Is Japan Losing its Culture? – Part 1: A History of Cultural Adoption

I want to talk about the problem I usually find when non-Japanese people talk about Japanese culture, which is that they generalize too much. They make sweeping statements that are inherently too loaded to be anything but false. This is usually because they approach Japan through the lens of their own culture – the etic approach, in anthropological terms. Japan can only possibly be understood in the greater Japanese context – one that considers its history, and its interaction with other nations. Making a statement like “Japan is very ________, and here’s my anecdote…” is an approach doomed to failure. For example, I often hear complaints that Japan is becoming highly Westernized, or more specifically, Americanized. A big concern is that they’re losing their culture. …But is it true? Is Japan losing its culture?

“Japanification”

Japan actually has a long history (around a millennium and a half) of taking aspects of other cultures and turning it into its own “Japanified” thing. Many of Japan’s most “culturally rich” eras – for example, the Heian period (794CE-1185CE) and the Edo period (1603CE-1868CE) came after substantial missions abroad that brought back various foreign goods and practices. These periods were also characterized by enforcing restrictions on foreigners from entering Japan. Therefore, these periods served to allow people to ruminate these foreign imports under the Rising Sun. They often ended up with something quite different from, though still resembling, the original. One of the earliest examples is a famous one: The written language.

Take these two sentences – one Chinese, one Japanese: “這是不是日本語”and “これが日本語です”. It doesn’t matter if you can’t tell which is which. The point is that you can probably tell that they look a bit different. Japan has three written scripts, the main of which (such as “日本語” above) came from China; the other scripts (such as “これが” and “です” above) were basically offshoots of the Chinese characters, and are now unique to the Japanese language. These offshoot-scripts (known collectively as “kana”) were necessary because the Japanese language is so different from Chinese. (In case you missed it, the second sentence above is Japanese. Notice that the offshoot-scripts have fewer strokes than the Chinese scripts.)

So we can say “Japan took the characters from the Chinese written tradition,” right? Well, if you leave it at that, it sounds like Chinese and Japanese have the same written language. That’s almost like saying English, Spanish and French have the exact same written language (ñôt éxàçtlÿ). One of the only good examples of the exact same written script between two otherwise completely different languages is Mandarin and Cantonese (the most common Chinese languages), but every Chinese language is distinct from Japanese. So the written language is one of the oldest examples of such “Japanification.”

Culture Down the Toilet

Since the end of WWII, America has had the biggest foreign influence on Japanese culture, just as China had before that, and for most of Japan’s history. In some ways Japan is being greatly influenced by outsiders, but probably not in the way those countries initially imagined. Consider the toilet. That’s right – an example that we can all understand. Japan has its older, traditional toilets (which are still regularly used today), but they turned the Western-style toilets into something different. These toilets have interesting features like heating, automatic flushing, waterfall audio, or even talking. I don’t want to over-exaggerate them (i.e., not every house or public place has them), but they regularly shock tourists because of their complexity and innovation (and they almost never have English).

The blue button isn’t exactly the type of “shower” you’re thinking of

So we can probably agree that Japanese culture is changing, and certainly America and other countries have a big hand in shaping Japan’s future. For example, Korea and Japan share many of the same pop-culture icons. But I still hesitate to say that it is losing its culture, because, as I mentioned before, being influenced from foreign cultures is a familiar pattern in Japanese history. The major difference now is merely access, which is accelerating the “Japanification.” Nowadays, for example, foreign visitors come to Japan all the time, and the youth culture can keep up with foreign trends via the internet.

One specifically “American” example of cultural influence is the U.S. national sport, baseball. In 1896, not even twenty years before a Japanese person had ever seen the sport, the first-ever Japanese baseball team (Shinbashi Athletic Club) played the all-American team from the Yokohama Athletic Club. The Americans lost 29-4. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that an American team had defeated a Japanese team, in a series of games pitting the countries’ finest against each other. That was Babe Ruth’s era. Ruth played against Japan with other baseball legends such as the “Iron Horse” Lou Gehrig (before he was tragically and unexpectedly diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease). Flash forward to 2006, the year following the creation of the international tournament known as the “World Baseball Classic.” In the 2nd round of the tournament, Japan lost to America 3-4; however, America never made it out of the second round, and Japan won the whole tournament. In 2009, Japan played America again, beating them 9-4 in the semifinals, and they defended their title against Korea.

Does Japan’s adoption of baseball constitute a loss of culture? Perhaps since it has become Japan’s national pastime, everyone is forgetting what it was like to do all those really “Japanese” things, like eating dango under the cherry blossoms. Or… using similarly terrible logic, maybe it’s America’s culture that’s getting flushed down the toilet? Well, I doubt it. But still… I suppose Team Japan is showing America how baseball is really done.

obama-pitch-baseball-april-2010

After all, this is how they see American baseball players

Traditions for Tradition’s Sake

Why do people celebrate and seek to preserve Japan’s unique traditions? Is it for the sake of beauty or intrigue? Or just because it’s different? Consider foot-binding, and why it was banned in various East-Asian countries. It’s unhealthy, inconvenient, and it made people (mostly Chinese, where it was particularly wide-spread) look bad in the eyes of foreigners. On the other hand, wearing kimono (note: kimono is plural and singular, since Japanese has no distinction) is beautiful, and foreigners love it… but it is considerably inconvenient. Women often have to take classes to learn how to put them on, which is especially difficult to do by yourself. Therefore, Japanese people decided that it would be simpler to wear them only on special occasions, such as weddings, and the coming-of-age day. Maybe it’s sad to see them go, but the decline in kimono-wearing makes sense. When countries want to catch up with the rest of the world, and reach the level of productivity that has become more “standard” across societies around the world, practicality often rules over aesthetics of “being cultured” – to the disappointment of traditionalists.

Sure, our heritage and traditions are important to us, but if you still think that Japan should keep all of their old customs, maybe you should put down your iPad or your laptop and go read the newspaper like your parents and grandparents did. Celebrating tradition for tradition’s sake makes no sense. No one looks at a kimono for the first time and says “That’s amazing because it’s such an old tradition;” they say “that’s amazing because it’s so beautiful.” Luckily, Japan hasn’t lost kimono. Women just stopped wearing it as the customary fashion.

Nowadays, if you see someone wearing a kimono, you can usually be sure that it really means something special, such as someone going to an important cultural event. Does it sound like Japan has “lost its culture” to you?

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2 Responses to Is Japan Losing its Culture? – Part 1: A History of Cultural Adoption

  1. Alex Samaras says:

    Hey there!

    I haven’t been following your blog for too long; only since another skeptic blogger (I don’t recall exactly who, maybe John S. Wilkins, or perhaps one of the bloggers at randi.org; not important). However, as a foreigner who used to live in Japan (from 2001-2006), I just want to say I find your posts very enjoyable and particularly insightful.

    I caught this post through my google reader, and, upon seeing only the title, I was all prepared to come in with a story I saw yesterday about Japanese pensioners trying to spare younger workers trying to clean up and stabilize Fukushima Daiichi the risks of radiation by offering to do the work themselves (one was quoted as saying it was essentially because the younger people have so much of their lives ahead of them) to debunk whatever you were saying about Japanese culture being lost, intending to hold it up as an example of something important about Japanese culture not being lost. Granted, such altruism is not a specifically Japanese thing, but it seems something that Japanese culture is particularly suited at doing well.

    Of course, that was only a reaction of “reading the blog post by it’s title.” ;)

    Imagine my pleasant surprise at the content of this post. :)

    I don’t know if this is an aspect of modern Japanese culture or overall Japanese culture, but one thing I’ve noticed that seems particularly “Japanese” (to me) is the cultural ability to take many things (from culture to style to technology) from wherever they come from and make them something better, special, and in a sense unique. Something Japan does incredibly well is adopt aspects of another culture and make them their own, often improving on what they adopt and making it “Japanese” or giving it a “Japanese twist”. Your example baseball is a fine example of this. Go to a baseball game in America and what do you see (assuming it’s not a Mariners game)? A stadium full of fans mostly sitting and watching the game, only getting up to cheer when something happens. Go to a game in Japan and what do you see? Non-stop party, with every player having their own particular song, throngs of fans almost never sitting down and just watching, and overall just a completely different (and more pleasurable, in my opinion) experience.

    Such examples can be seen in everything from automobile manufacturing to electronics to fashion to patisserie to music (look at what Japanese musicians have done with rock and jazz!) to… well, you name it.

    So, to make a long, rather digressive post just a little bit longer, in answer to your final question:

    Does it sound like they have lost their culture to you?

    Nope. It sounds like they are doing what Japanese people/culture have seemed to do so well: Taking something, whether their own culture or another, and making it better. Making it Japanese.

    That to me is Japanese culture, though 5 years is rather limited experience.

    Anyway, the main point is, I really enjoyed this post (and your blog in general), and I think you hit the idea home. Very well said, all around. :)

    Cheers.

  2. Catt says:

    Isn’t there a word for this?? The take it and make it your own thing..I learned it in 9th grade social studies class….uhgg I’m writing a section of my thesis on Japan and I CAN’T REMEMBER THE TERM..I think it started with an “i”……

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