If Japan is losing its culture, then who isn’t? Practically every country in the world is being influenced by America alone, though essentially everyone is influencing everyone else in some way. And now that we have such widespread internet connectivity (the growth of which is never going to slow), we are gradually becoming more culturally homogenized. Japan is one country that outsiders feel passionately about, probably because they like the idea of experiencing something “exotic.” It is therefore disappointing to some who travel to the big cities of Japan (“they’re all the same around the world – dirty, loud, and expensive”), until they go to the more traditional small-towns or old temples, and begin to feel like they’re in the “real Japan.” However, many of the assumptions held by foreigners about Japanese culture may best be reconsidered.
The Westernization of Japanese Culture
Foreigners just want to help
When I talk long enough to non-Japanese people, I inevitably hear some well-intentioned individual say that Japan is losing its culture. For example, on one online forum, the title “Do you think Japan is losing touch with its roots?” is discussed by mostly non-Japanese who think they know Japanese culture. The original poster writes (mistakes preserved): “I think it is modernising a bit too quickly so quickly infact it is loseing touch with its mysterious culture, I know abit about Japanese culture, I am not a expert, I just want to know if people agree with me?” The fact that this person calls Japanese culture “mysterious” tells me all I need to know about how they see Japan. One commenter responds: “Yes, they are becoming too ‘western,’ and it’s slowing destroying their culture.” Lower, another commenter offers “Most people forgot that all Japanese originally came from Africa, like every person in the world.” This is a great point, but doesn’t address the question. One sentiment I especially agree with is from another person who said “Japan is a very complex place, and a land of extremes. […] Japan has a way of doing two opposite things at the same time.” This is a well-spoken insight, echoed in the second episode of the BBC documentary series, “Japanorama,” which said:
“The romantic and sentimental lyrics of Japanese pop songs reflect the conformist views of the country’s young people. Yet at the same time they show the overpowering influence of Western styles and images. It’s the confusion of these two things which makes it so hard for outsiders to understand Japanese youth.”
MyNippon.com has an interesting article (much of which, however, I disagree with) that includes a revealing comment about Japanese culture. Despite Kyoto being considered the “cultural capital of Japan,” it wasn’t “Japanese” enough for the film “Memoirs of a Geisha” – though the Chinese lead role, Zhang Ziyi, apparently was.
“To experience what made all of us fall in love with Japan, one has to do what tourists end up doing – go to Kyoto, Nikko, Kamakura and Nara. Even in these places, you will not be able to get away from McDonalds or pachinkos or ugly vending machines every where. The land whose eternal beauty is personified by simplicity, is now immersed in tackiness. In fact, the producers of the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ were so disappointed by the presence of neon lights, satellite dishes, and power lines in Kyoto’s Hanamachi area that they decided not to shoot the film there but to build a set in Hollywood. ‘What we found was that there’s just not much of 1930s Japan left,’ says John Myhre, the production designer, in an interview with Architectural Digest.”
This stands as an interesting example that appears to show how you can’t even find “Japan” in Japan(!)… which brings us to the question: What is “Japan?” Is it geishas, kabuki theatre, and building spectacular temples in beautiful nature? Sure, if you were here a few centuries ago. Japan decided, like it had done so many times in its history (as a necessity to stay alive, or relevant), to adapt to the ever-changing world. It has benefited Japan (the world’s third-largest economy, behind China as of recent) to open itself up to the world. Based on the passionate remarks by well-intentioned non-Japanese people, I sometimes wonder if they would be happier if the Japanese were still the same society that they were hundreds of years ago (i.e., think today’s North Korea… with more “culture”).
Trying to make Japan “more Japanese”
Most Westerners have a romantic view of Japan, which I’m not judging. However, it’s important to remember that you’re looking at Japan as it is, not as it could have been. If Japan had not embraced change like it did, it may not have been the economic giant it is today. I’m guessing that Westerners wouldn’t have had such a romantic view of Japan if it stayed “traditional.” After all, I don’t see people booking flights to Western New Guinea to see the Dani people. In fact, most Westerners haven’t even heard of them. Why? Because they’re practically cut off from the rest of the world. So you can’t ask Japanese people to be “more Japanese.” As I alluded to before, defining Japanese culture is difficult; but if you’re going to boil it down to simply making Japan “less Western…” then by doing so, you’re really asking them to be less Japanese in the process. You can’t just remove the “Western-ness” from Japan, just like you can’t remove the “Japanese-ness” from the West.
We have already permanently penetrated each others’ cultures, whether we know it or not. The fact that English speakers say “tsunami,” “tycoon,” and “futon” is enough of a testament that our languages have become intertwined (i.e., all those words came from Japanese). In fact, our cultures are even mixed among places using the same language. For example, Canadians say “toboggan” as a type of sled, while the same word refers to a type of cap in America (what Canadians call a “tuque”); and South Africans will say “robot” to mean a “stop light,” whereas “robot” means something entirely different to the rest of the English-speaking world.
There’s also the argument from the hilariously talented American-Japanese comedian KT Tatara, who was also part of the line-up for the “Stand Up for Japan” (a comedy event in which all proceeds went to Japanese disaster victims). In the video below of one of his earlier stand-up acts, he says that white people (i.e., other Americans) want him to be more “Asian.” He recalls the pitiful look people give him when he tells them that he doesn’t speak Japanese and hasn’t been to Japan. “Awww, that’s so sad” they remark. “You should learn your culture. It’s beautiful.”
“Oh really, white people – Can you speak Czech, Slovak, German, or wherever the hell your grandparents are from? …No? Oh! …Then shut the fuck up.”
Don’t get me wrong, I too get annoyed by various Western influences, such as how Japanese has become perverted by ridiculous English words that don’t even mean what they came from (more on that in a moment). However, such is the inevitable cultural evolution that knows no purposeful direction (unless you want to rashly state that, for example, celebrities all deserve their statuses in society… don’t get me started). Some trends spread, while other ideas never become trends in the first place. We simply can’t know how well aspects of a culture, a language, or even an idea will catch on – though there are now people who study this type of diffusion). We can only choose whether or not to participate in spreading such aspects of culture. So there’s no point in getting upset about the fact that, for example, there are less maiko than before, which essentially signifies the death of the geisha. If it turns out that in a hundred years there are no more geisha, that’s just the way things went. You can’t expect people to become something just for your entertainment – maybe it’s not as easy a life to live as you may imagine, so people don’t want to live it. But that’s a totally separate discussion for another day.
Regarding the perversion of the Japanese language, I don’t know who to blame – it certainly isn’t an English speaker’s fault. I don’t think any English speaker ever taught a Japanese person that a “mansion” is an apartment building, or that a “stove” is a heater. Yet… “stove” means heater and “mansion” means apartment building in Japanese. Like I said, you can’t definitively predict what will catch on (how boring would life be if you could?), which certainly makes it possible for foreign cultures to influence one another.
Cultural influence beyond Japan
If you are to insist that Japan is losing its culture, then perhaps we should consider another “victim” of Westernization. In February of this year, the first French kiss on Indian television was broadcast on the soap opera Maryada: Lekin Kab Tak?. The ratings war among the 100 +Indian soaps (of which the unsuccessful are cancelled after about a year) has driven the show, which airs after 11PM, to push the envelope. It is increasingly focusing on its city-dwelling audience, whom are less likely to take offense to that type of public display, since they are more prone to watching Western sitcoms. Though the two recently announced that they are engaged to wed, Indian stars Ridhi Dogra and Raqesh Vashisth locked lips in a scene that may have changed Indian television and film forever. As a quick comparison, not only is American TV chalk-full of make-out sessions, but the first lesbian kiss has already aired on television. To be precise… it aired twenty years ago.
An excellent article from American news website The Daily Beast puts it bluntly: “girls locking lips has gone from groundbreaking [in America] to cliché in a matter of two decades.” The first gay (male) kiss aired 10 years ago, which is a notable contrast to the fact that homosexuality was legalized just two years ago in India. Nowadays, while India deals with the airing of a kiss, America deals with the airing of oral sex on television, the first instance of which was on the premiere episode of the 2008 series 90210, and then on The Good Wife last year. So is India on its way to becoming Westernized? Will they be grappling with these same issues a few decades from now? Maybe. But does that necessarily mean that India is “losing its culture?”
In Japan, watching MTV Japan and wearing dresses instead of kimono isn’t really going to make Japanese people “Western.” Japanese people will still grow up speaking Japanese, going to schools which reinforce collectivism, drawing Japanese-style art, and using chopsticks for their distinct diets – all very important examples of Japanese culture. On the other hand, the America is certainly being influenced by Japan as well. They buy Japanese cars, go out for sushi and karaoke, and watch Japanese anime. Yet no one says America is “losing its culture.” Why, the idea of Americans “losing their culture” at all just seems so… foreign.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, whether or not you believe that Japan is losing its culture probably depends on how you define “culture.” It’s a lot more difficult than it sounds, and people still argue about its definition today. Regardless, I confidently suspect that Japan will never become a truly “Westernized” nation, despite its obvious changes. There’s only one Land of the Rising Sun, though it may gradually look more like other countries as time goes on. I surmise that as long as Japan has poor English education, and the population remains so homogeneous, there’s little chance of it ever becoming “too Westernized.”
With that said, the last serious question I pose to you is this: If Japan did truly become more “culturally eclectic”… is that really such a bad thing?