Unique Japan

Friday, July 27, 2012

 "Japan is unique"

The first exposure I recall to assertions of Japan's uniqueness was when I lived on Sado Island as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the government sponsored Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program.

One of the teachers at my base school had invited me to study the swordplay art of iaido, which I took to with alacrity. It was at a talk given to our local iaido circle addressed by an iaido sensei from the mainland.

It was not an inspiring or interesting speech, and what is worse, the speaker somehow strayed into reflections on the Japanese physique, mentioning (in who now knows what context) that "foreigners' legs are different from ours." Different? Bored, young, incautious me instantly took the opportunity to quite audibly comment amidst the respectful hush, "Nagai desu!" ("They're long!"), a faux pas that I noticed later my poor teacher had to spend several minutes mending with the speaker on my behalf once the speech had dragged to an end.

I am a lot wiser now. Denying, or making light of Japan's uniqueness, does not win you friends in Japan.

So last week when an elderly part-timer at a company I do work for explained that he was an amateur researcher into the differences between Japan and other countries, I listened politely when he informed me that in the course of his research he had found that the Japanese brain was opposite to the "foreign" brain in terms of the respective roles of the right and left hemisphere. Okay.

At a party on the weekend, I made a passing remark about the current popularity of zombies and vampires in popular Western entertainment. This was immediately taken up by a young attendee as evidence, from out of the blue, about the uniqueness of Japanese culture which finds its thrills in the invisibility of ghosts rather than the gory physicality of zombies. Okay.  My comment on current trends was countered with something plucked from history. I did not bring up the long history of stories about invisible ghosts that also characterizes much, if not most, of the history of the horror genre in the West.

"The Japanese language is uniquely difficult":  here the assertion has a point. The written Japanese language is a mish-mash of Chinese literacy forcibly imposed on a very unChinese language, leading to endless inconsistencies and complexities. Okay. However, the spoken Japanese language is no more difficult than any other language, as anyone who has lived in Japan for two or three years and has picked up the the language to whatever degree can tell you.

Another favorite theme of the Japanese uniqueness school goes along the lines of "Japanese culture uniquely suggests as much as it explicitly expresses." Okay. Like any culturally homogenous society, intimately and universally shared values and customs mean a lot can be taken for granted. Whether this translates into effective communication when it actually matters is quite a different story. The events centering on the nuclear disaster in the wake of the 2012 Great East Japan Earthquake suggest that, at least in times of crisis, being Japanese offers no advantages when it comes to efficient communication.

Another example of something uniquely Japanese is Zen Buddhism and the wabi-sabi that is associated with it. Zen Buddhism is a creation of Chinese culture, not Japanese, and is as much as part of Korean culture, as seon Buddhism, and Vietnamese culture, as Thiền Buddhism. It just so happened that this brand of Buddhism was introduced to the West via Japan, leading to the misconception that Zen is uniquely Japanese.

What lies behind assertions of uniqueness in Japan is the relationship Japan feels with the West. For the past century the Japanese have acutely felt the tug of war between, on one hand, the flow of culture that characterized Japan until the mid-nineteenth century and, on the other hand, the Western culture that it had to largely make its own in order to compete with the rest of the world. Which part of Western culture it should make its own, and which parts of Japanese culture it should maintain, have been pressing questions since that time.

In other words, Japan since the nineteenth century has faced something of an identity crisis. This crisis often becomes explicit - becomes an issue - whenever a non-Japanese person is present, and therefore becomes a constant theme of conversation to which non-Japanese are subjected.

Japan does not take its traditional culture for granted, as is obvious by the degree to which Japanese culture has been universally problematized in Japan. That is no doubt a good thing. However, if you are a foreigner who has chosen to live in Japan, being an anvil on which the problem has to hammered out is a role that, tiresome though it might be, is clearly therapeutic and - however perversely - appreciated.

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