Friday, January 30, 2009

Emperor Hirohito and Japanese Culture

At the end of the Word War II, the occupying American forces made the practical decision that if they wanted the cooperation of the conquered Japanese population, they needed the help of Emperor Hirohito to manage Japanese culture peacefully.While many military officials realized that Emperor Hirohito was involved in the planning and execution of Japanese aggression during World War II; they appreciated that trying him as a war criminal would have alienated the Japanese population. Instead, the myth that Hirohito had been simply a "figurehead" who was manipulated and lied to by Japanese military officers, was carefully disseminated. Historian Herbert P. Bix has documented this in the book "Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan," which is an excellent read on the real role that Hirohito played during World War II.

Zen and Japanese Buddhist Culture

If you want to discover thriving communities of Japanese Buddhism and Zen these days, your best bet is probably a trip to Los Angeles, New York City or Berlin, but most certainly not to Japan. While people in the West have embraced "all things Zen," Japanese culture has moved on to more modern pastures.

One of the quickest ways for a westerner to sound like a real wacko to your average Japanese person is to explain that you practice Japanese Buddhism and Zen meditation. To the Japanese ear, the earnest daily practice of Japanese Zen Buddhism is something akin to being involved in Civil War reenactments in America - it's odd, historical and makes one seem rather "out of touch."

The disinterest in the role that Japanese Buddhist beliefs have played in Japanese history is related, on the whole, to the lowly place that Japan religion now holds. And while Japanese Buddhism isn't strictly speaking a religion, it's a spiritual outlook all the same, which contrasts strongly with the affirmative materialism that now dominates Japanese culture.

In much the same manner that school children in New England are herded onto buses and driven to Plymouth Plantation each fall to learn how the pilgrims made cornbread, Japanese high school students are brought to the local Japanese Buddhist temple and are made to sit zazen (sitting meditation on a cushion) and learn what a stark and disciplined life that Japanese Buddhist monks have (no cell phones or computer games!).

Much of the interest in Zen Japanese Buddhism in the West is not directly related to the work of Japanese Buddhists (an exception would be the U.S. lectures of Japanese Zen master D.T. Suzuki), but largely the result of American Beat writers like Gary Synder (who studied Zen in Japan in the 1950s) and others like Jake Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg who discovered in Buddhism a "religion" of sorts that made very few moral demands on them in the way that the Judeo-Christian tradition does.

To check out a classic book by D.T. Suziki, follow this link to Zen and Japanese Culture

It was the writings of the Beat writers on Japanese Buddhism in particular that the bohemians and hippies of the 1960s latched onto as they rejected much of the traditions, religions and beliefs of Western culture.

In some ways the decline of Zen Japanese Buddhism is also occurring in neighboring South Korea, but in the case of Korea this is due to nearly half the population converting to Christianity since the end of World War II. The Japanese, in contrast, have shown a stubborn resistance to embracing the Christian faith.

While it's true that Japan is not, strictly speaking, a Buddhist country - it has been shaped as well by the native Shinto religion, ancestor worship and Confucian ethical teachings - one can declare that the Japanese people now live, in the words of Catholic Pope John Paul II, as practical atheists.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Japanese Women Can't Find OB/GYNs

In one of the world's richest countries, which boats of "universal health care," you'd think that Japanese women would get first-class OB/GYN care, but the reality is quite different.

A new survey from Japan shows that Japanese women with uterine cancers have a terrible time finding doctors who specialize in female medicine. The lack of OB/GYN services has also made having a baby in Japan a real imposition, leading to what some have called "pregnancy refugees:" those women who have to travel far and wide to get OB/GYN care.

The problem is a result of too few Japanese medical students going into the OB/GYN field, not enough women becoming doctors and a reluctance to allow foreign doctors to emigrate to Japan.

In the face of this reality, Japanese women have essentially said "no" to having children, which is creating a population implosion in Japan like none seen before.

It's no exaggeration to say that the Japanese people have abandoned procreation, and the declining Japanese birth rate is a demographic nightmare that will have unforetold economic, cultural and political repercussions in Japan.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Japanese Companies and Layoffs

Layoffs are no fun for anyone, but in Japan layoffs are a cultural taboo that Japanese companies do everything they can to avoid.

As the global economic crisis hits Japan, Japanese companies are cutting temporary and contract workers, stopping production and asking employees to take pay cuts, all in an effort to avoid layoffs, which still rattle the Japanese to the bone.

Until recently, lifetime employment was one of those things - like death and taxes - that the Japanese people could count on, yet global competition has forced Japanese companies to stay competitive by shedding workers and cutting costs.

'Working hard' for a Japanese company has an almost religious importance to it, and a layoff is tantamount to being ostracized from one's faith community. One hears tales of laid off Japanese salarymen (business men) who can't bear to tell their wife they've been laid off, so instead, they get up each morning, put on their dark business suit and go to the local manga (comic book) shop to read manga and sip coffee all day.

Japanese group identity can't be underestimated; and for most men in Japan, their corporate affiliation is something akin to their "tribe," which is often more important than the individual job or role they perform at the company.

When you lay a man off in the west you take away his salary and much of his social life - when you lay a man off in Japan, you take away his salary and you bring shame upon him and his family.

It's serious stuff in Japan and we hope that Japanese culture and society can accommodate the many men who may be losing their jobs in the months to come.

Patriotism in Japan

Patriotism is a complicated business in Japan.

Japanese aggression in WWII brought destruction and American occupation to Japan by 1945, and a feeling among the Japanese that to be defeated and humiliated in such a complete way indicated some fatal "flaw" in the culture.

While the 1950s were a time of optimism, prosperity and burgeoning international power in America - that same decade was a time of food shortages, humiliation, confusion and mourning in Japan.

Over the last 60 years the Japanese have opted for a break with their past, instead of the painful and difficult task of sorting out what is great and honorable in Japanese traditional culture, and what had to be left behind.

It's been said that Patriotism is "love they neighbor" on a large-scale. It's right that we feel proud of our country, traditions and the flag. Intelligent people understand how this differs from nationalism, which seeks to dominate other nations. Yet, despite this distinction, expression of patriotism in Japan is often stifled and labeled as militaristic or dangerous.

Japanese actress Youki Kudoh wrote a great article several years ago for entitled "Who Killed Our Culture? We Did," which tries to reawaken a sense of pride in Japanese young people. She notes:
"Most of today's young people grew up in the absence of some important values. They aren't positive about being Japanese, nor about their own identity. They are losing their integrity because they always pretend to be like someone else."
While Ms. Kudoh is right to caution against the elevation of American culture over Japanese culture, she does stray a bit into some typical anti-Americanism at times; yet it can be forgiven because of the larger point she is making:
"We are negative about our culture: traditional things are seen as old-fashioned, and everything new is good. Social order and moral standards have disappeared. Some people are even obsessed with denying their Japaneseness."
And when Ms. Kudoh urges young Japanese people to look at their history for that which is good, honorable and useful, she is far too modest in calling these things "hidden" in Japanese history. She notes:
"We need the confidence with which to see the good qualities hidden in our history and tell the world about them. We need a flexible mind with which we can learn about mistakes in our history and turn them into positive lessons."
The war crimes and political oppression of the first half of the 20th century in Japan must be forever denounced, but Japanese culture is so rich in cultural treasures that one must work hard to ignore them.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

10 Random Facts about Japanese Culture

Trying to pick out 10 facts about Japan and Japanese culture is like trying to choose among sand pebbles at the beach, but here are a few choose nuggets about Japan.

In no particular order, here are 10 facts about Japan:

  1. The school year begins in April, not September
  2. Adults read comic books (manga) as much as children do
  3. The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, just like the British
  4. The word for "rice" and "food" is the same in the Japanese language
  5. Nippon 'Ham Fighters' is the actual name of a Japanese professional baseball team
  6. In Japan it's harder to graduate from high school, than it is to graduate from college
  7. Some Japanese refer to the younger generation of Japanese as the "new human beings"
  8. Most Japanese don't have home computers - they use their cell phones instead
  9. Despite cold winters, many Japanese homes still do not have central heating
  10. Job resumes in Japan include a photo and a person's age
Here's a resource to check out:
A Taste of Japan: Food Fact and Fable What the People Eat Customs and Etiquette

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Japanese Tourist

The Japanese tourist with the 35 mm camera slung around his neck is a popular stereotype; yet the stereotype is built upon the reality that Japanese tourists really get around!

The Japanese love to travel because of three important facts:

  • The Japanese live on tiny rocks known as islands
  • Everyone around them has the same background as they do (it can get boring!)
  • It's cheaper to fly to L.A. than to take a domestic flight in Japan
Americans can think of it this way: just imagine that everybody looked like your Uncle Charlie, the U.S. was as big as California (yet chopped up into islands) and it was more expensive to fly from San Diego to San Francisco, than it was to fly from L.A. to Paris - you get the idea!

One also can't discount the hipness factor, that cosmopolitan stamp of having been abroad that means a lot to the Japanese. Most Americans don't care much whether their neighbor has been to London or Paris: some people like to travel, others don't.

One seems a bit more "worldly" and interesting in Japan if they've been abroad. If the Lost Generation of the '20s had Paris as their bohemian playground, the hip young Japanese have Las Vegas and Los Angeles as their post-modern shopping mecca. They happily inhabit the fine restaurants of Santa Monica and the buffet lines of the Vegas strip taking snapshots of their dinners (the portion size is always a crowd pleaser) and nodding in wonder at the excesses of America.

Japanese tourists come in all shapes and sizes, of course, but living in a country where everybody looks pretty much like you do, tends to stoke the fires of curiosity about the world.

And one must always keep in mind the contradiction that lies at the heart of Japanese culture since the end of World War II: the Japanese consider Japanese culture to be special, unique and rather wonderful, yet they are somewhat ashamed and self conscious at how "different" they and their culture are in relation to foreigners. You don't believe me? If you can successfully use chopsticks in Japan, the Japanese will treat as if you'd just rattled off 39 Haiku from memory.

It's worth emphasizing as well that Japanese tourists are brave, adventurous and curious about the word (particularly Japanese women, who speak English and other foreign languages much better than the men) in a rather refreshing way.

Attend the running of the bulls in Spain, go to the KFC museum in Kentucky, trek in South America or go surfing in Hawaii and it's a sure bet that you'll run into Japanese tourists, who may or may not cameras slung from their neck.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Japanese Companies Hiring Fewer Graduates

In Japan April is the big month of renewal and change; it's when students start a new school year and workers begin their new jobs with Japanese companies. As both Japanese companies and job candidates gear up for the hiring season, it appears that it is now a seller's market in Japan.

Tough economic times in Japan have meant that Japanese companies are making less job offers to candidates, who are typically high school and college graduates. In the past a school graduate would interview with a company, get a job offer and then work for the company for life. While this is no longer the case, the job hiring season is still very much a big deal and working hard in Japan is an important tradition.

Yet many hiring representatives have begun complaining that the new crop of Japanese graduates are clueless and without much common sense...with Japan's declining birth rate it seems that Japanese companies will eventually have to scoop up every last Japanese worker they can, clueless or not.

English Teachers in Japan

There's nothing like an English teacher in Japan! They hail from the U.S. and the U.K., Australia and Ireland, conveying the impression to their Japanese students that western civilization is composed exclusively of back-packers, bohemians and Zen enthusiasts!

There's nothing quite as western as an English teacher in Japan doing everything he can to distance himself from the West. Which is ironic, because the majority of Japanese students are completely enamored of all things western, and are learning English so they can get their feet on the pavement of Los Angeles, Vancouver or New York City as fast as possible.

English teachers in Japan are perfectly in love with Japanese culture and they demonstrate this by dating Japanese women and criticizing the United States as much as possible. They are entirely open-minded and judge nothing about Japan except the crowded trains, tiny apartments, humid summers, stubborn people, lazy students, materialist youth and silly Japanese government.

They make it clear to their Japanese students that they intensely dislike George Bush, armies, big corporations and people who insist there is right and wrong in the world. In this way they are very open-minded ambassadors, except when it comes to George Bush, armies and big corporations.

This, of course, is a satirical generalization of men and women teaching English in Japan, yet anyone who has met English teachers in Japan and other foreign countries might recognize the breed. It must be admitted that most English teachers don't head to Japan because of a passion for conditional verbs, nor out of a duty to serve society and mankind as teachers.

Many of them are in limbo between college and the "real world," which makes them perfect role models for teaching young Japanese English students, who wish to get exposure to English before they spend a year in California or Canada killing time before they're drafted into the real world of Japanese corporate culture to become salarymen and OLs (office ladies).

Some of the English teachers understand themselves as descendants of Jack Kerouac: 21st century bohemians out to re-foment Mr. Kerouac's "ruck-sack" revolution. Many of them, however, wouldn't know Kerouac from K.C and the Sunshine Band, but they feel called to wander.

And then there are certainly hard working English teachers in Japan who help their students, represent their countries well, truly appreciate Japanese culture and perhaps have one (just one) nice say thing to say about former President George Bush.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Japanese People and Apologizing

It's important to say you're sorry in most countries, but in Japan apologizing is a cultural must that is non-negotiable for Japanese.

The interesting aspect of Japan's "apology first" culture is that it doesn't necessarily mean you have some interior sense of sorrow when you apologize - quite often it is simply a way of smoothing over social situations in Japan.

Even if a person didn't do anything wrong, saying "I'm sorry," is a way to maintain harmony and avoid needless embarrassment or awkwardness at work or in some other Japanese social situation.

The apology culture of Japan is also on display in a unique way in corporate leadership. If, for example, two factory workers die on the job because of company negligence , the c.e.o. is expected to go to the home of deceased family and apologize profusely by bowing and appearing very contrite; and the event will be covered on TV and done in a very public way.

This aspect of Japanese culture exploded on the shores of America a few years back when a U.S. Navy ship mistakenly rammed into a Japanese ship with several school children on board. It was a tragic situation and several people died.

Justice ran its course during a court martial in Hawaii, but for the Japanese a court decision wasn't enough. There was a clamor for the American Navy Captain to fly to Japan and personally apologize to the family of the people he accidentaly killed.

Yet the irony of this is that in much of Asia (mostly among the political class), there is still anger toward Japan and the Japanese government for not apologizing for Japan's Word War II aggression.

There are a few lessons from this that foreigners, and ESL teachers in Japan can take from this apology culture. Toshiya Enomoto writes about the Japanese language and apologizing:

"Japan's 'apology first' culture makes it possible for gaijins (foreigners) to get out of most jams with sumimasen. equivalent to 'excuse me.' It is, however, just as useful for apologies and some Japanese prefer to say sumimasen as they think it is a more refined apology 'for grown ups' than gomen 'nasai. Saying sumimasen is also a clever way for gaijins to hide their limited vocabulary."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Japan's Obama City Gears Up for Celebrity President

Most Japanese people are staunchly apolitical, and the Japanese people who live in Japan's Obama City are no exception. That's right - there is a city named Obama in Japan's Fukui Prefecture - and the city's residents partied like rock stars last November when President-elect Barack Obama won the election.

The residents of Obama City may not be able to tell you Mr. Obama's stance on North Korea, Taiwan or U.S. military bases in Okinawa, but they recognize the power of celebrity when they see it. And in today's rough and tumble economy, rural Japanese villages need every advantage they can - so why not manufacture some Obama masks and watch the tourists flood in like a tsunami?

Change? Why Japanese culture knows how to change!

Japanese Women and "Being Cute"

There is a "cuteness factor" in Japanese culture that can't be missed: from Hello Kitty to the miniature beauty of Bansai trees, cuteness is valued. Nothing dramatizes this more than how some Japanese middle-aged women and moms adopt a "cute" look as they age.

Women in America, in contrast, hold onto their youth by trying to retain a "sexy" image. They wear clothing that emphasizes curves, in what appears to be an overt attempt to compete with younger women. American women have access to plastic surgeons as well, with the explicit aim of looking as sexy and attractive as a 23-year old.

While issues like prostitution, pornography and "hostess girls" are real problems in Japan, both Japanese teenagers and adult Japanese women in their dress and overall attitude have a far less "sexualized" manner than American women.

And while Japanese women feel no less pressure (and perhaps even more) than American women to "remain young," Japanese women return, in appearance, to an almost early adolescent look.

It's not uncommon to see a late-thirtysomething Mom in Japan wearing barretts, colorful trendy sneakers, short girl-like hair, a pink cell phone and jeans with the cuffs rolled up. And if you ask a Japanese women why this is, they might tell you they don't have the curves and physique of western women, so "cute" is all they've got.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Japanese Culture and the Myth of Safety

There is something broken in Japanese culture. Now this dark spot has always been there, but it has recently seeped out in a wave of violent, heinous crimes that is turning the dogma of Japanese safety into a myth.

Just recently a Chuo University professor was stabbed over 60 times on the Tokyo campus. The killer is unknown, and once more Japan has another gruesome "unexplainable" murder on its hands.

This tragic incident can be grouped into a long line of murders over the last 10 years. And these crimes, while few in number compared to America, exhibit a strange and peculiar touch of evil. The tales of students killing their teachers and children killing their parents are an indication that either the Japanese family or Japanese culture is failing young people.

It's time that Japanese parents, teachers, religious leaders and government officials admit that their is a rage and hopelessness in many Japanese youth that smacks of nihilism or at least garden-variety hopelessness.

For years now Japanese people have proudly touted how "safe" their country is compared to cities in the West, yet if one is no longer safe in the family home or at school, there is nothing safe about Japan any more.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Prime Minister Aso and Rural Japan

It's no exaggeration to say that Japanese rural towns are turning in municipal nursing homes. If you happen to spot someone below the age of 70 in the country, you can be sure they're just in from Tokyo to visit grandma. That's why Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso has decided to promote the joys of the country to unemployed urbanites.

As part of Aso's emergency economic package, the Japanese government will pick up the tab to send 80 Japanese unemployed folks on a 10-day visit to the country to investigate the prospects of working in agriculture.

The dwindling population in rural Japan is a symptom of the demographic problems facing Japan as a whole. The Japanese birth rate is one of the lowest in the world and it seems that it's a chore to convince Japanese women to even have one baby.

Japanese young people in the countryside often ditch their small towns as soon as they can, heading off to the bright lights of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It remains to be seen whether the decrease in auto exports will mean more unemployment and a reverse migration of workers back to the small towns of their ancestors.

Although Aso's plan is novel, it's hard to image the "new human beings" (as these modern young Japanese are known), turning in their cell phones and Ipods for rice fields and fishing boats.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The English Language in Japan

Ah, the Japanese and English...Japan is probably the only place in the world where the people can accurately write an English sentence in the present perfect tense, but cannot understand an American when he asks in English: "Which train goes to Kyoto?"

And no one is more aware of this irony than the Japanese people themselves, because they slavishly studied the English language for years in school; when push comes to shove, they really can't speak or understand English in any practical way.

Some of this may be the fault of the written Japanese language itself, which is composed of Chinese characters (kanji) along with two kinds of Japanese characters to accommodate foreign words, concepts, etc. The way that Japanese young children learn to read and write Japanese is by methodically memorizing large groups of characters until they have a working vocabulary.

In many ways it's this method of learning the Japanese language that has informed the way that the Japanese people learn English.

Japanese people (who do not speak English) are largely responsible for teaching young Japanese English. And they do this by emphasizing grammar almost to the complete exclusion of speaking. For as one wise man once said, "you can't pass on what you don't have. "

Exposure to "spoken English" might be from JET program teachers, who are largely American ESL teachers employed by the state to swoop into junior high classes and have fun with the students using English. It's all fun and games, but Japanese young people are mostly concerned with passing their high school and university entrance exams, which require an expertise grammar knowledge.

All and all, the Japanese people are slightly uncomfortable in situations where they might be expected to use English with a foreigner. Perhaps they feel they were short changed when it came to their adolescent English lessons, or perhaps it's more about Japanese "shame culture," where losing face is a dreaded prospect.

In the end, the best bet when you're lost somewhere in Japan is to bumble through using your travel book Japanese, and hope that a sympathetic Japanese person realizes that their unused English is positively Shakespearean compared to your mangled Japanese.

Recession Hits Japan's PingMag

PingMag, an important online voice on Japanese cultural issues (as seen through the eyes of Westerners), has stopped updating its website and will go on an "extended hiatus," as a result of the global and now Japanese recession

The website on Japanese art and culture had a real "feel" for the nuances, beauty and contradictions of Japanese culture.  The editors wrote:

"PingMag has been running for 3 and a half years now, and over that time literally millions of you, from every single corner of the planet, have visited, read our articles, left comments, linked to us on your blogs, sent us letters of support - some of you have even flown to Tokyo to join us!"

Foreigners, Racism and Japanese Culture

Japanese culture and racism is nothing new. In a country where 98% of the people are ethnically Japanese, you're bound to have a bit of "us" and "them" when it comes to foreigners (gaijin) and their strange ways. Yet Japan also has a real love afar with all things foreign, particularly those from the West, but also recently with Korean cultural imports, like Korean soap operas and pop idols.

One must also take into account the fact that Japan is an island nation with a history of closing the doors to foreigners when their influence was deemed "unwelcome." And then, of course, no discussion of racism in Japan is complete without mentioning Japan's military aggression against its Asian neighbors in WW II, which was driven in part by a feeling of racial and cultural superiority.

To read more about this aspect of Japanese history, read: Japan's Minorities: The Illusion of Homogeneity (Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge Series)

An excellent article on Japanese culture and racism appeared recently in The Japan Times. An American college vice president in Japan argues that westerns living in Japan exaggerate the extent of Japanese racism toward foreigners.