Japan from the inside out

Imagine Western culture with Chinese characteristics

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, February 7, 2010

THE CHINA DAILY website has an intriguing article that provides a glimpse of how the Chinese are dealing with cultural cross-fertilization now that the country is opening up to the West.

One of the interesting aspects of the piece is that most of it could have been written about Japan at an earlier point in Japanese history. Just substitute Japan for China in this passage:

While China remained closed off, few of its people, products or ideas could make their way into the rest of the world. When the country opened up, the rest of the world rushed in as quickly as Nature moves to correct any sort of imbalance.
Naturally, this must have felt to China like a deluge, and some Chinese feared being swamped by alien ways.

This reminds me of something I once heard from a Japanese psychiatrist for whom I translated a few medical papers. He observed that the state of Western culture as it existed in 1868, when Japan ended its period of isolation, had been achieved through a long, organic process. In contrast, the modern world was thrust on Japan as if in a deluge, to use the same word as the author of this piece.

The psychiatrist thought that, all things considered, Japan had borne up rather well under that deluge and emerged the better for it. In fact, he seemed to take pride in the Japanese resilience and capacity to adapt to that sudden shock to the system.

Here’s an example of one of the issues that resulted from removing barriers to the outside world. This debate has mostly run its course in Japan, though traces still exist:

Mo (Luo), a scholar at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, says in his book “China Stands Up” that Western ways contaminate, exploit and weaken the Middle Kingdom. Zhu argued that China already has benefited from contact with Western cultures and will gain more if it carefully chooses which foreign characteristics take hold here.

Perhaps the only problem with Mr. Zhu’s argument is that it’s impossible to guide those choices after there’s been a full opening, and the current Chinese government knows it. The people decide in the aggregate, and most of those choices are made on the basis of what feels right.

Most Americans don’t know that Chinese weddings feature firecrackers; that Chinese parents make extraordinary sacrifices for their children; that Chinese diners eat off of plates smaller than any on a Western table; that favorite Chinese beverages include hot soy milk and the potent white-grain alcohol, baijiu; that Chinese toddlers wear split pants instead of diapers; and that elderly Chinese sometimes walk down streets backwards to keep their balancing skills sharp.

That same learning process about Japan is still underway, despite the obstacles the dinosaur media scatters along the path.

Westerners will learn as they and the Chinese increasingly mingle.

Unquestionably, but as the process with Japan and the West demonstrates, a lot of what people on both sides “learn” isn’t really true to begin with. Another thing the Japanese have learned is that people from the West will often respond with condescension when they encounter an innocent misconception. The intensity of the condescending response seems to be in direct proportion to IQ.

The response of most Japanese to similar innocent misconceptions, in my experience, is seldom condescension or contempt, but more often a bemused surprise.

One of my former English students, then a third-year high school student and now about 40, told me about some of the questions her host family asked her when she stayed with them for a year to study at an American high school.

One day at the dinner table, the father in the family wondered if Japanese ate pudding. Yes, she answered. But if you use chopsticks instead of silverware, how do you eat it, he asked?

We have spoons too, she replied.

She left it at that. The majority of Westerners that I’ve met in Japan, however, never leave it at that. There’s always room for an ironic, smart-ass observation.

It’s interesting that I’ve never encountered any Asians in Japan with quite that attitude about this country.

As they do, there’s no telling which Chinese customs will take root in foreign soil, but some of them surely will.

One custom/practice that has already established a foothold is chi gung (気功 in Japanese), which might yet become China’s greatest gift to humankind.

To think that exposure to Western ways weakens China, instead of strengthens it, assumes the country’s culture is fragile. That’s a surprising attitude for any Chinese to take.

That’s a surprising attitude for anyone to take about any cultural interaction between any two countries or blocs. In the long run, everyone is always the better for it, and that’s why the arguments against so-called “cultural imperialism” and “globalization” consist almost exclusively of hot air.

And the argument favoring trade protectionism is a monster that should be dispatched with a sharp sword whenever it raises its warty, sulfurous head. Here’s a short piece that explains why.

That article also demonstrates what the Japanese have learned, and the author of the China Daily article might not have learned yet: The people on the other side of the process have problems of their own to work out.

In a cab from the airport to my office recently, I listened to a cabbie complain bitterly about all the Toyotas and Hondas on the highway. I tried to assure him that most of the “foreign’’ cars he was looking at were assembled in the United States, but there was no mollifying him. Americans, he told me, had no business buying cars from Japan.

That was in Boston, which considers itself the sacred space of the intellectual elite.

There are people like Mo Luo everywhere.

2 Responses to “Imagine Western culture with Chinese characteristics”

  1. soma36 said

    “The response of most Japanese to similar innocent misconceptions, in my experience, is seldom condescension or contempt, but more often a bemused surprise.”

    To give my experience of your experience, I think this can quickly change around depending on what the “innocent” misconceptions are about!!

    I personally thought misconceptions about things like geography, cultural in the West, tendencies to assume the West is one big monolith (the ones lots of other foreigners like to be condescending about) amusing – but the things that always rubbed me up the wrong way were the “you will just never understand” kind of misconceptions. It suggests that an attempt to do so is foolish which is probably quite problematic for those that want to as much as possible.

    Likewise, the Japanese can turn pretty ugly depending on what misconceptions your proffer! I am not even talking about being outright racist either – questioning someone who claims that Japanese are inherently imbued with the “yamato-damashii” about whether this is really so in the modern world has lead to some interesting conversations. Maybe this is my misconception, but its a valid question to ask of those who espouse.

    An extreme example perhaps, but revealing. Then again, if I asked my Japanese friends the same question in my age group they would probably wonder what on earth I would even care about that concept for. Just varieties of bureaucrats, politicians, academics and older people with nothing better to do than to sit in bars and reminisce about the old days! These same friends (20s to early 30s) would also probably take on a more condescending attitude to the same innocent misconceptions. They suffer fools much less lightly perhaps than previous generations?

    Anyway, I thought it was an interesting quote because on the most part I agree – many Westerners I have met are far to quick to fit these miscommunications into a pre-constructed narrative of racist insult rather than for what they are – and in the mean time take away their own ability to reflect on the condescending nature of there own “objective” assumptions. I think it forces a lot of people to be self-defensive about their own misunderstandings – which rather than treating them as a thing that all humans do, compels them to justify them – which just makes it all the worse.

    …questioning someone who claims that Japanese are inherently imbued with the “yamato-damashii” about whether this is really so in the modern world has lead to some interesting conversations. Maybe this is my misconception, but its a valid question to ask of those who espouse.

    It might not be really so, and it might be a valid question to ask in theory, but in practice, for a casual or semi-casual acquaintance to be asking questions that directly challenge the other party is not usually how social intercourse is conducted among the Japanese. There’s a reason they talk about “wa”.

    It would tend, I think, to elicit an overly defensive response from someone who is not used to interacting in that way, forcing them to double down on their assertion. Also, a foreigner questioning a native’s assertion about nationhood wouldn’t get a whole lot of traction anywhere, would it?

    It’s been my experience that unless they know each other fairly well, the Japanese, even if they seriously disagree, tend to let those sort of statements slide and change the subject. I quite like that approach, myself.

    – A.

  2. soma36 said

    To be sure I do not usually prefer those kinds of “deep” topics for casual conversation either. Usually I have been rubbed up the wrong way by some jack-a** who has insisted that somehow my nationality/ethnicity/genotype limits me in some way.

    So, while they (jack a**es, not Japanese people) may not be used to interacting in that way, I am not sure what other response is valid, other than ignoring them, which is not always possible. If it someone who is completely respectful to me, and then mentions those kinds of topics, I am very likely to let it slide. I guess my point is that what is innocent and what is not depends on what cultural memes you have invested your ego into. Jack a**es in all cultures tend to have ego issues, but they come out in different situations, but most definitely there!

    If your argument was that Japanese social intercourse is generally conducted in a way that limits the ability for people to take offence, unless they are looking for it, I would agree with that.

    FTR as for my own MO, I much prefer casual and educational conversations about food, and if someone insists (often!), the differences between Japan and my own country in food- especially if these conversations take place over beer and the shoku of “wa”.

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