Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed the dangers of misconception resulting from forming a “single story”, a single simplified perspective, of a culture in a TED talk. Here’s a reading list of texts that provide cultural context for understanding and creating a more “complex story” of Japan- 1 local newspaper, 2 fiction, 2 non-fiction, 2 choice, 2 local news articles:
Local Newspaper: 日本の市や町の７５％で外国人が増えた
This article from NHK News Web Easy discusses the increase in foreigners in Japanese cities and towns. According to a population survey conducted by NHK, the population of about 83% of Japanese cities and towns have shown decreased numbers of Japanese residents while 75% saw an increase in numbers of foreign residents- specifically, students studying abroad, interns, and permanant residents.
Fiction: “Ordinary Woman 平凡な女”
Written by a 20th century feminist Hayashi Fukimo (translated by Hamish Smith), this discusses the strength in everyday women- homekeepers and female scholars alike. Fukimo gives power to the ordinary woman, believing that there is nothing wrong or weak with the professions they choose or find themselves in.
Fiction: “Losing My Father 父を失う話”
This story by Watanabe On (translated by Hamish Smith) is told from the perspective of a young boy living with his father who is not much older. The story follows a day in which the father transforms into a new, cold person who purposefully abandons his son by sending him on a steamship alone.
The author discusses her recent dialogue on a BBC Radio 4 program in which she focused on the complexities of cultural context that need to be understood in order to avoid misunderstandings. She reveals many contrasts in areas of Japanese culture that make things unclear and more difficult to understand, such as “the immense need for detail contrasted with the indirect vagueness of Japanese oral communication” and “the expectation of convenience and high levels of politeness & hospitality displayed in the service industry vs inefficiencies and a lack of flexibility within this industry.” Japanese society and culture is not simple-cut and black/white, but in fact has many varying and conflicting areas that vary by context and situation. These are deeper aspects of culture that need to be learned through direct interactions and experience in-country.
Non-fiction: Values and Beliefs
This work from countrystudies.us goes into depth about Japanese societal values and beliefs, stating that “harmony, order, and self-development are three of the most important values that underlie Japanese social interaction.” It details how values of Empathy and Human Relations along with the Public Sphere in regards to Order and Status, and Goals and Self are influenced by religious and philosophical traditions, although Japan is a secular society. It gives an objective view that isn’t written in an overly hyped-up, tourist-focused fashion, which I appreciate.
This post from Odigo highlights seven misconceptions that are commonly believed by Westerners:
- Everyone loves anime- although anime is a popular form of media that originated in Japan, in the same way that not all Americans are fans of sitcoms and game shows, not all Japanese are fans of anime.
- Japan is like your favorite anime- society and life depicted in anime is certainly not a true, reliable reflection of what everyday life is like. Of course it includes elements, but much of it is dramatized.
- Whale and dolphin is a popular meal in Japan- this is an exaggeration built off of the availability of whale meat during WWII, but it is not common today.
- The age of consent is 13- the Child Welfare Act states that any act of fornication with children (under 18) is not permitted. This myth often gives Japan a reputation of being a perverted country.
- Japanese people aren’t emotional- all people have emotions. People in Japan still feel these emotions, but the society is focused on the collective group rather than the individual, so there is a larger emphasis on controlling emotions in public rather than freely expressing them.
- Slurping noodles is a compliment to the chef- it is actually done as a way to eat noodles while they are hot without burning yourself. Paying compliments to the chef still consist of a verbal exchange.
- Japan is weird- there are always things in each culture that are “weird” to others because they are different.
This post on Fodor’s Travel outlines 15 things in different categories (customs, greetings, sightseeing, out on the town, and doing business) for visitors to keep in mind:
- Directness, efficiency, and succinctness are valued trait in American culture but frowned upon in Japanese culture.
- Expressing anger or aggression are equated with losing face in Japanese culture. It is best to stick to neutral topics in conversation, as private lives are kept private.
- Address people with last names and the honorific –san. First names are not used on a casual basis.
- Lateness is unacceptable in Japan. Eating in public and displays of public affection are also frowned upon.
- Bow upon greeting people.
- Casual clothes are acceptable for sightseeing, but be aware of your dress when visiting temples. Take shoes off before entering temples.
- Bring a small token or gift when visiting other people’s homes, and be sure to take off shoes before entering.
- Do not use the dirty side of your chopsticks to pick up food from communal dishes, and do not stick chopsticks straight up in food.
- It is considered rude to refuse a drink.
- Do not pour your own glass, and fill glasses that are empty.
- Never be late to business functions- allow time for travel.
- Carry meishi, or business cards.
- Hierarchy matters- use honorifics to address others and indicate your rank and title.
- Put cards in front of you to remember names, do not shove them in your bag or pocket.
- Do not assume you can bring a spouse to a business dinner.
Many of these address visible aspects of culture and general manners, but some also address the underlying values and traditions.
Seven years ago, a disastrous earthquake and tsunami combination struck the Tohoku region of Japan, leaving many people dead or missing and properties destroyed. A government-sponsored memorial ceremony was held to honor those who perished and suffered. This significant event has had a large impact and has shaped the lives and values of Japanese citizens, affecting them even today.
This article in the Japan Times outlines the issues faced by musicians in different areas of Japan. Being in close proximity to Tokyo can be beneficial in some aspects, but sometimes it is better for musicians to locate elsewhere. This shows the importance in place and the subtle cultural differences in prefectures throughout Japan- not all of it is entirely the same, giving it a more complex story.