They abhor their dark side so much they won’t acknowledge it to others, and this causes sticking points to those that still hold a grudge against them. They are somewhat racist and xenophobic, and their culture is slowly destroying itself because they’re so busy working that they won’t make babies. Their repression also makes them particularly obsessive in some particularly unhealthy ways.

In this blog, I’ve focused pretty much on everything you’ll find in the second paragraph, and only on the first as it relates to the second paragraph.

This is, in a twisted way, out of a love for their culture and people, I suppose. The engineer part of me said “hey, I don’t really like this part or that part of Japanese culture, maybe if I call it out I can help improve it.” But with people, it never works that way. They won’t improve their culture on my say-so. They may not even think their culture needs improvement. Or if they do, they may think that a gaijin like me doesn’t have a place doing that. And considering what’s going on in my culture right now, they may have a point.

So what if their kawaii culture is shallow? I still enjoy it. I still like the mascots and the silliness and the cats and noises and little blushing cartoon characters. I still like the focus on the innocence of youth that much, but not all, of their manga and anime has. I still like the general politeness and orderliness of their society, even if I would personally find it extremely stifling and oppressing. I like the way they understand ceremony and ritualism, even if I personally have no use for that in my life. I like how they love cute things. No one can put on a show like the Japanese.

The dark side of their culture is still there, and it’s ugly. But what good does it do for me to harp on about it? What good does it do for me to complain about karooshi and suicide forests and salarymen and the drinking culture? At the end of the day, it does nothing but separate me from them and their culture, and perhaps that was, in some form, deliberate.

That’s where I screwed up.

They have their own problems to solve, and a lot of them. But I think they know this. Maybe they know how to solve them, maybe they don’t. I tend to think that they generally know how, but are unable to turn their culture to the steps required. But that’s really not my problem. I’m not Japanese. I don’t have to worry about their problems. They have a hundred and twenty million reasons to worry about their own problems. But I can still enjoy the good parts of their culture. I’m rooting for them, of course, but at the end of the day, they will either destroy their culture, or they will save it.

I’ve got my own to worry about, quite frankly.

I have much to learn from the Japanese, just as I have much to discard from the Japanese. From them, I can learn more about how to be industrious, to finish what I start, to have patience and attention to detail. I can learn to ganbaru, or to try my best. I can learn to deliberately see the best in ugly things. I can learn the importance of ceremony and ritual in my everyday life. I can learn to see kami in all things.

And those things I can and should discard… well, we’ll start with that right now. I won’t mention them anymore. Or at least I’ll try not to.

It doesn’t mean those things don’t exist. It just means that I’ll choose to no longer pay attention to them. As I said, my culture has its own problems, I don’t need to take on the problems of another culture that doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t care what I think.

I will try to see the best in them from now on. They won’t live up to that. But that’s alright. Neither will I.

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