Japan: Warts and All

I imagine that when most people think of Japan they think of the media that Japan produces, and it’s really incredible.  There’s anime, manga, variety shows…  and there is so much more for Japan to offer.  It’s completely understandable that people from other countries might latch on to the otherness of Japanese culture and kind of worship it.  And there are quite a few people who do that.

But as you learn about Japan – I mean, really learn, and not just from their mass media or television, a different picture starts to be painted.  A picture of an ancient, insular culture that has very recently been thrust into a larger world where they don’t know what to do with us anymore than we know what to do with them, sometimes.  There are so many beautiful things in their culture, and so many destructive things as well.  Karoushi, suicides, the slow and seemingly inevitable decline of their culture even as they struggle to find their place in the world and even amongst themselves.

Worshipping their culture seems to be doing everyone a disservice.  For a culture that prizes unity and purity as much as they do, they just seem so.. I don’t know.  broken.

This isn’t intended to demean them at all.  In some ways they have so much to teach us about how to live in community.  We in the west value individualism so deeply that we’re willing to sacrifice community harmony (if this weren’t true, then “identity politics” wouldn’t be the troublesome thing they are today), but the Japanese seem to value community harmony so highly that the travails of the individual don’t really seem to matter all that much.

And in this case, I’m not sure who, if anyone, is right.  Both approaches have their upsides and downsides.

But the more I learn about Japan, the more sad I become, in some ways.  It feels like an ancient culture, full of beauty, in a slow motion collision with forces that maybe they won’t be able to recover from.

I don’t worship their culture.  I love many aspects of their culture, but I don’t worship it.  For, all else aside, they are, if nothing else, just as human as I am.  And when you truly love something, you love their warts as much as their beauty.

I wonder if they feel as lost in this world as I do, sometimes.

Prelude

I have purchased the books required to attend the CC Japanese class, and have paid the tuition.  Looks like I’m doing this.

The book is “Yookoso 3”, which is horrendously expensive (I got it for about $99 and that’s half the price the bookstore was selling it at), the workbook which is also horrendously expensive (I got it for $80, which was a $40 discount from what the bookstore was selling it), and I didn’t opt for the CDs, as those resources are available online.  So, in total, I would have had to pay $400, and instead I paid $170.  Still a lot, but that’s doable.

I didn’t know it was going to be that expensive though.  I should have guessed.  It’s college, after all.

I leafed through the workbook and textbook, and my learned and considered decision is that I know about 70% of what I should know about halfway through the class, so maybe I can do this.

The question remains, though:  why do I want to?  And to be honest, I still don’t know.  The honest truth is that I’m a bit of a misanthrope on the best of days, so why would I be learning a language, the result of which I will know enough about the Japanese culture to know what I don’t like about it?  There are two sayings:  “familiarity breeds contempt” and “ignorance is bliss”, and both are the truest things ever.

But I’m doing it anyway.

Honestly, I will consider myself to be improving in Japanese when I can read enough of something or listen to enough of something to know that it’s boring.

This much I know – I find much of the Japanese culture that we Americans seem to like increasingly boring.  Perhaps it’s overexposure, perhaps I am having one of those moments where I have become familiar enough with it that it has lost its exoticism.  As unnerving as that is, and as adrift as it makes me feel, I feel that it’s a positive development, as there’s much more to the ancient and sometimes beautiful Japanese culture than a bunch of teenage girls flailing around and trying to find their notes.  I would branch out into other Asian cultures except Japanese is a friggin’ handful on its own, so one thing at a time, I suppose.

I just wish I knew what doors it could open, because right now it feels very much as if I’m voluntarily wasting my time.

Culture and Humanity

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.

The Japanese Mind

I went to Kinokuniya yesterday here in Austin, and found several interesting books.  One is called “Japanese Respect Language”, which I intend to read at some point soon.  One is “Read Real Japanese”, which is a reader of six stories of increasing complexity, with notes as to things that may be challenging.  The third was “The Japanese Mind”, which I find to be the most interesting book of the three so far.

It is a series of about twenty essays, each of which discusses a different aspect of Japanese culture.  For example, on of the essays is on “Ganbare”, which is a topic of which I’ve previously wrote.  It turns out I picked up on something pretty accurately – it’s a word that is often translated as “try my best”, but in actuality, that’s not really all that accurate.  It has a connotation of persisting through adversity that doesn’t really come through in English translations.  It actually doesn’t have a good translation in English, and that kind of comes through in the context in which it’s used.

There is also a description of Honne and Tatemae, a topic which I find interesting, confusing, and not the least a bit annoying.  As a westerner, I’m a very direct person (in some ways) even for my culture, so trying to navigate the legendary indirectness of Japanese culture would be very difficult for me.  But in other ways, I am almost as indirect as a Japanese person, so in some ways, I think I would be right at home.  The point, though, is that there are very distinct cultural differences and traps, and trying to navigate those as a westerner are nearly impossible.

But I imagine they have the same issues with us.  Where we might find them indirect and inscrutable, they might find us brash, brazen, and incredibly rude.  I heard it described somewhere that gaijin are considered in some ways to be very high functioning children in their culture, and I guess I can kind of see that.

The language is a gateway into a very old and rich culture, but it’s only a gateway.  You can learn the grammar easily, and the constructs, and even the writing system and vocabulary, but that all falls apart the moment you meet a Japanese person, say everything right, and still manage to fall into a trap that you had no idea existed.

It’s not like my culture is much better, though, honestly.  It’s just a different set of traps.  Trying to navigate the whole culture of dating in this culture is so difficult, irrational, and utterly impossible that I frankly stopped trying about five years ago.

Am I discouraged?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  But I do know that no matter what, any contact I have with a real Japanese person is going to require forbearance on both sides.  I’m going to have to try to understand what they’re really saying.  And they’re going to have to understand that my directness is not rude, just different.

Ganbatte

“Ganbatte” is a word that, in Japanese, means “try your best”.  It seems to be a very frequently used word, particularly in competitive contexts, such as variety shows, etc.  But looking at the context in which it’s used, I don’t think it translates very well.  The reason is, as with many things, cultural.

In English, “Try your best” has a connotation of “Do the very best that you can, and it’s okay if you still fail”.  I mean, obviously you don’t want to fail, but English speakers tend to have a very laissez-faire approach to failure – it’s only not excusable if you deliberately slacked off or didn’t do your very best.

I don’t get that vibe when “ganbatte” (or maybe more often “ganbare”) is used in Japanese.  The context with that word seems far more driven – if you say “ganbarou” (I’ll try my best) there seems to be an undercurrent of “and then I will succeed”.  It seems like, the cultural assumption is in Japan, that if you try your best, you will succeed.  There is no such cultural assumption in English (or at least American English).  So, if you say “ganbarou”, and you fail, then it is seen as not trying your best.  We said we’d try our best, it seems to say, and we failed, so we didn’t.

This seems to underlie a seeming assumption in Japanese culture that it’s not okay to fail.

Perhaps we in America should hew just a bit more towards the Japanese idea of putting everything you have into something because failure is not an option.  And perhaps those in Japan should take a little of the pressure off by saying “it’s okay to fail” a bit more.  Perhaps, as with everything else, our cultures have something to learn from each other.

Understanding Spoken Japanese

Understanding spoken Japanese – especially when done at speed – is hard.

It’s hard for several reasons, but I think the primary reason is that the Japanese language tends to take a lot of shortcuts in speaking.  Vowels are much more important in Japanese language than in English – especially considering the fact that every syllable ends in one – and they tend to run together.  Couple that with the fact that vowels are often silent simply because the syllables are spoken so quickly that they kind of run together, and it’s hard to pick words out.

Add to that the fact that even the Japanese borrow words from English sound very different, and even just picking words out can be a great challenge.

It just takes practice – a lot of practice.  You have to get your ears attuned to the vocal patterns in Japanese speech, and you also have to be familiar with the more common word patterns.  One you do, though, it actually becomes intelligible.

Once it becomes intelligible, though, you’re hit with even more of a challenge:  Japanese is so dense and contextual that you have to add things to it.  Just last night I heard the word “ikimasu” by itself, and it was translated “okay, I will go in now”.  Everything but the word “go” was contextual and not a part of what was actually spoken.  So we’re now in the rather odd position of, even after we learn all the speech patterns, can understand the words, and know what the words mean, of still having to infer quite a bit that was never actually spoken.

And that is something that will never go away, no matter how fluent you get.  You just, I guess, have to learn to deal with it.

I imagine the Japanese have the opposite problem.  There are things in English that they have to drop out and allow to be contextual.  Like “Okay, I will go in now” could be translated “ok, watashi wa ima naka ikimasu” (私わ今中行きます) but “ikimasu” (行きます) would actually be a legitimate way to translate it.  It would be fairly easy to do a literal translation (I did so without assistance!) but translating from one culture to another?

Yeah, that’s biting off a lot.

Guess there’s more to take into account than just mechanical considerations.

Appropriation

One of the big bugaboos of western culture right now seems to be the idea of “cultural appropriation”.  I, personally, don’t give a toss about cultural appropriation – not only do I not consider it a thing, I consider it something that – except in the most egregious of cases – is just the product of people looking for offense and with too much time on their hands.  (And by egregious, I mean something about on the level of cosplaying as Al Jolson).

That being said, if one can manage to discuss it without the ridiculous elements of offense, it can still be an interesting topic.

Now that we have established that I don’t find it offensive, and now that we’ve also established that I wish to talk about it simply from the perspective of “I find this interesting”, I think I want to make the rather bold statement that the Japanese are some of the worst cultural appropriators on the entire planet.

Witness…  Babymetal.  Singing Ave Maria.  While appropriating many, many elements of Catholic culture.  The amount of appropriation from just this one video is mind-boggling.

It is fascinating to me how the Japanese seem to have no problem whatsoever with lifting cultural elements out of other cultures – including a great deal from western culture.  Their religion, when they actually practice one, is Buddhism, laid upon a Shinto foundation, and they, for the most part, have zero interest in the actual traditions and beliefs of any sect of Christianity.  And, yet, they have appropriated many parts of Christian culture, including weddings, holidays (such as Christmas), and, as you see here, even parodying some of the rites and rituals of Catholicism.

If they were upset about our appropriation of Japanese culture (such as kimonos, martial arts, etc) this would be supremely and flagrantly hypocritical, but that’s the cool thing – they don’t really care either.  They, by and large, seem to like it when we appropriate things from their culture as our own.  It seems to matter a bit that we be somewhat respectful when we do, but appropriation just seems to, erm, be a part of their culture.

And, to be honest, that is, frankly, cool.  I love to see what the Japanese do with what they’ve taken from western culture.  They’ve taken game shows and turned them into something completely and totally off the wall – a type of entertainment that we, quite frankly, could not even get away with in the west.  They’ve taken our fast food and put their own spin on it in ways that we would find just plain weird.  They’ve taken our entertainment culture and blended it with their own in such a way that it’s created their own dedicated fandom.  They’ve taken our pop culture and somehow turned it into a juggernaut in a way that we haven’t managed to do in the west.  And still, even after having taken all those things, they still manage to, for the most part, keep what is important about their culture.   And then they send it back to us!

We in the west have given the Japanese a large part of their modern culture.  And they, in turn, have made that uniquely their own and given us our culture back, mixed and matched and stirred and shaken, and what we get back is somehow different and cool and better than what we gave them.  And how wonderful is that!

And if there were no cultural appropriation, we’d have none of it.

This is why I think those who are perpetually offended over imagined identity slights really need to get a life.  Sincerely.

Appropriate my culture all you want, people of Japan.  I’m great with this.  Just make it available for me to appropriate right back if you would be so kind, don’t get too upset if I, say, dress as a samurai for Halloween, and I think we’ll get along great.