Sometimes my students unwittingly offer me windows into the Japanese psyche. Although I’m aware of our differences in the main, their observations can still take me off guard, or at least give me an “aha!” moment. It turns out that we delineate some basic human fundamentals in surprisingly distinct ways. This was brought home to me again by my high school seniors last week. We were wrapping up a unit on culture, and pairs of students were reciting a dialog they had constructed based on this theme: Do you consider yourself “typically” Japanese? If so, how? In what ways are you not typical of your culture?
Preparation for this assignment involved identifying features of their culture, putting English names to them, and then deciding to what extent those values resonated with them as individuals. Some students had trouble separating salient cultural symbols from internalized beliefs; there was a tendency to claim “eating with chopsticks” as a Japanese core value. We had to dig a little deeper to get at the underlying attitude that motivates the use of these implements. One student decided that it afforded them a “clean” way to eat, thus enhancing the etiquette of the total dining experience.
What seemed to be most challenging, however, was defining their own “Japaneseness” with concrete examples. Lack of vocabulary was not so much to blame — we learned and practiced lots of relevant expressions — as were their still-developing personas at age seventeen or eighteen. Add to that an undergirding communal identity expressed in the catchall opener Ware ware nihonjin ha. The phrase means “We Japanese,” and succinctly encapsulates an assumption of their sameness and a pride in their otherness: This is what we are, and it is not what you are. Natives of an island nation with a long history and a homogeneous population can make the claim that “We Japanese are polite” or “We Japanese prefer rice” with confidence. As a foreigner, I admit I find this phrasing alienating and off-putting at times. And unfortunately, in many cases this mindset automatically translates to making blanket statements about other nations or cultures. If I had a nickel for every time I had to refute the notion that all Americans pack heat or all Americans love McDonald’s or all Americans are loud…
Well, stereotyping is a human fault, not a strictly Japanese one. So, at the risk of making some blanket statements of my own, I offer a few excerpts from the student conversations that gave me pause. I re-print them as is, so please excuse grammatical structures that may sound a little off to your ear:
I think it is important to protect our lives. For example, we mustn’t have a gun or nuclear weapons. I think a constitution is an important part of my culture.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think many Americans would equate “protect our lives” with “the right to bear arms,” not “we mustn’t have a gun.” Collocating guns with nuclear weapons is also curious. The nuclear issue is at the forefront of the national conversation since last year’s Fukushima Dai-ichi accident, so I understand its mention here. But this is not a mere lumping together; “a constitution” refers to the Japanese Constitution, a document drafted in part by Americans following World War II that forbids Japan to form a military or go to war. It is sometimes called the “Peace Constitution” for this reason. Peace was mentioned by name by another student:
I think that Japan is a peaceful place. For example, people think it’s important to be kind to other people. I think being considerate is an important part of my culture.
A concept often defined as “the absence of war” has been distilled to the level of personal relationship. Whether the kindness of the Japanese flows out of an inner peace or is simply a product of minding manners is not for me to speculate. Many American friends told me of their surprise at the news footage after the 2011 earthquake: awed, not at the utter destruction of the coastline, but at clips of Japanese people neatly, obediently queueing up to receive paltry rations of water and food day after day. To be clear, the evacuation centers had their share of problems, and a Japanese can cut in line with the best of them when she wants to. On the whole, though, decorum pervades society, and those who do not follow the code stick out in the worst way. One final excerpt:
I think freedom of religion is important. For example, I celebrate Christmas. But New Year’s Day, I pay a visit to a shrine.
It is said that the Japanese are born into the Shinto faith, marry as Christians, and are buried Buddhists. Huh? It is common practice to take a newborn to a Shinto shrine for a blessing. This in no way implies that the parents are practicing Shinto or even have an affiliation with the shrine itself. As elsewhere, weddings are big business here, and wedding ceremony halls tend to be “Western-style,” tricked out with a stained-glass-windowed chapel, a “minister” in robes, and a choir or musicians. Finally, Buddhist temples and priests are paid handsomely to handle the funeral rites of the departed.
I will not comment on the why’s of these practices; they are enmeshed in the social fabric. Of course, if one is a true believer of one group or another, he may not participate in all these customs. A Japanese Christian would request a blessing for his infant at his church, for example. The majority of Japanese are non-religious, only co-opting religion to mark rites of passage. A good number of my students commented that religious belief was not a significant cultural value for them, or for Japanese in general. I’m pretty sure the student quoted above celebrates Christmas the way most people here do: indulging in fried chicken and a decorated sponge cake on Christmas Eve. In a few years, she might celebrate by having a hot date. Christmas for young Japanese people resembles something more like our Valentine’s Day. And at the new year she will go to a shrine and perhaps purchase a good luck charm or two for 2013, because that’s what people do. This is freedom of religion, Japanese-style: picking and choosing as it suits your station in life and the overriding cultural dictates of those who’ve gone before. Does this diverge sharply from our American concept of religious freedom, or is it deceptively similar? It has given me fruit for thought.
Teaching is a privilege in that it provides so many opportunities to learn. The key is to have a learning posture, to be open to a give-and-take relationship in the classroom. My least favorite literature professors in college talked at us from an outline. Their questions had only one correct answer. They were boring classes, and, sadly, did not inspire love of the material. What a waste. Students engaging my mind with their ideas is seriously fun stuff. Here’s to the second half of the semester.