As a gaijin, which literally means “outsider” or “outside person”, our exposure to Japanese culture is almost always initially through their media in some way. Either anima, manga, J-pop, or some other type of media that Japan has spread throughout the world. And make no mistake, Japanese media and culture is amazing.
It seems, though, that people who stop there tend to have two generalized reactions. One is to tend towards otaku or weeaboo – people who are obsessed with Japanese pop culture to the point of it being unhealthy. The other are people who acknowledge the artistry of Japanese culture, but never really get into it, preferring to instead consider them to be strange or unique, and just kind of moving on.
This is because these kinds of people focus on the differences between the Japanese and us in the west. And there are quite a few differences, yes. Differences in language, differences in history, differences in worldview, differences in culture. And they are important differences. But in all of the talk about how different we are, we forget, sometimes, that we’re more the same than different.
Here in the west, we’ve been kind of forced into a conversation on how multiple cultures can integrate peacefully. In the US, we’ve had an influx of people, primarily from Spanish-speaking countries, and we’ve had to open an intense national debate on how to move forward given this reality. But the problem we’re dealing with is not how to integrate people with different color skin – that’s oversimplifying the problem we have to solve. The problem is how to integrate people with very different cultures, while still keeping the national identity that’s made us so successful over the past couple of hundred years. It’s a very hard problem to solve, and some people are more interested in solving it seriously than others (and I’ll let you decide for yourself who you think the people you think are more interested in solving it seriously are. Please just assume I’m talking about whoever you think I am and move on).
Some people take the simple way out and blame genetics – which is what leads to dehumanization and other horribles. But the force that’s far more powerful than genetics is culture. It’s the culture which we import, the culture which we integrate, and the mixture of the cultures which ends up determining what kind of amalgam is created once all the dust settles. Many in the west have this idea of “multiculturalism” – the idea that all different cultures can keep their own identity. But that’s dumb in its own right – cultures form in relative isolation, they meet each other, and they immediately mix, sometimes leading to something better as the best things from both cultures are absorbed, and sometimes leading to something worse.
That process is happening right now, in slow motion, with Japan, as their culture mixes with the west and creates something entirely different. The Japanese culture from a hundred or two hundred years ago would be utterly unrecognizable from now.
But what the otaku and weeaboos tend to forget is that it’s not just the differences that we should pay attention to, it’s the similarities. The Japanese people are humans, just like we in the west are, with all of the frailties and strengths that entails. They’ve evolved different ways of dealing with them culturally, some of which we might consider progressive, and some regressive, but ultimately, they want the same thing we do. Love. Meaning. Abation of suffering. And something that transcends this life that they, like us, understand instinctually is intrinsically meaningless. Gods, or kami, do not evolve in a vacuum.
The miracle, after all, is not that Japanese is very different from English. The miracle is that it can be translated at all. They developed many of the same concepts independently.
I think this is why I generally have a difficult time with the idea of otaku. I love Japanese culture. I think we, in the west, have a great deal to learn from them. They have created beautiful art and poetry over the centuries, their sense of beauty and ceremony is unmatched, and our religious traditions have things that we can learn from Shinto. Their sense of wa is something sorely lacking from the west, where we seem to actively value disharmony.
But they have things to learn from us, too. Their sense of wa, one of the very things that brings such beauty to their culture, also brings such ugliness and regression, as they find it difficult to be innovative and free-thinking. The cultural factors that bring karoushi into being are very much Japanese, and are things that we should not strive to duplicate in ours. They struggle so very hard to keep their national and cultural identity, and that is leading to the slow-motion destruction of the very thing they are trying so hard to keep.
The Japanese are not an escape from our culture, and fetishizing their culture with worship of the exotic, as we tend to do (and which is almost the very definition of weeaboo), does no one any good. At the end of the day, we’re all people. We want the same things in life. Let’s work together and make that happen.