The Westernization of Japan

I watched an interesting thing on YouTube about the history of Japan on my lunch break today, and in doing so, I discovered something really interesting.  It was Americans that kind of forced Japan’s hand and caused them to open up after several centuries of self imposed isolation.

Japan has always struck me as a really interesting mix, but I haven’t been able to figure out why.  It is almost as if they would like nothing more than to retreat back into their period of isolation, but can’t.  There’s this odd combination of enthusiastic assimilation of Western culture, and a seeming cultural fear of getting subsumed by it.  I wonder sometimes if that leads to a kind of schizophrenic view of western people – on the one hand, an admiration and respect, but on the other, a kind of subconscious understanding that we represent an existential threat to everything their culture ever stood for.  Some Japanese seem to resent westerners, and I wonder if even for good reason, to be honest.

I think we westerners, though, don’t really help.  Many tourists go to Japan without ever bothering to learn even the most minimal of Japanese – forcing them to learn English if they want our sweet, sweet tourist dollars.  Japanese is a difficult language, and of course it’s not reasonable to expect any tourist who goes there to be fluent.  It would, however, be a great gesture of respect to learn the basics.  Even the most minimal of effort goes a long way.

Many tourists also go to Japan without understanding Japanese history and our role in it.  Japan is a very modern country in many ways, but it’s not America.  They just see the world differently.  That’s not to say their way of seeing the world is better – it is in some things, ours is in others – but it’s different.  And every American who goes to Japan without understanding, or caring to understand, those cultural differences makes another Japanese person who thinks we’re baka gaijin – and perhaps rightfully so.  Logan Paul is one example, but there are others.

I don’t always like Japanese culture.  But I try to at least understand it, and the roles my ancestors have had in its evolution.  It can be ugly.  Very ugly, in fact.  But mine was no better. There are many things in my culture that we are still trying to work through today.  Japanese culture is no different.  I just hope we can learn to respect each other more than we do.

Cultural Neuroses

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.

America’s Darkness

A part of me feels like I’ve been a bit hard on Japan.

I take back nothing, honestly.  There is a darkness that runs through their society, and it is a little jarring when contrasted with the beauty of their culture.  I am not comfortable with that, honestly.

But then I thought about how my country must appear.  There are some places in most major cities in which it is not safe to be out at night.  There are fewer but far too many places where it is not safe to be seen during the daytime.  Cities like Memphis or Philadelphia have a well-deserved reputation as places that are not safe to visit.  I went to Oakland once, and hailed a cab outside of a tall office building.  That night, someone was murdered not fifty feet from where I was standing.  Thankfully, I had already flown back home.

Japan is a homogenous society where probably 90 percent or more of the country are racially Japanese.  American is about the exact opposite of a homogenous society, where people of every conceivable ancestry try to live together peacefully – and it doesn’t always work.  One wishes it did, of course, but it doesn’t.  We are also a people who are the opposite of Japan in another way – the Japanese value harmony so greatly that they’re pretty eager to pound down the nail that sticks out – but we in America say “oh, that is a unique nail sticking out” and celebrate it.  Of course, sometimes that leads to snagging one’s clothing on said nail – or worse, stepping on it.  Sometimes, it’s better to pound down the nail.  Of course, sometimes it’s not.

My point is that there are things in America that the Japanese might consider dark as well…  and many of those things they’d be well justified in doing so.  I would still love for them to visit my country.  For as dark as it can be, we have many things worth seeing, things such as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Lakes, etc.  And the people are also mostly friendly – there are a few bad apples, but for the most part, we’re a good people who just want to live our lives in peace.

And, I imagine, so are the Japanese.

I live in a suburban city in Texas where you can still approach the police with questions, where people are friendly, and while major crime does happen, one can feel relatively safe walking or driving through town.  Even the major city that I live near (Austin), while it has many problems due to mismanagement and an incompetent city council, is relatively crime free and known for its live music scene and status as a major technology hub.  But to the Japanese, perhaps our free-wheeling, libertarian, “I’m not bothering you so leave me alone” ways might seem intimidating, or worse.  But it’s just how we are.  You learn the rules.  And you thrive.

Japan has problems.  Big problems.  Some of these problems threaten their very existence as a country and a people.  But perhaps it’s no more fair of me to define them by their troubles than it is for them to define America by the high-crime neighborhoods in its major cities.

All that said, I still feel very uncomfortable with the thought of visiting.