Japanese Culture: The Seduction of Exoticism

Over the past few years, My thoughts on Japanese culture have taken a very definite arc. I started out with a general sense of admiration, but then decided that I wanted to learn more about their language and culture. I immersed myself into learning as much as I could about it. Unlike some “Otaku” or “Weeaboo”, I always kept a sense of balance about it, but there was always this kind of undefined yearning that I couldn’t quite place.

I’ve never been to Japan, but for some reason, many things about that country held a great deal of appeal for me. I loved the sakura trees, the food, Tokyo, the countryside around Hiroshima. Not everything about the culture appealed to me, but a great deal did.

But as I learned more about the language and culture, I found myself becoming a little bit more jaded. Yes, Japan is a very beautiful country. I think that will always be true. And yes, there are some very beautiful aspects of their culture. That will always be true as well. But I think a part of me began to realize that what attracted me the most about Japan and its culture, is that it’s not here.

I’ve moved all over the United States. I’ve lived in five states. The first time I moved to another state, I moved to a city about 2,500 miles away where I knew no one. My major criteria for finding a place to live was that it was as far away from the place I grew up as I could make it. And I got along there – for a little while.

But eventually everything caught up with me. The challenges of establishing myself in a new place were enough to stave it all off for a little while, and I was even kind of happy for a little while, but it caught up. And soon I found myself picking up and moving to the next place. Always running away from my problems, always running away from myself. Eventually I ended up here, but with the realization that I couldn’t run away from my problems, and with the realization also that my culture is my culture and it’s always going to be my culture.

Japan was, and is, just another step in that journey of running away from myself and my culture.

Japan is, by Western standards, a very exotic place. They do many things very differently than we do. But at the end of the day, they’re still people, and the more I become familiar with Japanese culture, the more I realize that the exotic aspects are just an illusion. It’s a different language, a different country, a different culture, a different way of doing things, but at the end of the day, I’d still want to run away from there too once I got established. So what would be the point?

This is also, I think, why I have so little respect for “Otaku” and “weeaboo” culture. They are running away, too. And there’s many aspects of the Japanese touristy culture that encourage this. But you can’t escape. You can’t run away. And eventually you’re hit square between the eyes with the realization that what you’re pining or is no better than that which you’ve left.

And what then?

My motivations for learning Japanese were not wrong, per se. But they were always going to lead to this outcome. Maybe I’ve never been to Japan, but I’ve been immersed in it for the past few years sufficiently that it lost it’s exoticism, and all that’s left now is the realization that they’re just like me. I can’t escape there anymore. Maybe I will continue studying, but my motivation must be entirely rethought.

Basing any decision on any variant of “I’m running away from my own issues” is a recipe for disaster.

“Work Hard, Play Hard”? Run.

I have something that many people seem to consider a personality flaw – but less so as I grow older.

When I was a child, I believed it was important to have “professional” relationships.  Specifically, when I would go to an event where a specific thing was to happen, I would go expecting to do that specific thing.  Bible Studies?  I went expecting to actually open a Bible.  Basketball practice?  As bad as I was, I went expecting to throw a basketball.  I was never very tolerant of tomfoolery.

I remember one time when I was sixteen, I went to take a state mandated driving class.  I went expecting to learn how to drive.  The other teenagers in the class just went on talking about sex.  It bothered me so much I went to talk to the “teacher”, who basically just told me to suck it up, she’d pass me.  Or something like that.

I felt this way about college, as well.  I went to college to learn.  I did not go to party, I did not go to make friends, I did not go to have social events.  I went to learn, and I looked strongly down on anyone who did not share that same devotion to purpose.

(I will be clear that given my chosen major, which was well within the fine arts, this was an entirely unreasonable expectation, and quite frankly, I chose very, very badly when it came to majors.)

So I entered the workforce with the same attitude.  Generally, when I worked at a place where older folks worked, they shared somewhat my devotion to purpose.  There was a bit of tomfoolery, but generally they went to do a job and go home to their families.  I certainly respected this!

But later in my career, tech companies or teams were starting to take the attitude that to attract good employees they had to have a “work hard, play hard” attitude.  In theory this meant that they wanted to make sure their employees enjoyed their time there.

In practice, this meant a lot of drinking, probably a lot of sex I wasn’t aware of (thank goodness!), trying to get people to handle issues while drunk, alcoholic VPs…  it was a mess.  I didn’t respect them.  And they knew it.

But I don’t see that as my problem.  I was behaving responsibly.  They just wanted to drink.

I learned some valuable lessons from these experiences, though.  The biggest was that i I find a company that puts anything similar to “work hard, play hard” in a description of their company culture, to run away fast, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  It needs to nothing but trouble.  I can expect to be judged by how well I fit into the culture, which basically means “am I willing to drink, and how much.”  I can expect that there will be no work-life balance, as work is life and life is work.  I can expect that people will take the job seriously, but will not take the workplace seriously.  And I have no interest in ever dealing with that kind of culture again.

(This, by the way, is one reason why I so abhor the “woke” culture that is infecting so many workplaces right now.  I go there to work.  I don’t give a toss about anyone’s political views, and would prefer they don’t inflict them on me).

So what have I learned to look for instead?  Work-life balance.  A company that expects an honest day’s work out of you, and then you get to go home (or leave the home office, as it is now) and not think about work again until the next morning.  A company that may provide voluntary activities that some people will find fun (not so much alcohol related) but does not judge people for their lack of participation.  A company that values what I bring to the table professionally and otherwise just lets me be, because I have little interest in sharing anything that does not directly relate to work except with select coworkers I choose.

Maybe for young people just out of college “work hard, play hard” would be attractive.  They can have it.  The company will reap what they’ve sowed.  Me, I’d rather have nothing to do with it.  Just let me do my job in peace and don’t regale me with irrelevant shit.

Please and thank you.

“Work Hard, Play Hard”.  Run fast and hard.  It leads to nothing but trouble.

Vtubers confuse me

So lately, I’ve found a subset of Japanese culture called vtubers. This really wasn’t voluntary, and they confuse the snot out of me. As near as I can tell, they are different anime-like characters that are voiced and acted by real people, they have different personalities, and they stream. Like, a lot. And people seem to like them. A lot.

Now, let’s be clear: I understand this, a little bit. My favorite vtuber at the moment (and I hope I don’t watch enough of it to change my opinion, frankly) is Inugami Korone. The character is supposed to be a dog. A dog-girl. A doggo. Or something. Damned if I know. Occasionally the dog-girl does cute and funny things. Same with another named Luna. There was much confusion about how to say “OK Google”, and it was insanely cute. And sometimes, like the AKB48, etc., idols, they’ll let you in on a little of their real life, and I guess those things are good for otaku, and much for the same reason. I can sort of, a little, see the appeal, though I really have no intention of interacting with that community any more than I have – which is to say, watching random stream clips and laughing my butt off as, say, Korone falls over laughing at a bird sound. (HUUWAAAAAAAA) That is funny.

But people throw a lot of money at these characters. There seems to be a loyalty there that at least rivals that of idol groups such as AKB48. And, quite frankly, that I just don’t get. They just stream and act silly – or sometimes, frankly, lewd. Maybe that’s worth a few bucks every now and then, but sometimes people throw hundreds of dollars at those characters, and what for?

It’s not just vtubers, though. For some reason, Japanese media and culture seem to encourage unhealthy, and frankly obsessive behavior Who wants to throw hundreds of dollars at a vtuber? Who wants to buy hundreds of AKB48 CDS just to have tickets to vote in the senbatsu sousenkyou? How about considering anime or other characters their actual girlfriend, or referring to them as waifu? I’m confused. And I think I’d rather be confused, because if I understood this, I’d just be sad. There’s some cultural undercurrents here that I’m just not sure I think I’m better off just letting be.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose, but this obsession is, frankly, just a bit too close to actual mental illness for comfort. So I guess I’ll let Korone entertain me if I see something particularly amusing come by on YouTube. But I think that’ll be the extent of it. I’m just not impressed with the culture. Not even a little bit. And if I ever start to get anywhere near that obsessive, I hope someone slaps me. So far, so good.

Ancient

My first exposure to Japanese was watching idol group variety shows, so I guess it’s somewhat forgivable that that is generally the lens through which I see Japanese culture. Their culture, as it currently is, is defined by a mishmash of their own culture and language and some very powerful foreign influences that have completely reshaped their culture over the past hundred years or so.

But I was reminded that theirs is a much more ancient culture than ours, and to define their culture by how it currently appears is dangerous, as you start to see their culture through a western window. It is currently extremely heavily western influenced, but that’s by no means the whole story, and we ignore that at our peril.

There are several things that brought me to this realization. Perhaps the biggest is the discovery of a storytelling form called “rakugo”. I knew nothing about this, and I’d bet that anyone reading this probably hasn’t, either. Basically, a comedian comes out, sits on a pillow, and tells a story with minimal props, and without moving from the pillow. The stories are engaging and funny, and a good storyteller can keep people enraptured until the very end, which is a kind of very Japanese punchline.

If you look at Japanese culture through the lens of its modern productions, eventually you will be disappointed. The Japanese are very prolific at manga, anime, and other “otaku”-type productions, but at the end of the day, it’s shallow. It may tell you something about Japanese culture – and what it does tell you is valuable, especially for someone unfamiliar with the culture – but at the end of the day, it’s not really useful for those who want to understand what actually makes the Japanese people tick. Eventually you discover there’s much more below the surface – some very amusing and entertaining, some very dark, some beautiful, some ugly, but all of it completely Japanese.

The hard part is knowing where to look. It an take years before you even start to see the glimmers of what lies underneath the current media-driven culture.

I suspect the same it true for other cultures too. Chinese immediately comes to mind (even though they are currently a hot mess and pretty much everything after their cultural revolution is really not worth much, in my opinion), but even the more familiar Eastern European type cultures have their own histories that we in the west can kind of steamroll over, as our culture is incredibly powerful at the moment. I don’t mean to imply that our culture is inferior – there is a reason that it is so incredibly influential all over the world. But at the end of the day, its very influence does run the risk of causing every other culture to be seen through the lens of ours, and when that happens, something valuable is lost. I am not a fan of “multiculturalism” – some parts of cultures are objectively superior over parts of others – but that doesn’t mean that all parts of one culture are superior over all parts of another. I, for one, was very happy about the fact that masks have become popular around the world where they were culturally accepted in Japan and China, for example. If only because it lets me hide my face.

If you’re truly serious about learning Japanese, find the things that aren’t commonly known – that’s where the true gems are. And the true stinkers too, but you can’t have everything, I guess.

Gaijin

I heard a story.

This is a story that appeared on one of the Reddit subreddits that are dedicated to stories.  It could have been MaliciousCompliance, or ProRevenge.  I can’t remember.  It’s not important.

Our protagonist was working at a Japanese company somewhere in California.  The managers there were Japanese nationals, and the employees were gaijin.  As far as the Japanese managers knew, no one there could speak Japanese.

So they basically ran roughshod over everyone.  It finally came to a head when a manager who had it in for the protagonist tried to railroad him out of the company.  But what they didn’t know was that he could speak some Japanese.  So when they had their big meeting, he mustered up all of the Japanese he knew and told them that the manager was lying.  He then quit.

Apparently the very fact that someone there could speak Japanese and they didn’t know it put the fear of kamisama into them, and they pretty much reformed how the branch was run.  And they sent the problem manager back to Tokyo to become a “window-watcher” (someone who has to come to work every day but has no duties, and then has to give a report every day on what they’ve done to their manager.  It’s a way to shame people into quitting, apparently.)

I’ve heard this story in several different forms.  Japanese people looking down on a stupid gaijin until they prove they can speak or understand Japanese, often in a way that is very embarrassing to the Japanese person.  I read this story once where an American (or some such) was in a Japanese store, and they insulted him in Japanese – and when he called them out in Japanese they were extremely apologetic.  They got caught.

It’s almost as if it never crosses the mind of a Japanese person that a gaijin might be able to speak Japanese.

On the one hand, this is an atrocious attitude, and in my view it is right and proper to call Japanese people out on it.  Us gaijin are not stupid.  We’re just different.  We mastered a language (well, most of us did, anyway) that is at least comparable to Japanese in difficulty, and we have managed to build a pretty cool society – if we can keep it.

On the other hand, sometimes they’re not wrong.  A gaijin coming to Japan without having learned even the basics of Japanese and their culture is nothing but a disrespectful tourist who has money to spend – and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that those who visit – or even worse – live there without learning any Japanese is showing absolutely no respect to the Japanese people, and they’re at least somewhat justified in having no patience with that.  It’s important to the Japanese people, and at the end of the day, it’s their country.

The Japanese culture is very ancient, and was pretty much literally dragged kicking and screaming by America into the modern age (look it up!).  I think I can understand some resentfulness to this situation, as for reasons I don’t understand, not having grown up in their culture, their cultural identity and their homogeneity as Japanese are extremely important to them.

Unfortunately, the world is moving on, and they’re having to move on with it.  That ship (literally, come to think of it) has sailed.  But the least we can do as gaijin is to recognize this, and at least have enough respect for them to come to their country with a basic understanding of their language and culture.  It’s just the right thing to do.

And in return, I don’t think we’re out of line in expecting some basic respect in return.  I’m not going to say we’ve earned it, but I will say that our effort should not be dismissed.  We’re making the effort, and that should count for something.

As for the “window-watchers”, well, that’s a really Japanese thing, I think.  A way to address the problem without actually addressing the problem.  Kind of like “fixing the glitch” in “Office Space”.  I guess the problem just eventually resolves itself.  It’s interesting to me though that wasting salary on a deliberately unproductive worker is more acceptable than actually removing someone from a company.  Certainly not something we in the west would tolerate.  But as I’ve pointed out many times – they have many of the trappings, but at the end of the day, they’re not western.  They’re East Asian.  With all of the cultural perks and baggage that that entails.

Kawaii Aidoru

YouTube is an incredible distraction throughout most of the issues that have been going on in the world, and in my country.

One thing I’ve been watching is Babymetal reactions.  It’s quite amusing to see someone reacting for the first time – “Well, this is a band with… three girls?  And they’re Asian?  Korean maybe?  Well, I have no idea what to expect…”  “SOMEONE GIVE THOSE GIRLS SOME CHOCOLATE”  Anyway, I find it amusing.

There’s this one guy, NeonReaperGaming, who has been really going down the foxhole – to the point where he’s diving into Sakura Gakuin’s stuff, just to see where Su, Moa, and Yui came from.  He comments all the time about how cute they are – and they are!  And there’s nothing really wrong with that.  I find some of Sakura Gakuin’s stuff to be super cute as well.

But something doesn’t sit well.  It’s something that hasn’t sat well with idol culture for me, for a long time.

All we see of idols is exactly what they want us to see.

Are the members of those idol groups (Morning Musume, AKB48, Sakura Gakuin, et al.) cute?  Damn right they are!  But are they really cute, or have they been trained to be cute just so we can have a dose of cute?  Is it really respectful to them to look at what they present to us and judge them solely based on that?

I saw a video once of one of the lesser known AKB48 members.  She made a video where she was crying that she didn’t have enough money for chicken nuggets and matcha cookies.  While I felt a little bad for her, and thought it was a little bit cute, I remember it.  Because that was a look behind the scenes, when the curtain falls.  Even though her concerns were a little trivial in some ways, she was actually sharing a little of her true self with the world.  All she wanted in life at that moment were some chicken nuggets and matcha cookies.  Don’t we all experience that every once in a while?

And I value that genuineness much more than artificial cuteness.

Manufactured cute is a distraction.  Real cute is what melts hearts.

It’s an industry that can chew up young girls and spit them out when it’s done with them.  I’ve even written a few posts (one of which is really popular) about just this topic – I’ve wondered if Akimoto Yasushi is doing the world a service or a disservice by coming up with the AKB48 groups.  It’s an industry that can lead to, to put it charitably, unrealistic expectations, both of the girls and of the relationship the girls have with the fans.  It’s an industry that, I imagine, can put a lot of pressure on young girls to perform in ways that maybe they’re not ready or able to.

It’s an industry that, quite literally, sells cute and innocent.

Is cute and innocent something I want to consume, as a product?  Those girls are someone’s daughters!

I don’t know.  It makes me uncomfortable.  But at the same time, it’s nice to know there’s a little bit of cuteness in the world right now, even if it’s manufactured, packaged up, and sold with a little sailor-uniform bow.

But I most treasure those little moments where the mask comes down and you can see who they really are.  Because those are the few moments where they’re not producing, and I’m not consuming.  It’s too bad that those moments are, by their very nature, one-sided and rare.

Majime

When I was a teenager, I used to attend what could laughably be called a Bible Study. I say “laughable”, because it was for teenagers, and I may have been the only person in that room with a Bible, and ready to study.  I didn’t know what that meant, but that was the purpose of the meeting, and so, I was ready to do what was necessary.

That did not happen, though.  They did everything but.  They played stupid games, they announced social events, they did absolutely everything but study the Bible.  And every time I left that meeting, I left feeling like those who I was stuck with were absolute idiots.  Not only including the ministers, but especially the ministers.

Truth be told, what they were probably doing, was trying to keep the youth from leaving entirely – and too much studying of the Bible would probably have done that.  I even recognized that at the time, but my attitude was, “let them leave, if they’re not interested in doing what they’re supposed to!”.

This is an attitude I’ve carried entirely throughout my adult life, for better or for worse.  I come to a job to do the job, and I’m not too interested in any social events or niceties, except as they directly pertain to the job.  For example, the company I work for has a nonprofit, and every year (except, obviously, this one) they hold different social events to raise money for the nonprofit.  I don’t mind doing this, but that’s because I see doing so as a part of my job duties, when I’m doing it.  But there are other events, some of which pertain to “social justice”, and some to other things, that I do not participate in. It’s not job related, so I don’t care.  It’s not what I came there to do.  My attitude is “do it on your own time”.  Obviously many people disagree with me.  I think that is a cause of my ongoing anxiety.

I believe so strongly in this that there is a certain line that I will not cross, and leave a job before I cross it.  My company has not hit that point yet, but given the current climate, I’m planning for the eventuality, as it may be inevitable.

There was or is (I can’t be arsed to look it up, Sorry Okada-san) named Okada Nana.  She had a very “serious” character – which apparently extended to her off camera persona as well.  She seemed to have that same attitude of “I came here to do a job and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability”.  In fact, that seemed to be so ingrained in her that they pulled a huge prank on her by having someone in a pretend position of authority continue making more and more unreasonable demands on her.  She never broke, she never cracked, in fact, her smile never left her face.  She did exactly what was asked of her to the best of her ability.  She took her job so seriously that she was pushing all of her ego aside and just did her job.  She did seem relieved when the dokkiri was revealed, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was extremely serious about what she was doing.

And, as I said, that extended to off camera as well.  She was a member of AKB48, and she would scold all of the other girls when they would cuss or behave in a yankii manner – except for those girls who were trying to develop a character that needed those “unsavory” qualities.  Not only did she take it seriously, but she demanded the people around her take it seriously as well.

She was teased for this, obviously, because every idol in the public eye eventually gets teased for something (they got Takahashi Minami good with a chair prank) but this was something that they seemed to value about her.  I think this is a Japanese cultural thing.  You do your job, whatever it is, to the best of your ability, because that’s what you came there to do.

They called her “serious”.  I believe the Japanese word they used was “majime”.  This word can also mean “dedicated”.

In my culture, there seems to be no such thing.  People do not seem to come to a job to work – at least not entirely.  They want to have fun, do extracurricular stuff, etc – “work hard, play hard”, they say.  I don’t fit into this way of thinking, and I don’t think I ever will.  I have a job to do, and I intend to do it to the best of my ability – and then I intend on signing off and not having to think about work and coworkers again until I sign in the next day.  I’m just not interested.  I have a job to do.  And I’ve had to lower my expectations, again and again, as the people I have worked with simply don’t seem to have this kind of ethos.  Don’t get me wrong.  They do their jobs, they’re often competent, but they just don’t seem to take it as seriously as I do.

Now, that sense of majime causes problems, too.  I don’t tend to build close (or even casual) relationships with coworkers, and I resent it when they try.  I stay away from all extracurricular activities unless required, and leave at the first opportunity.  I’m sure I come across as hard-working, but aloof.  I don’t mind this, personally, but it’s really not a way to get ahead, at least in American culture.

Maybe it is in Japanese culture.  At least to a little more of a degree.  They do have extracurricular activities, but these are kind of regimented, and you know what to expect.  Just as you would expect from Japanese culture.  I don’t drink, so that could be an issue, but otherwise…. eh.  Who knows.

I have much more in common with Okada-san, in that regard, than I do with probably ninety-nine percent of my own countrymen.  Which makes me seriously wonder if I’m in the right culture.

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.

Matsuri

My formative years were troubled.  I have many horrible memories, of which I refuse to go into here – they’re personal, and it’s not appropriate.  But the memories were not all bad.

Every year we had a religious festival – we called it the Festival of Tabernacles, or the “feast” for short.  It was in some ways a rather staid affair – but it was a festival, and it was a celebration.  Some people treated it as an excuse to get wasted for seven days, but for the most part, it was intended to be a reflection of how the world was to be after Christ returned.  And, to be quite honest, it succeeded at that far more than I would care to admit.

What I remember the most about it was a sense of anticipation beforehand – and then the feast happened, and it was truly a seven day celebration.  People were happy – or as happy as they could be.  There is a certain spirit in the air when ten thousand people are in the same area for even marginally wholesome purposes.  It permeates the whole city, and I think even people who have no idea it’s happening can feel a change in the city for that short period of time.

I am so conflicted about Japan and its culture, but I can’t deny that I have a visceral emotional reaction to things Japanese, and I can’t figure out what or why.  I think it is because, while the dark is very dark, there is a spirit of celebration to the things that they do for entertainment.  The performers are not performers, it’s almost literally like they’re cheerleaders.  I don’t think there really is an analogue in western culture.  In our concerts, we’ll either politely and quietly stare at the performers (as in classical music), or we’ll mosh around in the audience as the performers do their thing, but in Japanese culture, it’s as if the audience is invited to celebrate with them.

I’m not even sure what they’re celebrating.  Maybe it’s the music.  Maybe it’s a sense of gratefulness for being able to do what they do.  Maybe it’s just how they’re trained.  But at the end of the day, they sing, and they dance, and we’re pulled into their little happy world for just a little while.

And I think that’s why people go otaku.  It really is infectious.  I don’t consider myself otaku, and certainly not weeaboo, but when seeing cute young girls or women dancing around on stage and singing their little hearts out, it’s really hard to not get pulled into their world, and just forget everything for a few minutes or an hour.  It’s just so happy.

I think maybe this is the spirit of Ganbatte.  We translate that in English as “try your best”, but it’s more than that, so much more.  It’s putting everything you have into what you’re doing.  And it really does show.  Japanese entertainers put everything into what they do, they don’t phone it in.  And it draws you into their happy world, and just for a little while, you forget everything sad and bad, because their energy just washes it all away.

It reminds me very much of the festivals I grew up in.

It’s all manufactured.  I get that.  And I know that the darkness of Japanese culture sometimes shows through, in unfortunate and even tragic ways.  But at the end of the day, it’s the gift they give us, and it would be rude to not accept and treasure it for what it is.

空気

I’m going to try a different approach to posting today.  Let me know if you like it.

I have never been to Japan, but many things come to mind when I think of it.  I imagine the crisp air of fujisan.  The roar of trains, such as the shinkansen, as they come whooshing by.  The fragrant smells of sakura petals as they fall to the ground in spring.  The greenery of a small island nation that gets more than its share of rain, and the fragrant smells of grasses and blossoms on the hills, meshing seamlessly with the smell of traditional Japanese food, such as fish and rice.  Even the tall buildings of Tokyo seem to come with a certain kind of refreshing energy that I haven’t really found in American downtown cores.  Of course this is all in my imagination, but I’m not talking about reality.

I also see the darkness of a culture that values conformity over individuality.  I see a darkness that is difficult to fathom for me, a society that seems to have a lot of very flashy lights, amazing culture and food, and underneath is a vein of darkness that takes your breath away when you even begin to see it for what it is.

In my mind, Japan is a very beautiful, and a very dark, country.  Both the beauty and the darkness sometimes bring tears, and each defines Japan completely in its own way.  I don’t think Japan would be entirely the same without its darkness, just as it would not be the same without its beauty.

But to understand Japan, one must understand its darkness.  Yes, one must appreciate the wonderful things about Japanese culture – their almost boundless creativity, their respect for living things and the land around them, their ability to persevere and even triumph in the face of what seem sometimes insurmountable odds – but to see Japan through the eyes of their entertainment and tourism industry is to completely misunderstand who they are.

As I learn more I have come to respect them for what they are, and I’ve also come to a profound sadness.  They are an ancient and beautiful culture, and to solely define them through the entertainment they present to the world is to disrespect them profoundly.  To truly love something, or someone, you must understand their failings as well.  It is a profoundly sad thing when you realize that the person – or culture – that you love is flawed, imperfect – even profoundly so – but until one understands the warts, one cannot truly love.

This has been a difficult thing for me to grapple with as I’ve been studying Japanese and learning about the Japanese culture.  The veins of darkness are very dark indeed.  But even so, I am not too different from them, and they are not too different from me.  The darkness runs through all humanity, not always taking the same form, but being just as dark all the same.

Maybe someday I will see the beautiful white and red trees with the sakura petals falling, and I will remember that, for the Japanese people, the blooming of the cherry trees indicates graduation, the passing of time, and new beginnings.  And I will remember that the darkness does not have to stay dark, and the next year, the petals will also bloom, no matter what the previous year has brought.  And I will see all of the people hanami, and perhaps they will have a similar thought.  They are constrained by their darkness, but they are not defined by it.

And perhaps, not just in spite of their darkness, but because of it, I will grow to love them.