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Mt. Fuji and Shinto Shrines

February 4th, 2006

There are still so many misconceptions about Japan, many of them dating back to Shogun and before. An article on ABC News’ web site provided a good example of this in its opening paragraph:

If there were an international competition for good manners, Japan would always score highly. In what other country is one expected to bow before strangers unless meeting royalty, and where else does making hot tea constitute a formal ceremony?

I mean, please. Has this person never been to Japan, or are they just trying to suck up to the common American perceptions about Asian culture? “Making hot tea a formal ceremony”? I’ve seen lots of people make hot tea, but I’ve never seen the cha-no-yu ceremony here. Of course it’s performed somewhere, sometimes, but not in the everyday experience of most Japanese. That’s more of something performed by artisans or hobbyists, like glass-blowing or calligraphy.

And the whole thing about bowing–note the use of the word “before” in “bowing before strangers.” It should be “bowing to strangers,” but “before” sounds more obsequious. Bowing is simply like a handshake or a wave, it’s what people do in certain situations. But when it’s mentioned in the U.S., it’s as if it’s some unusual, self-deprecating act, some sign of increased humility or formality. That’s simply how Americans might see it relative to our own customs; it’s not that significant in Japan. We make a deal about how bows can be different in Japan, variations of angles and head-up or head-down, as if that kind of variation in formality is something that we’d never do. But of course we do–look at handshakes. There are the same variations there, we just don’t think about them. From manly hand-crushers to ladylike fingers-only handshakes, from single-shake deal-makers, to the three-shake standard, to the vigorous damned-glad-to-meet-you variety. Just like handshakes with Americans, Japanese do bows naturally, and would have to stop and think about it if you asked about the different forms.

Besides which, don’t get the idea that Japan is all about politeness, as the ABC article would lead you to believe. In fact, if you walk the streets of any Japanese city, you might be surprised by the apparent rudeness you’d see. People bumping into you, sometimes even almost knocking you over, without so much as an “excuse me”; men loudly hawking and spitting on the sidewalk you’re about to tread; people casually throwing trash on the street (especially smokers with the butts and cigarette wrappers, or kids with soft drink cans). In Japan, as I like to say, politeness is something that happens when your shoes come off. That is to say, it’s when you have some kind of direct social interaction. And not always even then.

We say that Japan is a culture of contrasts, but the contrasts are only relative to our own. In some situations, Japanese are more “well-mannered” than Americans. In other ways, they are more reserved, and in some cases, much more impolite. Overall, things are not that different. But emphasis on situational differences or attention to old preconceptions make us believe that things are more different than they really are.

It’s like the translation of the honorific “san” applied to names; when translated into English, “Mr. Hashimoto” is sometimes translated as “Honorable Hashimoto.” It sounds almost servile, with an “Oriental” flavor, denoting thousands of years of samurai culture or something. But a better translation is simply “Mr. Hashimoto.” Same thing. Certainly Japanese people do not feeling the fawning or solemn tone that we get from the word “honorable.” That’s so Charlie Chan.

The thing to understand–actually, we probably understand it, the right word is more like internalize–the thing to internalize is that Japan is not all Mt. Fuji and Shinto shrines. You have to abandon the image and the preconceptions you have about the people and their culture, and start new with the simple understanding that things just work in ways that vary from our own, though many of the basics underneath are exactly the same. Japan is probably not much more “steeped in its rituals and virtues” than America or any other culture is–it just looks that way when measured relative to ours. We each have our different ways of doing the same things, our own idiosyncrasies, but we’re not quite so alien from each other in the end.

And I suppose that’s why I like it here, why some people from abroad fit in and some don’t–because our idiosyncrasies match to the culture, or they don’t.

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  1. Kai-Yun Tran
    February 6th, 2006 at 07:20 | #1

    Hello. I hope you don’t mind my commenting, but I’d just like to say, I was very glad to read this article of yours. I’m glad to find someone who agrees with me.

    For quite a while I’ve speculated that the ‘importance of tradition’ and ‘honour/politeness’ the Westerners associate with Japan is greatly overemphasised and romanticised. When I’ve been to Japan, it wasn’t at all a mysterious and secretive Oriental nation like Americans think it to be. People openly took photographs in shrines, ate while walking down the street (which every single guidebook I’ve read described as a taboo), and stared and pointed at me in public.

    Some of the time I was surprised at some of the actions perfectly acceptable in public: urinating on the walls, never saying ‘excuse me’, and particularly the way people blatantly ignore anyone handing out papers (and, in return, these people’s pushiness, loudness and badgering).

    I’ve also come to the conclusion that the use of polite language and bowing holds no more meaning to people than as a simple procedure to be followed. And, the service personnel weren’t as much more polite as the guidebooks all said they would be.

    You most definitely know this a lot better than I do, as you’ve lived in Japan over 20 years now. I was just glad to hear find someone else who has reached this conclusion, especially someone with so much experience. It’s not necessarily hard for foreigners to fit in there – just for those who idealise Japan and expect something out of ‘The Last Samurai’.

  2. July 19th, 2008 at 01:18 | #2

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    Please check out http://www.fujiclimb.com

    We are planning to climb Mt Fuji 4 times in 24 hours!!!

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