Sunday, July 27, 2008

At least one other person "gets it"

I've been told that Japan is "wasted on me" by people who have only ever admired it from afar or as tourists. This comment is elicited because of the following facts about my life in Japan:
  • I'm not mad about Japanese food. I enjoy some of it, dislike some of it, and am relatively indifferent to most of it. I'm the same way about the types of food in the U.S., so it's nothing personally directed toward Japan. For example, I also dislike steak and hamburgers.
  • I'm not the least bit interested in anime, manga, cosplaying, or any of the other otaku-related pursuits.
  • I don't have a burning passion to visit every temple and gate in every major tourist area.
  • I don't care about onsen.
  • I have insufficient interest in traditional arts (flower arranging, tea ceremony, etc.) to get involved in them.
  • I am female and not a lesbian and therefore don't drool and act like a sex-starved post-pubescent dog at the sight of young Japanese women.
Given all this, people think I'm getting nothing uniquely Japanese out of Japan. The problem is that I can't possibly make them understand what I'm getting because they are too obsessed with what they're getting (or would be getting) from Japan to see anything else. Well, I also don't care enough to try and make them understand, but I do care enough to write about someone who does understand (aside from my husband and myself).

People believe that all of the value in living in a foreign culture is to be extracted from the most superficial and obvious aspects. I believe there is also value in understanding how the culture develops and where and why people have divergent thinking. Today, I had a student tell me something in her lesson to the effect of 'sometimes I think about the psychology of why Western and Japanese people think so differently.' She told me she found it fascinating and enjoyed pondering it. Yes, she gets it.

Most people look at cultural differences as a means to an end. That is, they want to either understand so that they can do business effectively or fit into the culture when they live in it. I have nothing so pragmatic at the core of my curiosity. I want to know why this lump of human clay took this shape and that lump formed in another place took another shape. I think by knowing what formed the basic personality structure of a person, I can inhabit their (mental) reality a little better. It builds empathy, compassion, and understanding for the emotional language people speak.

As an example, I can say that I have no interest in the fact that people bow instead of shake hands or in how low they bow. I am interested in why they're bowing and why they bow differently to different people and why they conform to this cultural expectation. And when I say "why", I don't mean that I want a pat reason like they are not comfortable with physical contact. I want to know what about their culture has made them uncomfortable enough with physical contact to choose bowing and why they don't like to hug each other when making contact with other people in acts of affection is one of the greatest visceral joys of human existence. What pushed this out of them?

Of course, there's no easy answer because not everyone is the same, even in a relatively homogeneous culture. The answers are complex and scattered all over the place in the language, the history, and the behavioral norms. It's a huge puzzle that you could work on for a lifetime and never find all the pieces but I think it's worthwhile and far more interesting than visiting maid cafes or having my picture taken in front of umpteen temples. That's just me though. And now another person "gets it", and that makes me happy.


Anonymous said...

I'm really fascinated by how you came to Japan without any otaku geekness whatsoever! It really helps, I bet, to see a clearer picture of Japan for what it is, instead of through rose colored, gundam filled, ramune obsessed spectacles! :) Your blog provides a really different perspective that way!

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

I agree with you there! While I am a Japanese design-ophile, after having lived here for a number of years, I no longer feel the need to do only/everything that is uniquely Japanese. It's life, which just happens to be one lived in Japan. Yes, I love my surroundings, but why would someone want to live as a tourist the whole time?

Emsk said...

I loved a lot of the things you see in Japan and onsens rock. But as for anything specifically Japanese that I pursued... not as such. For a start, I'm a vegetarian so food was difficult sometimes. Art-wise I loved the huge array of Japanese craft I encountered, yet did not come home with a suitcase of nick-nacks.

Perhaps the best "cultural thing" I did was unJapanese, but I did d it with a bunch of Japanese friends - a salsa night. Plus seeing the similarities and differences between British and Japanese culture.

It was always the people who made it for me. Once you've seen one temple you've seen them all, and I understand any Japanese person who feels the same about Britain. But it's the good times - and not so - with people that I'll take home.

I hope to be back soon as well!