Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Vanishing Culture of Japan? (pt. I)

Culture, like language (or disease), is constantly evolving. Unless it is totally bottled up in its own environment, it is a given that it will be influenced by other civilizations which come into contact with it. Even countries with the strongest sense of ethnic and/or national identity will find themselves adapting if not borrowing outright customs from beyond their borders, and this will lead to some native customs being abandoned in favor of foreign ideas which prove more popular. The result is a change in the host culture.

Darwin called this process "natural selection". Whether you believe in evolution, Intelligent Design or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it is a very real and observable process, and the clash of civilizations is a very good example.

Culturally speaking, Japan has always been a very resilient country. In his novel "Silence", Japanese author Shusaku Endo describes his native Japan as a "swamp". He says that, no matter what ideas and customs may come in from abroad, they all wind up sinking into the swamp. Rarely is anything imported verbatim. Once a foreign custom or idea is brought in, it winds up becoming something Japanese in the end. Columnists and politicians here in the Land of the Rising Sun are fond of complaining of the Westernization of Japan and the corresponding demise of Japanese culture, but is this really the case? Well, let's look at some fading traditions and draw our own conclusions.

1. Chopsticks


This is a favorite of the local media. It seems that many if not most Japanese children nowadays can't use chopsticks properly. They hold them in all kinds of bizarre ways, often with messy results. Given a choice, most will choose Western-style forks and spoons. Now more and more convenience stores are giving out plastic forks with salads instead of the traditional waribashi (disposable chopsticks) unless specifically asked. Even maps and car navigation systems indicate a restaurant (even a traditional Japanese one) with a symbol of a knife and fork.

However - I actually ran into some trouble when I first came to Japan because the Japanese have their own system of manners regarding use of Western eating utensils. Once when I ate at an American-style restaurant in Kashima I followed the usual pattern of starting with the outermost utensils and working my way in. Apparently that was wrong, because, with a huff, the waitress replaced the knife I'd used with my first course, took away the next one in line on my table, banged it into the dirty dish tray, and said, "Baka ja nai?" ("What an idiot!") I've also noticed that it's the custom here to eat plain rice on the underside of the fork. Actually, though, I don't think chopsticks will disappear completely. They're still what you get if you eat at any traditional Japanese restaurant.

2. Kimono

Back in my high school days I remember watching a Japanese exchange student perform a traditional dance in a lovely kimono. After she was done, she grabbed the microphone and said, "You probably think I dress like this all the time. Wrong. I don't. This dress is really uncomfortable, and I don't like to wear it." Back then I couldn't help but be a bit surprised by her caustic attitude revelation. (Now, thinking about it in retrospect, I'm only surprised by her English ability!) I of course had always harbored an image of Japanese girls as being polite, graceful, and at least sometimes clad in kimonos. Boy, was I mistaken! Yes, kimonos are rather uncomfortable. (No, I've never tried wearing one myself, but I know how tight they pull those obi sashes...and I also know how well kimono don't fit the Westernizing Japanese female figure!) They are also very expensive. At the same time, Japanese women tend to be obsessed with European name-brand clothing anyway, so kimonos just don't enter the picture.

However - while modern Japanese women may not like to wear kimono often, they still take great pride in them. You can often see them parading around in them at festivals or important events like weddings. Also, young women go to a lot of expense and trouble to dress up in special kimono for their "Coming of Age" ceremony. Little girls are also dressed up in kimono for their Shichigosan (7-5-3) celebrations. While we're talking about female dress, I suppose it would also be appropriate to add that clothing fashions here do NOT exactly match those of the countries whose brand names they adore. In fact, when my wife and I visited Burberrys, Liberty, and Laura Ashley shops in London during our honeymoon she was shocked at how "boring" the selections were there compared with those of the same shops back in Japan!

3. "Squatty Potties"


Western-style toilets weren't always easy to find back in the 90s. Many if not most houses as well as the overwhelming majority of public restrooms had the traditional Asian "squatties". Even at Ye Olde Academy there were only three restrooms in the entire, sprawling campus that had sit-down types, and they were all intended for either guests or the principal. Actually, "squatties" aren't as bad as you probably think; many people, including a lot of ex-pats here, believe them to be a more effective way of emptying one's bowels. I also appreciated the fact that you didn't have to worry about pressing your naked cheeks against a freezing-cold seat in winter. However, it's impossible to relax when using them. Medical experts have even gone so far as to claim they present a possibly damaging strain on the legs. At any rate, public opinion seems to be turning against them, and they are rapidly disappearing. Now it seems like most restrooms either offer a choice (like most of them now do at Ye Olde Academy) or have only Western sit-down types.

However - As Western-style toilets have become prevalent, so have the heated toilet seat and the bidet. Now it is even harder to find a simple, unpowered toilet than it is to find a "squatty". Moreover, toilets of any sort in Japan have always been equipped with 2-speed flushing, i.e. "little" (for "number ones") and "big" (for "number twos"). Most Japanese would probably find a single-speed flush toilet hard to understand.

4. Keigo


The term "keigo" (敬語) directly translates as "honorific speech". In addition to separate plain and polite forms of the verb, the Japanese language includes a number of unique words, expressions, and even grammar patterns that are used to indicate either respect for someone else or polite self-degradation. Honorific speech can be quite complex. Indeed, it was one of the most difficult parts of my Japanese language study before I came to Japan...

...and discovered that few people actually use it. In fact, most adults here seem not to know it very well at all, and they often use it as a trivia game topic to quiz each other during parties. The overwhelming majority of teens have no concept of it whatsoever. It used to be simple, everyday, common sense etiquette, but now it is virtually a dead language.

However - even though the Japanese people tend not to use keigo very much anymore, their machines certainly do! Withdraw cash from any modern ATM machine, and a soft female voice will probably bathe your ears with some classic polite speech (usually while a doe-eyed cartoon woman bows demurely on the monitor screen). The same is true of a lot of vending machines. Keigo is also what tends to spew from those obnoxious speaker vans and planes that blast political campaign messages during election season. In other words, keigo has become something that is heard but not spoken, but that will help ensure its existence for some time.

5. Kanji

The Chinese written system, known locally as kanji (漢字), was brought into Japan as early as 47 AD(/CE) but didn't come into widespread use until around the 5th century. It has been a problem ever since. True, there are many advantages to using kanji; the fact that it is mainly read for its direct meaning rather than its phonetic pronunciation actually speeds up the reading process (though it makes writing more tedious) and makes misunderstanding less likely. However, the Chinese written system was obviously designed for use with the Chinese language, which is totally different from Japanese. Since compatibility was all but impossible, Japanese priests, scholars, scribes, and nobles adopted the habit of simply writing everything in Chinese but reading them in Japanese. That was more than a little inconvenient, obviously, (Imagine going through life with everything written in Greek but read in English!) , but the practice was maintained for around 500 years. To make things a bit easier, a system of markings was developed to add to the Chinese writing to at least help the reader understand the differing word order. That was still a pain in the butt, of course, so finally female aristocrats in the 10th century got fed up with it all and designed a pure phonetic alphabet which could be used to write Japanese directly. That script is now known as hiragana. It quickly caught on with everyone except the male nobles and Buddhist scholars, who stubbornly went on writing in Chinese (rather like IBM stubbornly sticking with "sophisticated" text-based operating systems even when Apple had proven people like GUI things better) and then invented their own, parallel phonetic script, which is now known as katakana. Eventually the three written systems settled into a sort of uneasy symbiosis, with kanji providing the meaningful components of most words, hiragana indicating the grammar constructions, and katakana spelling out all the foreign stuff.

Perhaps the biggest danger lie in the fact that hiragana was also used for children's writing. In other words, kids learned it first followed by katakana and kanji later. That meant that not only did people retain hiragana easier, but they tended to fall back on it whenever they couldn't remember how to write a particular kanji. Over time, it became more and more common for more difficult kanji to disappear from writing altogether, replaced instead with hiragana as the standard. Even now I'm occasionally told that kanji I learned in college are no longer considered part of everyday written discourse, and my using them makes me sound rather stuffy or bookish. Even worse is the fact that it seems to be an increasing fashion trend for young people , girls in particular, to write ONLY in hiragana...i.e. teens and twains writing like grade school students. They say they do it because it "looks cute", but it has also become a custom in SMS messaging an cell phone e-mails. Kanji has suddenly found itself being dragged closer and closer toward life as a museum exhibit.

However - the Japanese in general still seem to have a lot of pride in kanji, and they consider its knowledge a mark of good character. Even teens who rarely write anything but hiragana outside the classroom occasionally quiz each other on their kanji knowledge. Finding difficult kanji on a sign also arouses intense curiosity more often than not. Also, as I mentioned in a recent post, the Japanese still take great pride in the kanji they use in their names. Yes, kanji may likely fade from general use, but it will never disappear completely.

(To be continued...)

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  • Being the Christmas season here, once again there is a certain crowd trying to ban the display of Chritmas stuff in public places.

    Atheism is trying to prevent a very old custom.

    There are people who are trying to make smoking a crime no matter where you go.

    At the same time people are bending over backwards to remind people of other traditions.

    America is a melting pot. Cultures import their own traditions. But no one should be offended by anyone else's desire to celebrate them. Some are, and it is sad.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 11:57 PM  

  • Hey, kind of like how everybody who's invaded Ireland "becomes more Irish than the Irish!".....

    As for traditional clothing...the Norwegian Bunad, German Volktracht, and the Scottish Kilt...all are VERY VERY expensive, some are positively a pain to wear (I'm not even going into the Polish & Italian garb!). It's simply not practical for everyday wear....

    I know you can make your own cheaper knock off's (esp. the "Dirndle" and Norwegian "folktracht"); these is often called "working" outfits, because they are made out of washable cotton, (instead of wool) and are used for working at festivals (like in a food booth) or dancing.

    The chopsticks vs. utensils is hilarious...I'm sure that will continue to evolve as needs dictate!

    I can say I DO prefer western style toilets, the French "Hole in the Ground with no toilet paper with in reach" was quite irksome!

    Keigo seems to me kind of like the old Victorian euphamisms (sp?) going out the window....sure it might be less polite...but you sure spend alot less time quibbling about what to say. I think it's all about effiency and time....

    And the old Kanji? Well folks still like using Latin every now and then, and even Classical Greek shows up now and then. It'll never disappear completly as you say!

    By Blogger ladybug, at 1:05 AM  

  • Ah... So it's OK to call your customer and idiot in Japan?

    By Blogger Swinebread, at 3:44 PM  

  • Dave
    So I guess atheists are allowed to force their religious beliefs on others now, huh?

    Get a life, people! It's a tradition!!!

    Oh, I'm sure disappearing traditions are common the world over. I'm just showcasing the ones in my area.

    No, it's not okay. The waitress in question yelled the remark to her coworker no doubt not thinking that I could both hear and understand her. I was tempted to call the manager and lower the boom, but I just wasn't in the mood at the time. (Plus I felt sorry for them since they had almost no customers...gee, I wonder why...) In the past I have opened up on waitresses that were giving me crappy if not degrading service, especially if the Japanese customers were clearly getting better treatment. That hasn't happened in a while, thank goodness, but I don't generally put up with too much crap.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:28 PM  

  • Woah, this is FASCINATING!

    1. The use of chopsticks is being picked up in the West wholesale. Westerners visiting an Asian restaurant who can't use chopsticks get funny looks!

    Use of chopsticks for a restaurant on car navigation: "Eleven? What's Eleven for?" LOL

    2. My Japanese friend sometimes wears a kimono (complete with sabots) if we go to a gala dinner or fancy exhibition. She dresses herself, I don't know, she must have eyes in the back of her head. The last time, her obi kept coming undone...and any time we go to antiques fairs she buys an obi, no earlier than the early 20th century.

    Hey, no knocking Liberty or Laura Ashley (my fave textiles!) - your wife is just used to a different aesthetic.

    3. Squatties - tried one in Alpine Italy in the winter, and boy was it breezy down there!

    Yes, I can definitely see how blood supply would get cut off. Not fun in winter, or if you have to keep going back again and again!

    We have a two speed flushing toilet. It's great.

    4. Keigo - hm. English has NO equivalent, but if we did, it might be like modern Eng vs Chaucer's English? Why am I always seeking parallels to your examples?
    French is a bit close, with the different verb conjugations for written versus spoken language.
    And Greek with its demotika and koine.

    I cannot imagine a woman bowing to me at a cash machine. Here, we take pride in doing it in under 20 seconds, primarily becuase you don't want anyone pinching your card, wallet, or the money you've just withdrawn; secondarily because it's probably windy, raining, or cold...

    5. As you know, I have heard of katakana but did not know of its origins - WAY TO GO LADIES.

    I can't, however, get my head around living so closely with different systems of language...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:16 AM  

  • Hey, no knocking Liberty or Laura Ashley (my fave textiles!) - your wife is just used to a different aesthetic.

    Actually, Laura Ashley is my wife's favorite, too, m'lady (which makes Christmas and birthday shopping soooooo easy)!

    My point was that, when we went to the London Laura Ashley, the selection they had was very different from that in Japanese shops at the time. My wife also thought the London selection was narrower and plainer (though I admit it could've been simply that, since it was London, my wife was expecting a glorious textile revelation but instead found usual fare).

    Different aesthetic, different clientele. Then again, at Burberrys in London all the customers were Japanese, and they even had a Japanese sales clerk!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:38 PM  

  • Keigo - hm. English has NO equivalent, but if we did, it might be like modern Eng vs Chaucer's English?

    Not quite that old, m'lady! Shakespeare would probably be a better comparison. It's more like the difference between saying, "I humbly beg you bestow upon your humble servant your honorable wares," and, "Hey, give me one of those."

    ("I kan haz cheezbrgr?")

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:56 PM  

  • Olivia is right. I learned to use chopsticks visiting Moody in Japan, but I use them quite a bit back in the US of A and my skills are better now; I was a slow learner in Japan and made lots of people smile with my chopstick fumbling.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:12 PM  

  • Interesting post.

    Chopsticks make getting the last olive from a tall jar an easy task.

    In Hawaii people use chopsticks all the time. I've had people here comment with surprise at my ability to use them as if its difficult. Too bad if kids aren't doing well with it these days - they'll run into trouble if they visit Hawaii :^O

    I'll keep my Western toilet with warm water bidet thanks, but I do agree that "squatties" are more natural and probably healthier in some ways. Not terribly convenient for people who wear pants. Old men in my area use another type of toilet - the shoulder of the road - (number one only). Why they can't think of that before they leave home, I don't understand.

    I hope the Keigo stays. It is one of the lubricants that help reduce the friction of society. Kanji too - all Hiragana would be confusing with too many "synonyms" arising.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 7:41 AM  

  • Gah, when I was typing Chaucer, the back of my mind kept going, "Shakespeare, Shakespeare". I never listen do I?

    By Blogger Olivia, at 8:10 AM  

  • Can this be considered as the loss of some traditions?

    Though I'm of Chinese descendant but living in Mauritius,I don't know much about the Chinese traditions.I think the western culture is taking over in many countries and somehow many people tend to follow that,leaving behind their own culture and traditions.

    By Anonymous angele, at 2:35 AM  

  • Funnt things Culture & Tradition
    So ephemeral and so transient ...

    soon destined to become distorted memories, idealized or romanticised

    I say bring back the Viking tradition, I miss all that rape and pillaging at weekends - discos, the meat market and punch up outside pubs don't quite have the same 'feel' - only kidding

    So hard to be traditional, I was watching a programme about Mongols herding sheep & camels. I'd love to do it ... but the whole thing, the whole illusion is spoilt by the intrusion of radio and tv, by the intrusion of motorbikes and off road SUVs.

    But I guess some traditions will continue to be preserved, whether costumes, culinary dishes, or architectural preferences ... but piped water and power showers I will not remounce, and tiling whether simple white tiling or more complex mosaics, I favour in kitchens, baths & pools (swimming pools)

    Whether I prefer the scenes to be Japanese, Roman or Greek, I cannot really say - I love them all.

    By Blogger QUASAR9, at 8:31 AM  

  • I should also mention that thousands of Christmas trees are currently heading to China and Dubai.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 8:53 AM  

  • sorry I didn't write earlier, but you know, relatives call and put their feet under the table and think you have a few hours to spare. I am constantly astonished by the changing culture in Fiji when I compare Peceli's childhood in rural Labasa with the way our grandchildren live in Suva these days - with their internet games, their poker, their emails, Kentucky, Maccas and so on. That's a change in only sixty years.

    By Blogger Peceli and Wendy's Blog, at 6:32 PM  

  • On New Year's Eve 1990 or so, my husband and I were awakened by a phone call from an employee of a restaurant near our gallery in San Francisco. It seemed a visiting gentleman from Japan was experiencing an "art purchasing emergency." He'd seen a painting in the window of our gallery; he wanted to buy it, and he had to fly to Japan at the crack of dawn the next morning.

    We had two babies and were celebrating New Year's Eve by trying to get some sleep. My husband nonetheless dragged himself out of bed, went to the gallery, and sold the gentleman the painting. Soon after that, we received a letter from Japan, thanking my husband profusely for his "tenderhearted nature," his willingness to take himself away from his "precious holiday."

    Every Christmas since then, we've received a holiday card from this man, with a hand-written message. Something we've never experienced with any other client from any other culture.

    By Blogger San, at 6:27 AM  

  • I find chopsticks beat a fork anytime if you are eating noodles. With a fork, you get the soup or gravy splattered onto your clothes (eww!! especially if it's curry noodles you are eating). Most Chinese here use chopsticks at home and we are still rather traditionally Chinese - observing the various customs.

    MM, interesting info on Kanji. Thanks.

    What Dave said about the aethiest is sad - sort of like the banning of fire-crackers and the Lion Dance during the Chinese New Year. Fire-crackers have been totally banned here and a police permit is required for a Lion Dance.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 1:28 AM  

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