Skip to content

The Three Japanese Cultures

Hi!  It’s been a while since I posted here, so I have a lot to say.  Truth be told, I don’t really think I’m fond of the blogging method of expressing myself, but I haven’t come up with anything better yet.  I’m working on it, though!  First, an update.

The Lily project (, in case you didn’t know) is almost a year old now!  In that time, the story has progressed from a sweet but confused girl who didn’t know who she was, to a sweet but confused girl who has a better idea of who she is, and knows she has a family that loves her.  I want to do something big and special for her one year anniversary, but I haven’t figured out what, yet.  I’m even toying with the idea of hiring a live action model to make a YouTube video.  But that’s just something I’m toying with.

I’ve also opened an electronics lab in a local makerspace, and have been making videos of electronics projects I’ve been working on.  That’s been working out, well, okay, I guess.  I’m kinda rudderless with that in a sense, but it’s also something that’s always interested me, so there’s that.

I’m also opening a third YouTube channel, but I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with it.  Maybe Japanese!  I don’t know.  I guess I’ll keep y’all up to date – if anyone still cares.

Anyway, I thought, since this blog is at least superficially about Japanese, I’d talk a bit more about that.

It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts straight on Japanese.  It was very enlightening when I had that epiphany about Japanese, and how it seems to change a bit when it interfaces with Western culture.  Truth be told, the whole thing kind of threw me for a loop.  To not put too fine a point on it, we have, in many ways, appropriated Japanese culture for our own.

Now, let me be clear.  I don’t really care about that in particular.  For two reasons.  One, that’s just what people do.  People appropriate things they admire and make it their own.  As you might have gathered from my other posts, I’m not only not a social justice warrior, whenever they start blathering on about something, I take the opposite position by default, because that’s usually the sane one.  But the other reason is that the Japanese people themselves generally don’t seem to mind – in fact, they take that appropriated culture, pull it back, and make it their own in many cases.  It’s kind of an amazing thing to behold.

But whether I care or not, that’s exactly what it is.

So when I first learned Japanese, I was being faced with two different cultures, but they’re so conflated and confused that it was really hard to tell them apart.  In fact, there were three.  There was, first of all, the “real” Japanese culture.  This is the culture you’ll find if you go into, say, rural Japan or a place in Tokyo that’s not on the beaten tourist path.  The culture you’ll find if you work there for any length of time along honest to kami real Japanese people.  The one that drives people to suicide more often than not.  There’s a dark and seamy underbelly there, and it’s there if you look for it.  This Japanese culture is dark and disturbing, particularly to cultures that do not deal with those particular issues.

The second, is the culture that they export, or maybe more accurately, their popular culture.  This is very heavily western influenced, and they tend to embrace a view of themselves that is somewhat at odds with the first culture I mentioned above.  This culture tends to be very strong on socially acceptable forms of self-expression and diversity (but the “socially acceptable” part is still very important, on cuteness, innocence, childhood, and other things that kind of mask the aspects of the first culture I mentioned above.  It’s almost as if they’re ashamed of their dark side, so they mask it over with cute, pretty, and wonderful things.  And, like many things they do, they do an incredible job with that.  The problem is, this is all that most westerners see or are exposed to.  And this leads to the third culture.

The third culture happened when westerners happened upon the second culture above, the one that they export.  Westerners were exposed to anime, manga, j-pop, more recently j-metal, kawaii people and things, otaku, etc., and thought that this culture was actually the real Japanese culture.  So they took that, and built their own culture around these products.  The problem is, that in doing so, they overlaid a kind of inclusive attitude on it that the Japanese themselves don’t have.  So the community that westerners have built is a culture and community in its own right that is based upon Japanese export culture – but is not.  It’s its own culture, separate and entirely distinct from either Japanese culture.

In practical terms, what this means is, there’s an entire western otaku culture built up based upon anime, manga, cosplaying, video games, etc., that consumes all of the stuff that Japan exports, but doesn’t understand them.  So they build up their own meanings, their own lore, their own culture, etc., which is based upon Japanese exported culture, but in some ways, would be unrecognizable as such.  It’s appropriated, turned into its own thing – and here’s the part that’s troublesome – commoditized as actual Japanese culture.

I don’t mind cultural appropriation, but I think I do mind being so ignorant as to not understand that that’s what you’re doing.  It causes problems.  Such as, the ones I’m discussing here.

I have mentioned before that the reason I began learning Japanese in the first place, was that I saw an episode of HaroMoni (The Morning Musume variety show, long gone) where the girls were trying to learn English.  Of course they were failing, but the point was never to learn English, it was to be cute.  So, immediately, I feel victim to the false dichotomy between the first and second cultures I mentioned above.  While there were certainly aspects of the first culture there, this was based on the second – the cute, kawaii culture that is kind of a mask to hide the darker culture.  And then as I continued learning, I kept running into conflicts between all three cultures, and I wasn’t sure how to deal with that.  I’d encounter the darkness of the first culture, the cuteness and shallowness of the second culture, and the ignorance of the third (western) culture.  And if you don’t understand these distinctions, it’s terribly confusing.

But I think the way forward is to realize that all three are Japanese cultures, in their own way.  While the third one is appropriated, it’s still based upon an idealized version of Japanese culture that fills a need that our (western) culture isn’t capable of filling.  That culture was built for a reason.  For all the darkness of Japanese culture, there are some amazing and beautiful things, some of which I’ve mentioned in past posts.  The sense of ceremony is something that we are missing – things like the senbatsu or jankenpon with AKB48 is an example of that.  They have this rich sense of ceremony which kind of ties their culture together, and we’re missing or even actively destroying that now.  One of the things that is incorporated into western otaku culture is that sense of ceremony, that sense of shared purpose.  There’s also the sense of community, of homogeneity, that the Japanese people have by virtue of being mostly monoracial, and one that we have deliberately sacrificed at the altar of integration or multiculturalism.  They’re very defensive of their culture, and I think that’s quite appealing to us, who, well, aren’t.  There’s also a paradoxical sense of freedom.  By being a very rules-based society, you know what to expect from others for the most part.  This is not true in western cultures, where the freedom can be almost stifling in some ways because people aren’t predictable.

With that, today I restarted my Japanese studies.  Am I otaku?  No, but I do enjoy some of the same things that otaku enjoy.  Do I think kawaii culture is Japanese culture?  No, but I do enjoy a lot of the things that they export and think I’m more capable of accepting them for what they are, maybe.  Do I have an idealized view of actual Japanese culture?  No, but I can also accept it for what it is.  An ancient, beautiful culture that hasn’t let go of its old ways, and in some ways, is the better for it.  And in other ways, not so much.

There are three Japanese cultures.  All of them have their amazing things, and all of them have their darknesses.  But isn’t that the same for everything humans do?

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x