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.

Continuing Introspection

The past month or two has – whether I want it to or not – been a time for stepping back and reflecting on things.  Primarily:  why am I doing the things I’m doing in my life?  What do they accomplish for me?  With that introspection comes a lot of other kinds of introspection as well, and one cause for introspection is this:  what makes me uncomfortable with the Japanese culture?

Because, I’m not gonna lie, I’m really freakin’ uncomfortable with it.

After some thought, I think it comes down to this:  their culture is far more group oriented than mine.  One might think that was a positive – and it does have a lot of good things to say for it – but it has one, huge, honking, glaring thing that makes me not really want to explore their culture firsthand.

See, in my culture, people are very self-actualized.  In practice, what this means is, people are empowered to be jerks, but they are also empowered to be really nice, too – even if that goes directly opposite of where society (or authority) wants to go.  Groupthink is a factor, but as a culture, we are empowered to be able to easily pull ourselves out of it if necessary.  So, in my culture, if one sees an injustice, one feels a reasonable safety in stepping up and correct it.

True, we get the question of “what is an injustice” wrong more often than not, but that’s not the point.  The point is that I feel like there are people in my culture that I can trust to do the right thing, just as I know that there are people in my culture that I can trust to do exactly the wrong thing.

I don’t feel that kind of safety in the Japanese culture.  Yes, they can be very nice, gracious, and polite people, but they don’t or can’t often question the things in their culture which are questionable or dangerous.  So I fear that if I were to go to Japan, that I would not be able to rely on people to help if I needed it.  For example, if I were to have a medical emergency of some kind.  The groupthink would be too strong, and I”m a scary gaijin.

Is this fair?  Truthfully, I don’t know.  It may be, or it may not be.  The point is not whether it is fair, or even whether it’s correct.  It’s how I feel.  I’ve heard many scary stories about how Japanese people can just kind of ghost you if you step out of line, or worse.  I’ve heard scary stories of their hostage justice system.  I just don’t feel safe in their culture.

That may surprise some of you.  How could you feel safe in Texas, you might say?  You have guns and trucks and and and…  and I say, that doesn’t make me feel unsafe at all.  Those who legally have guns can almost to a one (almost) be trusted to do the right thing.  But can those who have been brought up with extreme societal pressure to defer to authority – in whatever form – be trusted to do the same?

I… don’t know.  And the fact that I don’t know is enough.

That is most of the source of my discomfort.

Feel free to tell me how wrong I am.  *Shrug*.  You might even be right.  But introspection doesn’t often care about correctness.  It is about identifying what is and then figuring out where to go from there.

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.

Why I study Japanese

A previous commenter, as seems to be the case a lot, got me thinking about why I study Japanese.

In all truth, I am somewhat of a misanthrope.  I’m not usually very fond of people.  I am pretty good at interacting with people in a competent way, and I do not dislike everyone, but in most cases I can just take them or leave them.  So the question of why I am studying a different language, especially one as different as Japanese, is a fair one.  And truth be told, I’ve been struggling to answer that question myself.

Because studying a language implies an interest in the culture and people, and by and large, I don’t really have that.  Of course, there are things about the Japanese culture I like and don’t like, and things about the Japanese as a people that I like and don’t like, but truth be told, I have enough problems trying to navigate my own culture.  Adding another into the mix seems like it’s just compounding my problems.  But yet I study it anyway.  As said commenter pointed out, no one’s forcing me, and I continue learning it.

Why?

That’s a really fair question, and one I have to ask myself as well.

Here’s the honest truth, at least as far as I’ve figured it out so far:  because it’s hard, because it keeps me busy, and because it allows me to see the world from a different point of view, which I can then integrate with my own point of view and have a more complete view of the world.

That’s really the reason, and I think probably pretty much the only reason.

I’m an extremely intellectually curious person, and I always try to find patterns.  I learned how to play piano (I’m working on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G minor” now) simply because it was difficult and trained me to look at music in a different way than I would if I simply consumed pop or something far less complex and interesting.  I studied theology for much the same reason – it was the study of something that interested me – and my ultimate conclusion was that it was something that could not be studied directly.  And even that was a very useful discovery.  After all, a God with an agency is not a predictable God.  Studying Japanese and Japanese culture also assisted my other multi-disciplined studies, because their view of God (when they have one) is very different than the view of God in my culture, and I find that extremely interesting.

So, the answer to that question is actually very simple but difficult to arrive at:  I study Japanese because I can.  I don’t really have a particular reason except it’s difficult and it’s different and it provides many different datapoints for shaping how I see life – what we have in common, what we don’t have in common, how the languages have developed similarly, and how the developed differently.  Talking to or interacting with people as part of studying a language is a necessity, of course, but one that I more tolerate than am particularly interested.

Basically, I have never studied a language because of the people, but more as a reflection of language itself, and helps to shape how I see linguistics in general.

I came to this conclusion when I was thinking about the origin of kanji this morning.  The realization came to me that if I want to actually learn about kanji, Japanese is the exact wrong language to study for that purpose.  Sure, I can learn the meanings of kanji, which are, for the most part the same, and I can learn the Japanese readings of kanji, which sometimes bear some resemblance to their origin, but kanji is something that was bolted onto the Japanese language from Chinese hanzi and then evolved separately.  No, if I want to learn why kanji are shaped the way they are and how the developed, I will have to learn Chinese.

Truth be told, I have little to no interest in current Chinese culture.  I am sure that they are individually nice people, but I have no interest in ever visiting China or having anything to do with Chinese people except for those that I might interact with in everyday life here, in America.  But going down the rabbithole, I have realized that if I truly want to understand parts of the Japanese language, that is something I will eventually have to do.  And I will probably do it at some point in the future.

But I’ll learn it for the same reason I’m learning Japanese.  For the sake of learning it.

There are many simpler languages I could learn.  Spanish would actually be a very useful language for me, living in Texas, and by all rights that is the one I should have tackled first.  But I didn’t.  And the primary reason that I didn’t is because it’s not challenging.  It uses roughly the same roman alphabet (with some diacritical marks) as English does, the words are roughly (but not completely) similar, so mostly it comes down to a few grammatical differences and a new vocabulary.  Anyone can do that.  But it’s neither fun nor interesting, so as useful as it is, I just didn’t bother.  And I may never.  I did learn conversational German once.  It took me about nine months and after that I lost interest.  The next class I took would have meant that I would have had to go to Germany (I think), and I had zero interest whatsoever in doing that.  Just as with Japanese, I learned it because I could.  I still remember most of the grammar but lost nearly all of the vocabulary.

And that is why I learn Japanese.  It’s a huge puzzle to solve.  And that’s, essentially, it.  And it’s why I continue to learn Japanese.  I tend to not give up on puzzles.

Why I Could Never be Japanese

A couple of weeks ago and a few posts ago, I wrote about a part of Japanese history and culture that really bothered me.  Nothing in it was unfactual to the best of my knowledge, though I was perhaps a little harsher than… No.  No I wasn’t.  That was a topic that I was actually holding back on a bit.

I still lost two followers.  I don’t think I’ve lost 4% of followers from one post on any blog, ever.

It’s not so much that I keep track of these things, as much as I like to know when I’ve hit a nerve.  Obviously the topic bothered people enough that they decided they were done with me.  I’m okay with that, but as with many things in my life, it sparked some introspection.  And I realized that I would never survive for more than a few weeks in Japanese society.

Why?

I speak my mind.

I am outspoken even for an American.  I have, in the past, said things that other people refused to say, for one reason or another.  Perhaps that’s because they disagree with me.  Perhaps I touched on a verboten subject.  Or perhaps I was just plain offensive.  Hey, I’m human too, and I’ve said things in the past that I probably shouldn’t have said.  And some things I still believe I should have said that other people think I shouldn’t have, and I have a couple of words for that idea that don’t go on a “family” blog.

But I’ll never apologize for speaking my mind.

The Japanese culture seems more collectivist.  They seem to want to blend into the crowd, not make waves, go with the flow.  Of course, this makes for a more peaceful society than mine most of the time – there is something to be said for a people that make as much of an effort to get along with each other as the Japanese do – but it also makes for a society where you… go with the flow, I guess.  I’m not that type of person.  I have never been that type of person.  That made my childhood difficult because of being raised in a religious cult that frowned very hard on questions, but I have never lost that quality.  I am not loud and obnoxious like the stereotype many people have of Americans, but I do speak my mind, I’m not shy about it, and I’m sure in many cultures, such as that of Japan, that is a most unwelcome quality for the most part.

My Japanese teacher, after spending several decades in the US, has even expressed a frustration with that tendency.  I told her that she was definitely Japanese, she said she felt more American in some ways, and we agreed that she’s somewhere in between now.  She is Japanese, but she has been exposed to “my” culture for a long time, and it’s rubbed off on her.  Not all the way – there are still culture clashes often – but enough so that she can put up with my outspoken nature.

But I don’t think most Japanese people could.  And the fact that my post had such an outsized negative impact on my small, insignificant blog, bears that thought out.

I am outspoken.  I am who I am.  I don’t care who doesn’t like it.  But it still makes me sad that, for that and a few other reasons, I fear ever going to Japan.  I would not fit in.  I know I would not fit in.  Hell, I don’t even fit in in my culture.

But, for some reason, I continue to learn the language.  It is still interesting.  But I will always be an outsider in that culture, and to be blunt, I’m sick of being an outsider, and no way am I going to put myself in a position where that feeling is exacerbated rather than mollified.

I love many things about Japanese culture.  It is good to learn the language, consume the culture, laugh at their comedic antics and media, and generally broaden my horizons by learning about a different way of thinking.  But the admiration for the culture that I used to have is waning a bit.  Now I see it as I do mine.  A proud culture that mostly works and has some glaring flaws that can’t be put aside or ignored.  And I’ve got enough to deal with in my own without taking on the worries of another.

I am American.  I will always be American.  I was born here, and I was raised here, and daggum it, no bushwhackin’, sidewindin’, hornswagglin’ cracker croaker is gonna ruin my bischen cutter… oh wait.  What was I saying again?  Seriously, I am American.  That’s what I’ll always be.  And there’s no use trying to make it in another culture when I can barely make it in my own.

Honestly, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into studying Japanese.  And I don’t regret that time and effort.  I will continue doing so for the foreseeable future.  But it is just one part of this complete breakfast.  I haven’t really studied piano for a long time, and many pieces I learned to play I’ve actually forgotten how.  I need to remedy that.  I need to push Japanese aside just a bit and make sure my horizons stay broadened.

Maybe some time I spend thinking about how much of an outsider I am in the Japanese culture would be better spent going back over my scales and Hanon exercises.

That’s all, I guess.  Time to review wanikani and figure out what’s next in my life.

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.