Thursday, 17 December 2009

Changing Impressions of Japan

enjoying ochazuke at a Japanese temple
One of the firsts things we learnt about the Japanese was the generally accepted view of themselves as a unique race, with an ungraspable language and a different brain to the rest of us. This just served to enforce the idea that as a gaijin I would never fit into Japanese society and always be treated as an outsider, which just made me feel intimidated and sure I would find it a difficult year. Having been here for four months now I still think along the same lines - I will always be an outsider in Japan - but my feeling about that has changed. The reason is in fact due to this discrimination; I have only ever found it to be to my advantage. At festivals I have been ushered to the front so I get a better view and I've lost count of the number of times I have been escorted to places I have been looking for, all examples of the kindness of strangers and the willingness to help foreigners.
Another way in which it helps to be a gaijin is that being seen as a panda means that you can get involved in more experiences as the Japanese value having a gaijin along as somehwat of a status symbol, as well as just thinking you will be more interested in aspects of their culture than the average Japanese person. Kansai Gaidai has been involved in a traditional dance performance with members of the community for this reason, which was a strange cultural exchange if ever I saw one - the audience was a mix of middle aged Japanese and young foreigners come to see their friends perform - but still fun for those involved!
Japanese people often seem to apply the theory that "I couldn't know any better" to all the annoying questions I must ask my Japanese family and friends on a regular basis; I get treated in the same way as a five year old would when asking "why" all the time! As a foreigner I think it also makes me more comfortable asking questions that might seem inconsequential, but which often yield some interesting answers (as Bestor said they do!). For example I once asked my okaasan why the dogs didn't go outside together, which eventually led to her revealing that she didn't think women who had had a hysterectomy could be considered "all woman".....don't ask how! Japanese people also tend to explain the reasons behind actions that other Japanese are expected to know already, which can lead to some interesting discoveries. When I was staying in a temple we were given ochazuke (tea poured over usually leftover rice) at the end of a meal; while she was making it the lady was trying to explain why it is a Japanese tradition, however all I could get from the conversation was that rice was important, has power and the number eighty eight....having no idea what to make of this I asked the Japanese people I  know what she was trying to get at. No-one seems to know, but several people have theories; either that it is the length of time taken to grow rice, the number of gods in a grain of rice or the kanji for rice is made up of the kanji of haachi ju haachi (eighty eight). If only my Japanese was better this could have turned into an interesting discussion on why rice is so important in Japan and why they don't like to waste food! One of the things I like about anthropology is this reflexive aspect, the way it makes people look at their own culture and think about things that they would otherwise take for granted; I often think this is the real purpose of anthropology.
As an anthropologist looking at Japanese culture I have enjoyed the luxuries afforded by the positive discrimination towards foreigners over the last four months. However I might feel differently if I lived somewhere for ten or more years and was always seen as a gaijin while trying to fit in and function as a regular member of society. I am sure the longer I live in Japan the more I might encounter negative discrimination, however as it is I think I will continue to enjoy the remainder of my year here, and make many more interesting discoveries!

two gaijin performing a 'fisherman dance' in Hirakata

Monday, 14 December 2009

Political Parties in Japan - the Christmas Kind

In the run up to Christmas I was lucky enough to get invited to a 'Christmas' party; part cultural-exchange as we taught them about Christmas in England and they taught us how to make sushi, and part excuse for gossip and general merriment. Even amongst this group of middle aged ladies it is possible to see politics in play and an underlying current of Japanese traits. I expect even without prior knowledge of 'collusions' (emic level understanding of a situation - as defined by Befu) that go on in Japan you would be able to spot the tensions that exist between people or are being carefully avoided. When we first arrived we were welcomed in to the hosts "small" house, which was of course not small, especially by Japanese standards. Everyone began to display the food they had made, with some sense of competition - it was at this point that I was glad I had put the effort into making a cake, albeit not a traditionally English one! There was then a definite hierarchical table arrangement, with the hostess at the head and then the gaijin 'pandas' (cute, interesting to look at and fun) placed in the centre to provide the entertainment. Champagne was poured in the same manner as sake; first to the hostess, then a discussion was had about who was the oldest so that they could take their place in the hierarchy, although the Japanese want for privacy kicked in and no ages were actually mentioned. Despite the subtle vying to determine a hirearchy it was done inversely -  comments would be made as to who was the better cook or whose English was the best, and people were constantly trying to top up other's glasses. Perhaps in a society where equality is prized, it is better to set others above you than it is to try and establish power for yourself. 

wrapping up leftover food - note the scales in the foreground
The thing that most drew me to documenting this party in my blog was the precision with which each stage of the afternoon was conducted, from the organisation of the sushi lesson to the clearing up after the meal. Everyone played a part in clearing the table, and when it came to sharing out the food it was a lesson in equality if ever I saw one...scales were used to measure out leftovers so that everyone could take home equal portions. It seems as if the Japanese dislike of conflict has developed so many subtle ways of avoiding it that even personal relationships have a political aspect. I am in no way saying that this is unique to Japan of course, as all societies have their own cultural asumptions and ways of dealing with personal conflict, I just found it interesting the ways in which Japanese people deal with their relationships, and happened upon a great scenario with which to illustrate my ideas. There are many things to notice about cultural collusions, despite not having the emic perspective it is possible to recognise when people are 'acting' out a set of rules that are not literal and straightforward, and I think I will keep it in mind for a future research proposal!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Parent-child relationships in Japan

When I first received the details of my new Japanese host family I was surprised to find that I would be living with three siblings, ranging from a 19 year old to a 28 year old. Coming from a country where children often move out of their parents house at 18 if they go to university, maybe slightly later if they go straight into work, I was surprised that my new siblings were still living at home. After speaking to other homestay students and Japanese friends, I found out that my family wasn't unique; it is in fact quite common for children to continue living with their parents often until they marry. I was curious to find out why there might be such a difference, and what about the Japanese relationship with their children was different. At first I got the usual Japanese response "it is the Japanese way, the Japanese system"; it is the way it has been done for the last few generations. Mothers want to teach their children manners and make sure they will make good spouses, and are reluctant to give them independance until they have found a spouse to pass them on to. This appears to be happening later for this generation of young people, as the economic climate has led to men being more focused on careers and young women are either not as interested in marriage as the previous generation or still looking for a rich man to support them in the way that their parents do. Parents often play a part in arranging partners for their children in order to set them up with a family of their own. Coming from a country that sees arranged marriages as a negative and politically motivated act with the parents interests coming first, I was interested to ask the views of the young Japanese people I know. To find out that excitement and nervousness are prominent emotions and there was no sense of the individual's rights being taken away surprised me. This point is crucial to the difference between arranged marriages in Japan and elsewhere; as opposed to the negative arranged marriages, Japanese parents and extended family's merely act as match-makers using existing networks to find available singles, a situation that Karin Muller describes in her book Japanland which accompanies her film by the same name. There are now matchmaking parties for parents to go to, and although this may not be common and seems to be considered a last resort, it does mimic society's need to find a solution to the declining marriage and therefore birthrate. In a society where the parents are heavily involved in their children's lives, helping them study and then get into employment, it doesn't surprise me that the stress falls on the parents and that they go as far as choosing their child's 'life partner'.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The Inner Workings of Religion in Japan

My experience of religion in Japan, other than visiting a lot of temples and shrines since I have been here, has been based on how my host family acts and what I have been able to discuss with them; the other people that I have had the opportunity to talk to have in general claimed not to have a religion. Religion plays a big part in the life of my host family, not just on a daily level (my host parents pray at home every evening and every morning get up at 3.30 to go to a local temple to pray) but it influences their life decisions in a big way. My okaasan also volunteers at a temple on a regular basis, and I was intrigued to find out how this fitted in to the working of the temple, and it turns out it is what keeps the temples running. No-one is paid at any of the temples she goes to, including the priests - they live on what is donated by practitioners and visiting tourists. The temple that my okaasan belongs to is cleaned daily by groups of volunteers, mostly retired old men and women who work on a rotational schedule working maybe one day a month. Meaning roughly 200 people volunteer at her temple alone, leading me to the conclusion that despite the general population not claiming a religion, many must practice it given that one temple needs so many people to keep it running. The number of temples and shrines alone should give you some idea of the popularity of religion in Japan. I have to admit however that the people I have asked aside from my host family have been the younger generation, and there is the theory in Japan that Buddhism is embraced when death is nearing! Keep an eye out for how religion affects the lives of the average Japanese and you might be surprised at how prevalent it is.
A new car being blessed at a Shinto shrine 

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Gender Interaction

Contact between sexes seems to be discouraged in Japan; cuddling and kissing in public is not done, and for many young people living with their parents (a common occurence in Japan) there is little room for developing close personal relationships, and here I am not only talking about sex but about the non-sexual contact that a couple might take for granted in Westernised countries, such as staying at a boyfriends house or cuddling on the sofa in front of your parents. When I first experienced the shock created by hugging in public, I assumed that I had committed a faux pas and was being considered rude; however when asking my host family if I had behaved out of order they assured me that not only would my 'spectators' have compensated by labelling me a 'gaijin' (foreigner), but public displays of affection are not considered to be rude. From what I could gather, it has more to do with the Japanese sense of privacy - for example people are rarely even invited into the house, and it takes a long time to build up relationships in which to share intimate details about your life. When you think of these everyday situations, it seems logical that affection towards another person would be something that also takes a long time to build up, and is considered something private and to be kept behind closed doors. I believe this has led to the popularity of certain social spaces reserved for the interaction with the opposite sex, such as love hotels where couples can escape the confines of the parental home, and Host/Hostess bars (1) where drinks and food are accompanied by the man or woman of your choice. Although there is no longer such a stress on relationships leading to marriage there is still a formalised attitude towards gender interaction.

(1) Ann Allison gives a good anthropological account of what goes on in Hostess bars, and why they are popular with the Japanese 'psyche', in her book Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Globalisation - the Japanese Version


It is difficult to spend any amount of time in Japan and not find the Japanese use of English funny. 'Engrish' has been defined as the incorrect use of English, either grammatically incorrect sentences or phrases that have been taken out of context - for a further definition this website explores more characteristics of Engrish. Since English has been introduced to Japan through trade and exchange, it seems as if the Japanese have adopted it to suit their own ends - it is no longer used in a way that native English speakers would see as 'correct', but to the Japanese is has symbolic meaning. When asking the Japanese themselves about why engrish is so widely used, I have had mixed answers. The general consensus is that it is seen as 'cool' but people could rarely expand on why it might be seen as so. It is becoming more common to use Engrish to replace words that the Japanese already have, in order to sound more international; this leads to worries that the Japanese language  will be lost as Engrish becomes more ingrained. Given that the main Japanese alphabet is based on Chinese characters, the Japanese might have a right to worry. However the traditionalist Japanese are on the case, with attempts to bring in systems that will cut back the use of Engrish in official spheres, in an attempt to make it less popular at the grass roots level - if only this theory would influence company advertising! Although there is the idea of engrish giving a product an exotic cachet (in much the same way Japanese characters are used in Western countries as fashion symbols or in tattoos), if this was the only reason then you would expect the English used to be correctly, especially by the larger companies (such as Toyota). Although Engrish may differentiate the product slightly from its Japanese-only counterparts, it is used far too widely to give any particular advantage. Instead I believe it says more about Japan's take on globalisation, and the way that they incorporate and adapt foreign customs, products and language in a way that suits the Japanese psyche. Engrish isn't written for the native English speakers, but for the enjoyment of the Japanese, with sentence structures similar to the Japanese language, and key words such as "enjoy", "love" and "kiss" used to convey a feeling without necessarily making sense in context. The two pictures I have included are examples of the use of key words - "bird friendly coffee" doesn't have a particular meaning to any of the Japanese I have asked about it, yet they recognise the word "friendly" in  particular, and it's associated sentiment, and the same goes for "kiss". The linguist Haru Yamada claimed that the Japanese media use Engrish to emphasise the uniqueness of Japanese language, as it forces readers back to the kanji reading, which often gives the meaning of the word in the characters themselves unlike English, where the meaning of each new word has to be learnt. So I would have to disagree with those that say that English is just used because it is thought to be 'cool' and exotic, because the Japanese rarely appropriate something without first changing it in a unique Japanese way.

If anyone has further interest in the amusing ways that the Japanese adapt foreign customs, I can recommend the film "The Japanese Version" which is basically an outdated  documentary on globalisation in Japan, which still retains it's comedy edge. This youtube clip of the film shows the Japanese adoption of Christian sentiments and their ability to ignore or adapt the original meaning, in a way similar to their treatment of English.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Recreation in Japan

Pachinko parlours (click here for more information on pachinko) are difficult to avoid in Japan - garish buildings that attempt to draw you in, predominantly around stations but they also turn up when you least expect them. As pachinko makes up 40% of Japan's leisure industry I think it is worthy of some consideration, despite the fact that the Japanese seem to deny the existence of gambling and the associated social problems, and the difficulties faced by those who attempt to research it (as David Plotz describes). Despite having gained such a bad reputation over the years, such as claims to be linked to yakuza (Japanese Mafia) and the Korean Capitalist economy, the industry is enjoying a small revival in these times of economic regression. There are several theories as to why this is; the most prominent being the idea that people are turning to pachinko as a way to make money when unemployment is becoming such a big problem, or as a leisure activity that can be justified as a 'money-maker' rather than a waste of money as going to the cinema or buying video games might be. The other theory is that pachinko owners are attempting to appeal to a greater audience by cleaning up their image and tempting in a female clientele. Many have now banned smoking inside, brightened up the interior, made the furniture more comfortable and staff are encouraged to be more accomodating to dispel their sleazy reputation - something that from my questioning so far seems to be what puts most people off (that and the noise!). As far as I can tell from my brief soujourns into the incredibly noisy parlours, they have been successful in broadening their clientele as maybe 30% were women, and the remaining majority were respectable looking businessmen. The former theory is less easy to evaluate, as Japan is unsure whether pachinko even is gambling, and as Plotz shows with his character study individuals often go through years of denial before seeking help for gambling addictions. Nevertheless pachinko does look to be a recreational activity that many can get lost in; one of the few solitary activities in a country that prides itseld on its homogeniety and harmonised society. Something that has ironically been referred to as "cut-rate zen", a place where the noise of millions of steel balls dropping, loud videos and even louder announcements drown out thoughts of the dire economic climate and personal problems, and allow you to forget for hours on end