Don’t Ask Me About Japanese Cultcha’

Shizuoka, Japan – As a Canadian living in Japan I can offer my opinion and observations on Japanese culture. I am not an authority nor do I think any Japanese person is an authority. They themselves don’t know what Japanese culture is. It is true that Japan is changing. It has an extremely conservative past and a western inundated future. This is most likely the cause of confusion for foreigners and locals alike when considering the issue of Japanese culture.

I asked a group of seven Japanese students learning English, (ages ranging from 20 to 60 years old): “What is Japanese culture?” Their initial opinions were saturated in traditional notions of austere beauty, as the Japanese word for culture is “wabi–sabi.” This word signals a respect of simplistic and natural beauty and is rooted in Japan’s agricultural past. The most pertinent example of this simplistic beauty is cherry blossom viewing, where there is a sense of excessive pride in the tradition of viewing. Another example is viewing the autumn colours. Kyoto is famous for its temples and shrines which are spectacularly beautiful in the fall. They seem to be floating in a cloud of red and orange turning leaves.

These traditions and tradition itself are frequently spoken of as the definition of Japanese culture, but they are slowly being devoured by the new, westernized, Japan. Westernized Japan is basically the worst aspects of the Western World intensified. As an outsider all I see is people shopping and going to the movies. Clothing is excessively expensive here. Furthermore, clothing literally does make the man. Teenagers will find a particular clothing store or outlet and shop there religiously. They develop a relationship with the shop owner and would never be caught dead shopping from the competition. Nine times out of ten a Japanese person will say their hobby is shopping. The older cultural traditions, like theatre for example, are being forgotten. Kabuki and No theatre are one of the most prominent points in the travel Japan guides but most Japanese people have never seen traditional theatre. If given the choice they would take a Johnny Depp movie over Kabuki in a New York minute.

Women’s magazines here are shameless in their depiction of women. Common are magazines which explain the step by step the process of putting on makeup like the J–pop celebrities. There are whole magazines dedicated to pictures and diagrams of each brush stroke in the makeup process. The treatment of women in Japan can be described as backwards in Canadian terms. In the office women are paid less and made to work much harder then their male colleagues. It is common for women to be paid for eight hours of work but asked to work for ten hours or more. Moreover, maternity leave is non–existent. A pregnant Japanese woman has no choice but to become a housewife. Thus the new Japan is seeing more and more young women choosing not to start families and pursue their careers, a move of strength.

Unfortunately, Japan faces serious problems in the future because of the decreasing birthrate and aging population. As a result the patriarchal traditions are bolstered excessively.

Another major problem is the sense of “inside” and “outside.” The Japanese economy is struggling because they are reluctant to do business with foreigners. It is happening but very slowly. This sense of outsider can be seen in the day to day. The word for foreigner in Japanese is “gaijin” which means “outsider.” Indeed there are places in Tokyo and elsewhere barred to foreigners. In Japan it truly is not what you know but who you know. A Canadian Hipster would love this place. Fashion is tops when it comes to who’s in and who’s out and fortunately for foreigners it happens to be trendy among Japanese youth to have “gaijin” friends. On the whole every one is friendly but the fact is that this friendship is based on prejudice. People who look foreign are centers of attention simply because they look different.

Despite all of this and more, I would stay in Japan. There are many problems here for foreigners which do slowly erode the initial excitement of the neon flashing crowded Japan.
However, it is fun and different.