Monday, August 27, 2007

Forgotten Differences

As I was reading over a particular passage of James Clavell's Shōgun this weekend, I stopped and pondered. In the book, the main character, the Anjin-san, the foreigner turned Japanese, comes into contact with his western friends since being separated in Japan months ago. The clash in cultures is astonishing for all, most of all the Anjin-san.

Although he still considers himself somewhat of an outsider, he has been doing his best to adapt to the Japanese culture. As a result, he has seen the benefits to parts of life that his native home had denied him: the regular baths, the practicality of sex, accepting what can't be controlled as karma, the value of life and death...

I would say (to little opposition, I hope) that 21st century Japan and Europe are more closely related in culture than 16th century Japan and Europe. And yet... some of the values instilled in Japanese youth remain. Many believe that it is better to die honorably than to live a life of shame, and commit suicide (albeit by different methods than seppuku). The practicality behind sexual pleasure (as recreation). Patience behind your emotions, keeping a veil over your true feelings.

Therefore, I can somewhat relate to the Anjin-san, as he is exposed to his "true" culture for the first time in months, after having been "Japanese". I may not be surrounded by true bushido-serving Samurai warriors and the caste system before the Shogunate, but I'm wondering just how revolted, upset, or plain confused I may be when I return home for good and encounter parts of my culture I find to be inferior.

I take so many things for granted here - ignoring the impact I have on other people - and completely forget that this reality is new for me, a part of me now, but not always. I never thought it would be like that, living in a strange new place, but I guess some blend, others reject.

If only I could remember...

There are places in this world where you can't walk around the corner, strip down, and settle into a hot bath fueled by volanic veins, showing no shame about your nakedness.

There are places in this world where people do not eat raw fish on a regular basis; in fact, some consider it disgusting, even unsanitary.

There are places in this world where mountains do not dominate the horizon, the earth doesn't move, and the sky stays clear in July.

There are places in this world where there is a different standard on polite behavior; people do not bow to show respect or humbleness; store clerks can get by by speaking nothing more than a grunt.

There are places in this world where trains run late.


Incidentally, as I read further, this book is definitely not making me feel any sort of sympathy or compassion for the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses who try to "save the heathen Japanese souls" in modern times. I guess that's the one thing that really hasn't changed; even after 400 years, religious sects just can't leave well enough alone. They never could. At least now they're responsible for fewer wars.


tornados28 said...

How is Clevell's novel Shogun? I know it was written years ago, but I have never read it.

ターナー said...

I'm just reading it for the first time. It's very interesting to read, having known some of the Japanese customs involved. It's good to get a fictional story perspective of samurai and the balance of power in the castes before the Shogunate. I don't known how this book wraps up, so I may have to read the whole series.

Shari said...

Careful. You are dangerously close to elevating Japanese culture above other cultures (finding your own "inferior"). This is reverse-ethnocentrism and won't serve you well. All cultures have good and bad points. The trick is to realize none of them are perfect.

Just as there are things you can do in Japan that are very pleasant to see, do, hear, and eat, there are such things at home.

ターナー said...

You're right, of course; it's just hard not to do that after you've lived in any place long enough.