Monday, February 19, 2007

Wrong about Japan

I recently finished this book by Peter Carey. I had picked it up in the hardcover bargain section of one of the big bookstores because of its manga theme. The book was mildly interesting, although perhaps someone who hasn't spent some time in Japan would find it more so.

The mindset that Carey exhibits throughout the book is one which many foreigners share (including myself) when they travel there. We see and feel the history and vastly different culture and we imagine our Japanese hosts as experts in linguistics, literature, classical music, tea ceremonies, construction, anime, World War II, kabuki, Noh, Asian geopolitics, food, kimono, geta, sushi, koto, geisha, kanji and any number of other Japanese topics. We become disappointed when their expert knowledge is not forthcoming. But these are unrealistic expectations. How many of us could answer questions about our country, province, or hometown? I couldn't say much more than "hockey" and "poutine" if a Japanese person asked me about Canadian culture. Perhaps others could be more verbose.

The first time I met my wife-to-be, I found myself asking her about her feelings towards Americans because of Hiroshima. That's similar to her asking me how I felt about Newfoundlanders, due to their late entry into Confederation. It's just completely irrelevant. (Although, it does rub me the wrong way that it took them so long to join, damn them! ... kidding of course.)

The book tells the journey of father (Carey) and son, as they try to each discover their own personal "real Japans". Carey's publishing connections allow him to set up some impressive interviews in Japan (for example, with Miyazaki Hayao, creator of My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) which he is later disappointed with, because his supposed clever insights into Japanese animation (and other cultural aspects) are not met with the enthusiasm and understanding he expects.

There are a few minor factual errors (I've become a manga expert while reading Adult Manga) and a number of interesting manga illustrations.

Recommended for fathers with young teen aged sons, either of whom are interested in Japan.

9 comments:

Kath said...

Interesting post, although I can't see how you could liken the bomb in Hiroshima to Newfoundlanders entering Confederation a little late. The two do not even begin to compare. In fact (unless you are a native), Canadians are lucky to have never experienced anything close to as traumatic as that in our history. So I do have to disagree that it is not expecting too much of the Japanese people to have some kind of opinion about the bomb, Americans, war, etc.

On the other hand, expecting contemporary Japanese people to be experts about tea ceremonies, samurai culture, and kimono-wearing is a whole other thing. I completely agree that it is silly to (a) expect this, and (b) be disappointed when your expectations are not met. They aren't all social history profs, now are they?!?

Sean O'Hagan said...

Re: Nfld, I'm just saying in time and space, that event is as far away from me, as Hiroshima is from many young Japanese people. Of course, I marvel at the fact that there is not enormous anger and visible hatred towards Americans exhibited by the Japanese.

My point was that I chose, as my first point of conversation, something about which I believed I knew how Japanese people should feel.

I simply think I'm a poor conversationalist.

Michael and Julie said...

I'd like to think you are a whole lot smarter about Canada than you state; also I think a good number of Japanese are VERY aware of their history, of their traditions, of their culture. of their foods...I believe they often prefer to just not share this with others, especially "gaijin". But at times they do, with much pride and congeniality, which is something we noticed when we visited there.
The existence of the Peace Park in Hiroshima with the museum , statues and A-bomb dome (and Nagasaki), with the huge numbers of Japanese people that visit here must indicate an awareness and response(polite or quiet or understated as it may be)on their part. I agree with kathleen as well.
Just because many of the younger generation are not as aware of their heritage/history does not mean a majority of Japanese are not as well. Afterall, Japan is a country with a huge senior population, so they know very well about these things.
You have not perhaps read the best book about Japan....I would be happy to shae some titles with you.

Kath said...

The next time a Japanese person asks you about Canadian culture...

~outdoor patios
~Tim Horton's drive-thru to (and sometimes from) work
~double doubles
~going to camp in the summer time
~Laura Secord (the chocolate shop and the woman)
~loons and loonies
~bilingual signs, labels, and people
~inuksuks along the highways
~hot dog vendors on street corners
~we say "sorry" and smile a lot
~we often hug to say 'hello' and 'goodbye'

Having lived in Japan, don't you feel like you are able to more easily pinpoint Canadian culture? The longer I look at it from the outside, the more clearly I can see it...

:)

Sean O'Hagan said...

I'm not trying to belittle the knowledge of the average Japanese person. I'm sure there are many who know many facts about Japan. But I think the expectations of tourists to Japan are much too high. That is all I'm trying to say.

And Kath, we've argued about Canadian "culture" a few times. Not much in your list that I'd brag about. Ours is a very commercial culture. Japan's is as well, but they also have a wonderfully old culture of traditions implicit in their language and daily lives. I'm sure other old countries have this as well.

Kath said...

Sean, are you getting the terms "culture", "customs" and "tradition" mixed up? Of course we don't have any ancient traditions in Canada (unless you count the ones we've adopted from the many countries that helped build ours) -- our country is less than 200 years old!! And I didn't write that list to "brag"... I was merely reminding you that we too have daily rituals that may seem perfectly normal to us, but are completely new and alien (and even exciting!) to them.

Sean O'Hagan said...

I don't know. Maybe. Maybe we're getting the terms "culture" and "personal habits" confused as well. I'm going to go through your points one by one.
-outdoor patios: I seem to remember sitting on a patio in Yonago with you and Yuu. There are fewer in Japan because of space considerations.
-Tim Horton's drive-thrus: Japan has a gazillion convenience stores which serve a similar purpose. But I don't think these qualify as culture, traditions, or customs. However, the greeting you meet each time you enter a Japanese convenience store (and in fact, any store), would qualify as one of the above.
-double doubles: this is a term that we use to shorten the coffee-ordering process. Is it strictly Canadian? In any case, ordering coffee with milk and sugar occurs in Japan.
-going to camp in the summer time: I would have to agree that in certain parts of Canada, this is a custom.
-Laura Secord: I suppose this is part of our culture. However, I'd be interested to know what percentage of consumers are aware of the history. There is no connection between chocolates and the real Laura Secord. She is definitely an historical figure, and so is part of our history. But we don't have a Laura Secord Day, nor do we buy Laura Secord products for specific occasions.
-loons and loonies: Why?
-bilingual signs: This is a characteristic of the signs of Ontario. However, I wouldn't call it cultural. It's enforced by our government for historical reasons.
-inuksuks: This is not part of general Canadian culture. This is part of Inuit culture.
-hot dog vendors: again, not strictly Canadian. Compare hot dog vendors on every corner to the booths that open at temples or shrines in Japan during festivals. Both are commercial, but one has a cultural flavour to it.
-"sorry" and smiles: I disagree. I don't think we're very apologetic or smiley. You've lived in Toronto, haven't you?
-hello/goodbye hugs: I believe this is more European. Definitely does not have roots in our English heritage, maybe in our French. This opposes us from Japan for sure, but not from many other Western nations.

So, you still haven't explained to me what makes us Canadian. And which traditions have we adopted from other cultures?

Your point that Canada is less than 200 years old is unfortunately working against you. Going back in the past, Canada had much stronger traditions and culture. As we've evolved, we've lost much of our culture. Of course, I suppose it all depends on where you come from. I remember in P.E.I, hearing about ceilidhs, traditional dance "parties" which people still attend today. Parts of Canada which have remained relatively homogeneous (as is Japan) are able to retain many more cultural aspects, than large centres such as Toronto.

Anyhow, I think I've just convinced myself that Canada does have remnants of an historical culture. I just don't know what those remnants are. Canada also has pockets of imported culture, which unfortunately, don't often permeate outside and get adopted by other Canadians.

Kathleen said...

A nations daily habits are what make up its customs, whether or not these habits happen to be commercial. I would call the Japanese tendency to use their cell phones (for calling and/or text messaging) during social outings "commercial", but it's just as much a part of Japanese culture as samurai or kimono-wearing (if not more so since the previous two examples aren't very contemporary).

I still wholeheartedly believe the examples of Canadian culture I listed for you are "culture". Who cares if we sat at one outdoor patio in Yonago because space allowed? If you recall, most Japanese people opted to sit in and the idea of sitting on a patio is not a norm in Japan. But it is in Canada; in fact, most Canadians prefer it. I would call that a part of our culture -- as would many of my Japanese friends who visited Canada.

However, I would not consider your example of some ancient PEI tradition that most mainstream Canadians have never even heard of "culture". If most Canadians don't know about it, that tells me it isn't Canadian culture.

Last but not least, of course the native Canadians make up a part of Canadian culture. The number of native-themed souvenirs alone should tell you that. And before you go and argue that tourist shops have commercialized native traditions, recall the Japanese fondness for omiyage... Is that commercial or culture?

I find it almost laughable that you are trying to argue that Canadians don't have a culture of our own. Whether its modern or ancient, commerical or non, and whether you like it or not, we do have a culture to call our own. Like I said in my first post, it becomes more and more obvious to me the more I travel. Those normal, everyday "habits"? That's culture, baby. Deal with it. :)

Sean O'Hagan said...

Okay, let's get back into this. :)

Would you say chopsticks are a part of Japanese culture? I would call it Asian. The same with patios. This is not something that Canadians invented, nor do tourists ever come to Canada to sit on our restaurant patios.

I guess we're confusing our definition of culture. I want to know what is distinctly Canadian, not what we share with American and most European cultures.

If all Canadian patios had ice on the ground and the servers skated to our tables, I would definitely call that Canadian culture.

I completely disagree with you about culture that the majority of Canadians know or don't know about. If Tokyoites are unaware of some aspect of Kyushu culture, does that make it un-Japanese? These particular localized things are exactly what culture is. Some of the more succesful ones permeate through the entire culture.

Again, I completely disagree about native Culture. If Ainu culture was portrayed as Japanese, the Ainu would be miffed. The same goes for Canadian natives. Just because souvenirs are sold in a shop in Canada, doesn't make them Canadian. Their culture happens to exist with the political structure of Canada, but they would bristle if you called their culture Canadian and not Mohawk or Huron culture, for example.