My Thoughts on Japanese Culture

Ever since I began learning about Japan and its culture, I’ve been of decidedly mixed feelings about it.  On the one hand, they are particularly imaginative when it comes to existing means of artistic expression – they come up with things that we in the west would never even dream of, and the world is (most of the time) better off for it.  On the other hand, they have some significant challenges that they are trying to wind their way through, and failing.  I keep having the most unpleasant feeling that we’re watching the slow motion destruction of a great and ancient culture.

And a part of me isn’t incredibly sad about that, while a part of me is.

Their birthrate has hit a thirty year low, with either this year or last year (I can’t remember) only having 900,000 births.  That may seem like a lot, but for a country of 125 million people, it’s not really sustainable.  They are already having to allow more foreigners into their country just to keep essential services running, and I don’t see how that’s not going to become even more pressing an issue as their society ages.  At some point it’s going to hit a tipping point, and they’re going to have to face head on their cultural tendency towards isolationism and perceived cultural superiority.

And when that happens, it’s going to be a major shock to their culture, as the presence of more and more foreigners is going to, almost by definition, impact their culture in ways that no one really can foresee.

The part of me that isn’t incredibly sad about this thinks that there are some parts of their culture that may be better off treated as relics of the past, not to be repeated.  The part of me that is sad about it recognizes that once this happens, something of value will be lost forever.  For you cannot have cultural change without there being both good and bad effects, and usually the bad effects are centered around forgetting what made a people what they are in the first place.  We have been dealing with that in America for quite a few years now, and it’s not a pleasant thing for a country to experience.

It’s not my problem to solve, and I’m not going to try.  It’s not my place.  I’m not Japanese and sometimes a people have to solve their own problems.  I’m sure that they will be a mixture of innovative and conservative when coming up with these solutions, and I would expect nothing less from the Japanese.  I just hope that they can fix their cultural problems without losing too much of what makes them admired (mostly) around the world.

Honesty

I’m struggling with what to write, to be honest.

I think a part of it is that I’m far more depressed then I usually am, but that’s not all of it.  I just feel like I’ve said everything interesting that I have to say, and everything else just seems to be a rehash of some old post from here or there.  There are only so many ways to say “Japanese is hard”, and Japanese popular culture, as I’ve mentioned, seems mostly to be a very broad, very shallow sea – one that’s quickly exhausted if one is going for any kind of meaningful depth.  Manga, manga, everywhere, and not a page to read.

A part of the issue, I think, is that I’m talking about something I don’t know much about from the perspective of someone who lacks the resources – for whatever reason – to find out much more about it than I already know.  When it comes to Japanese culture, all I’ve really got are youtube videos, the random book I manage to scrape from Half Priced Books, or Kinokuniya, or my sensei.  And that’s about it.  I can’t go any deeper, because I lack the connections and resources to go deeper.

Being completely honest with myself, this is probably the reason that this blog hasn’t gotten very far – not that I expected any different.  I’m not bringing anything new to the table.  No particularly new observations, no unique tidbits, no cultural observations from the heart of Tokyo.  Just some guy from Texas blathering on about things he doesn’t understand.

I can keep learning Japanese, but truthfully, I have no idea where to go from here.

Loan Words

Many words in Japanese are borrowed from other languages.  Many from Chinese, and quite a few from English and Portuguese.  A smattering from other languages as well.

The interesting thing about Japanese, though, as opposed to many other languages, is that the Japanese language doesn’t have the syllabic structure to migrate the loanwords over untouched.  So when they migrate a word into their language, even though it’s somewhat recognizable as the word they borrowed, it’s not the same word anymore.

For example, “Starbucks”.  In Japanese, it’s “sutaabukkusu”, or スターブックス.  For obvious reason, a native speaker would never recognize that as a loan word, and even when it’s spoken, it’s not the easiest thing to recognize it unless it’s spoken very quickly.  This works the other way around, too:  I saw an episode of “AKBingo” where a girl said “You can find me on instagram and twitter”, and the rest of the girls (who did not speak English past what they learned in school) did not understand the words “instagram” or “twitter”, even though those are loan words in their language.

I think one of the difficult things about learning Japanese is getting past the mindset that loanwords, in Japanese as opposed to most other languages, have stopped being words from the origin language, and are, in actually, completely Japanese words.  Which is also indicated by the fact that they’re written in katakana.

As I mentioned before, the Japanese never assimilate.  They adapt things into their language and culture, but in the process, they always turn those things into something specifically Japanese.  Loanwords are another example of this phenomenon.  Because arguably, if this was not the case, they would keep those words in roman characters.

There are not many Japanese words in American culture – I can think of only a handful.  While we do not use the Japanese character set for them, there are several possible reasons for this.  The first is that the English syllabic structure is lossless when it comes to Japanese – unlike the fact that converting from other languages to Japanese changes the phonetic structure of the word, this is not the case the other way around.  For words like “tsunami”, “shiitake”, etc., we have more than enough information in the transliteration of the words to keep the pronunciation.  Unlike the Japanese language, which does not contain enough information in its syllabic structure to keep the pronunciation of the foreign word.

Culturally, too, we tend to keep the “gairaigo” character of the Japanese word when we import it.  There are very few words that we have imported into English that do not either offer some homage to Japanese culture, or that describe a concept that we do not have in English.  So there is no reason for us, for the most part, to migrate Japanese loanwords into our language – it is already rich enough.  For whatever reason, theirs does not seem to be, at least partially.  Even for words like “taifu”, which we misspelled as “typhoon”, we have our own word for that, “hurricane”, so other than as an oddity, we have no reason to import that word.

There is a different kind of loanword, though.  This like of loanword exists because the people who import the word find the other language “cool” and import the word simply because they can.  Many words in Japanese fit this qualification, and a few in English do as well.  “Kawaii” is one example, and “nani” is slowly gaining popularity in the same way.  This kind of loanword is a cultural homage, and is never necessary for describing a particular concept that already exists in a language.  It’s mostly there just because we think using the words is “cool”.

I personally consider that kind of thing to be too “otaku” for my tastes, to be honest.  Use the language or don’t.

Anyway, loanwords are a very interesting aspect of Japanese culture, and seeing how they are used grants an insight into how the Japanese see other cultures and languages.  Hint:  they take what’s useful and make it Japanese.

This is probably, in my opinion, the most important aspect of Japanese culture for any language learner.  It’s not English anymore, even if that’s where the word came from.

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.

The Heart of Japan

I tend to annoy my coworkers with discussions of Japanese and all things Japan.  Some of them find it interesting.  Some just recite “press 1 for English”.  But at the end of the day, the discussions can be interesting at times.

One of my coworkers made the statement that “the best representation of Japanese culture is anime”.  I vehemently disagreed.  He then asked me the very fair question, “okay, then, what is it?”  After some thought, I answered.

But before I tell you what that answer was, let me go down a bit of a rabbit hole.

I follow Sora News 24 (Sky News) from Japan, which tends to focus on otaku and pop culture, as many Japanese sites seem to, for whatever reason.  They had a very interesting link wherein a person found an American wartime propaganda film, and posted it to a social media site.  Many people responded “how have we changed in the past 80 years?”  Many Japanese folks couldn’t answer the question.  They had to admit that they really hadn’t.  An observation I’ve made here previously.

As wonderful as Japanese media is, there is this undercurrent of darkness that runs across Japanese culture, which is why you have the chronic problem of overwork, of suicides, of so many things that run under the surface of what is by all respects an ancient and proud culture.

I love the Japanese, don’t get me wrong.  Their contributions to culture and media are amazing.  Their contributions to technology are amazing.  I find their art to be more beautiful, their music to be more interesting, their written word to be more thoughtful and introspective, than I’ve ever found western pop culture.

And yet, something in their culture drives people to overwork, to a declining birth rate, to wartime atrocities that their neighbors still haven’t forgiven them for.  Just as there are some major things wrong with western culture, there are some major things wrong with Japanese culture as well.  And covering it with a layer of cute and funny doesn’t fix those problems, it only hides them.

I love kawaii!  Really I do!  When I’m looking for something to lift the seemingly never-ending depression, it’s really hard to stay depressed when seeing things like nyangostar, AKBingo girls going crazy (particularly that little cutie Ichikawa Miori), Gaki no Tsukai ya Arrahende…  and there are so many things they have to offer the world that I think we ignore at our peril.  Shintoism has some really interesting insights that we in the west should pay attention to – without romanticizing them like we do most Eastern religions.  I don’t say any of this because I hate the Japanese culture – I say these things because it’s so beautiful sometimes that the spots on it are almost unbearable.

My answer to the question above:  the best representation of Japanese culture right now is karoushi.  Death by overwork.

See, there’s no karoushi in America.  Do you know why?  It’s not because companies wouldn’t enforce that if they could.  I worked at a company in the LA area around 2008 when the economy crashed – they told us flat out that they were revoking some of the perks we’d grown used to, and the reasoning was “the economy’s worse now.  Where are you going to go?  You’re lucky you have a job!”, as they laid off half the company.  That’s not the reason.  The reason is that the workers would simply say “I’m not doing this” and walk out.  There is no karoushi in America because no one would stand for it.  Companies such as Amazon and some video game companies come pretty close in some cases, but they really can only go so far.

Yes, there are plenty of companies in Japan who treat their employees well, but there are plenty that don’t, and the point is, that people will not speak up, to the point where they kill themselves rather than say “you’re not treating me well, I quit”.

I know there are many social pressures in Japan that make this difficult, but that’s entirely the point.  Japan is a small and very densely populated country.  It doesn’t have the kind of wealth of natural resources that we have in America.  Its greatest treasure is its people.  And there are millions upon millions of people in Japan who will silently bear abuse, rather than speaking up and saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we have it right in the west.  We take that too far.  Everyone seems to think they’re entitled to everything.  There are times when we should kind of suck it up a bit and be okay with minor inconveniences for the greater good.  Right now we take any kind of offense whatsoever as a grievous slight, and that, too, must stop.  But being worked to death, being bullied by superiors, that kind of thing, could not be classed as “minor inconveniences!”.

So the thing that most represents Japanese culture is karoushi.  And that makes me tremendously sad.  I love Japan, I love Japanese media, I love Japanese people.  And right now, I really don’t ever want to visit.  The darkness would cripple me.

The Other

Western people know many Japanese place names. Osaka, Tokyo, and even for more unsavory reasons, Hiroshima, Nagasaki…

But what many western people don’t know is that these are actually very ordinary names in Japanese.

Hiroshima, for example, means “Wide Island”, and Tokyo means “Capital City” (or something similar).

The fact that the names are in a language we don’t understand makes them sound exotic, but they’re not exotic at all. Just like, for example, “Austin” might sound exotic, but it’s just a random guy’s last name, and “Round Rock” is named for a literal round rock in Brushy Creek.

How much learning another language makes the culture behind that language seem so much more ordinary.

But does everyone want to lose that otherness, that exoticism?

Sometimes I Wonder…

As all of the symbols in Japanese start coalescing into individual meanings and pronunciations, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss. I mean, there are tons of websites out there breathlessly proclaiming how cool Japanese is, giving you tips on learning different phrases and words, grammar points, etc. There are other sites out there that are breathless commentaries on different aspects of Japanese culture, and all of them seem oriented towards people who think Japanese is the coolest thing ever, and I think partly because it’s so exotic and foreign.

But as I learn more about the Japanese, their culture, and their language, it loses that breathless quality, it loses its exoticism, it loses that “other” quality that makes it so appealing, and it just becomes another group of people that I’m learning to talk to on their own terms.

All those websites, all those YouTube videos, all of which sell how strange and wonderful and amazing Japanese is, and once you start learning it, it’s just a language, and it’s just people.

There is a lot of beauty in the Japanese culture, please don’t get me wrong, but there is much ugliness as well, too. There’s a reason that many countries in the far east have ongoing issues with Japan – they can and have been a very cruel and warlike people. And at the same time, they’ve come up with kawaii culture and some of the cutest and funniest and strangest things, and it’s a paradox.

But they’re people. Just like me. They are born, they die, they go to school, grow old, fall in love, fall out of love, eat, sleep, and are everything I am, and everything I am not. They are beautiful and ugly and sometimes at the same time, just like me.

And so I continue to learn, words of love, words of hate, words of action, words of inaction, words of caution, words of recklessness. Most of the words I have in my own language, and some I don’t, expressed with different syllables, different pronunciation, different symbols, different grammar, but at the end of the day, the same language – the language of living, the language of existing, the language of being human.

As I go to bed, one hundred and fifty million people on a small island nation half the size of Texas are going about their Sunday, living, working, playing, being happy, being sad… and tomorrow morning, as they go to sleep, three hundred million people in my country will be going about their Sunday living, working, playing, being happy, being sad… we’re all just people.

What’s the point of making them something they’re not?

It goes both ways, though. The Japanese seem to romanticize Texas in much the same way. Our land is one of wide open spaces, cowboy hats, cows, pickup trucks, etc. And there is some of that, yes. But we are just people too. Our language is the same language – one of existing, one of living, one of being human.

How do we just be human with each other? Can we? Is it even possible?

Maybe we start one person at a time.

I see you, Japanese people. I don’t mean I see you with my eyes. I mean I see you.

Do you see me? Do you see me?

あなたは私が見ますか?

またね。おやすみなさい。