Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pieces of a Puzzle: Japanese and American culture

Today I had a realization that seemed to explain my birth into modern day American culture as well as having a strong interest in Japanese culture.

Spiritually inclined, yet dissatisfied with the forms of Christianity I have seen, which are most common in my home of the United States, I have always searched out foreign satiation for my "higher" questions. To this point, I have found religious and cultural stimuli from Japan the most enticing, and for that reason may possibly be an explanation for my presence here in Japan now.

However, since arriving here to this mecca, I have run into a myriad of disturbing and contradicting information. There are so many cultural quirks that may have seemed cute, funny, or silly at first, but have really started to reveal themselves as great defects in a society. The seeming lack of personal interaction, the constant fear of shame, conditioned conservatism, endless work-loads, extra obligations, etc.

I have approached reading the book, "Bushido: the Soul of Japan" by Inazo Nitobe with a great amount of reverence and awe, but have finished without the Answer. It was one of the most illuminating books I have read on the connections between martial arts and Japanese culture, but alas, it contained many contradictions and incongruities that have only given me more questions.

What is it with these contradictions and incongruities? Why doesn't it make sense? Right now?!

Well, I don't know. But I did figure something interesting out today:

(please forgive and ask questions about any generalizations you find unwarranted)

Western culture, and American culture to be more specific here, generally fosters it's population to be independent, and ennobilizes "free-thinking" and individuality. It's religions (most often Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), however, seem to give strict black-and-white answers to spiritual questions, and asks for a blind faith which in my eyes inherently limits it's follower. This is an interesting difference between American culture and religion.

Eastern culture, Japanese to be more specific, on the other hand, seems to do the complete opposite. Socially, it chains it's population with so many rules and limitations that it most often fosters subordination to the group and it's leaders. Spiritually though, Buddhism and Shinto blow the cosmos open to individual interpretation and urges its followers to find one's own individual enlightenment.

I realized this today when I found that I have been fighting an uphill battle by struggling to get my Japanese high school students to form their own opinions and volunteer in class, as well as my own battles in trying to find answers in Japanese metaphysics.

I seek the beauty of individual thinking and spiritual mysteries. Perhaps they are not Japanese or American, Eastern or Western, boxing or Aikido, quesadillas or sashimi.

I leave you with this excerpt about Bushido written by Inazo Nitobe in his book, "Bushido: the Soul of Japan":

"Having no set dogma or formula to defend, it can afford to disappear as an entity; like the cherry blossom, it is willing to die at the first gust of the morning breeze. But a total extinction will never be its lot. Who can say that stoicism is dead? It is dead as a system; but it is alive as a virtue: its energy and vitality are still felt through many channels of life-in the philosophy of Western nations, in the jurisprudence of all the civilized world. Nay, wherever man struggles to raise himself above himself, wherever his spirit masters his flesh by his own exertions, there we see the immortal discipline of Zeno at work.

"Bushido as an independent code of ethics may vanish, but its power will not perish from the earth; its schools of martial prowess or civic honour may be demolished, but its light and its glory will long survive their ruins. Like its symbolic flower, after it is blown to the four winds, it will still bless mankind with the perfume with which it will enrich life. Ages after, when its customaries will have been buried and its very name forgotten, its fragrance will come floating in the air as from a far-off, unseen hill, 'the wayside gave beyond';-then in the beautiful language of the Quaker poet,

"'The traveller owns the grateful sense
Of sweetness near, he knows not whence,
And, pausing, takes with forehead bare
The benediction of the air.'"


  1. The most interesting cultural phenomena I encountered was during a teacher sports days I went to. Teachers from all over the prefecture attended - 1000s of them. Suddenly a whistle blew and everyone spaced themselves perfectly into a grid. the lines and columns of people were perfect within seconds. Thousands of people organizing perfectly within seconds. There is a life time of cultural conditioning that went into that surreal moment.

  2. Such an interesting observation. We crave both order and liberty and find our balances in different ways depending on culture. So what does that say about an atheist American or christian Japanese?

    Your brain is so big.

  3. Believe it or not, the second week after I moved into my apartment, two high school aged Japanese Jehovah's Witnesses came knocking on my door. They talked to my for a second, handed me some literature, and told me they have a temple in Kurobe. They came back once, and I still haven't been by the temple, but I was really surprised.