Monday, March 9, 2015

"Do you like Japanese culture?"

My time in Japan has been a slow unmasking of this mysterious country

The question came at the worst time. I was in a bank, one of my least favorite places. The asker was an old man and a stranger, the demographic I'm least likely to trust after a few bad experiences. And it was June, two months into my husband's new job...I was in a fog made of equal parts sleep-deprivation and culture shock.

All that might explain why I bluntly responded, "Not really, no." and that was the end of our conversation.

Do you like Japanese culture?
Not really, no.

In that moment how different I was from the girl in community college eagerly lapping up each new Japanese vocabulary word, who spent hours reading a Japanese-English dictionary. How different I was from the bright-eyed exchange student convinced she'd found, on the other side of the world, a place where she "fit" and could be herself.

Now I want to laugh at those early versions of myself. But how could I have known any better with the limited experience I had?

We learned in college every country and culture has its warts, its social ills, its gap between what it says are virtues and the actual practice of those virtues. Every country has problems with corruption, greed, and unjust social practices. The Japanese are just better than others at hiding the unpleasantness. I knew things were this way since I started studying Japan, but reading about it in books is different from experiencing it through someone you love.

It is only in the past year since getting married that I feel like both my husband and I have been initiated into the "real Japan" since my husband became a 社会人, an adult, literally a "member of society". For many cultures, "family" is the basic unit and building block of society. In Japan, however, I wonder if that building block is perhaps 会社、"company". More than families, more than politics, companies drive and support the Japanese economy. It is in the company and business practices that one can see Japanese thinking, culture, and values distilled in their most concentrated forms. Imagine the company is the heart, pumping money and life into all other institutions--including education, churches, and to some extent families. So since my husband has been initiated into this ultimate core of Japanese-ness, I'm seeing a much deeper side of Japan. And most days, I don't like what I see.

It's simply because the Japanese system runs on values completely different from ours.

My husband and I want to value family through time--rather than money--spent together. We have very little interest in the "carrot" of financial well-being and social status that Japanese companies hold out to workers.

We want to value religious freedom and the ability to practice our faith without having to face bullying and threats as a result. I know we're very privileged in America to enjoy freedom from this kind of "soft" persecution, but we want to respect fellow human beings as equals before God, and not participate in workplace drinking parties, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment, which are not rare practices in Japanese companies. Perhaps not rare in America either, but at least there it is more acceptable to voice complaints and pursue justice.

In Japan there is this phrase, しょうがない、"nothing you can do about it" "it is what it is" attitude towards problems, it means you just shut up and bear with them. Patience is a great virtue and can be a wonderful thing, but it also means change is very slow and rarely comes bottom-up (from the people) in Japan.

In this year of work it's become obvious that as Christians we do not fit the majority culture here. That is a big part of my feeling of culture's natural that I, the American, would feel out-of-place, but the scariest thing is watching my made-in-Japan Japanese husband and many of our Japanese Christian friends, in a variety of industries and companies, all undergo similar struggles when they start working. One friend went into a deep depression, another was hospitalized. Why?? Is this normal? I want to scream. Your young people--supposed to be the most energetic, creative, vibrant demographic of workers--getting completely shattered by work life? But that is the Japanese way. It takes discipline and the squashing of the individual to achieve sameness and unity. Sameness and unity offer the benefits of security and stability. At what cost? I want to ask.

Being different at this deep level, in a country that values homogeneity so much, is sometimes frightening and lonely. It's not socially acceptable to complain, to take pride in being different, or to do your own thing here.

I don't intend to bash Japan, since I believe all humans are imperfect, I expect to find problems in any country. And there are many parts of Japanese culture I do enjoy, the parts the poor old man in the bank was probably referring to: kimono, tea ceremony, calligraphy, hospitality, non-confrontational politeness, cleanliness, gardens and flower-arranging. But even my appreciation for those things has taken on a new and slightly sad dimension, since I know it is the underlying values that make those things possible.

It also gives me food for thought about my own country: what if I'm more blind to America's cultural sins, what if they don't offend me simply because I'm more used to them? We have to be careful we're not mindlessly endeavoring to fit the pattern of a particular culture, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. That is why I named this blog "foreign objects" in the plural sense, because wherever we go, at least one of us will be a foreigner. It's a constant reminder that our true citizenship is in heaven.

My feelings about Japan are summed up in my favorite J.R.R. Tolkien quote:

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.”

I think we have a duty to find and preserve the "much that is fair" in God's sight and cultivate it in ourselves. No matter what happens, no matter how frustrated I get over some things we have to deal with now, I never want to forget that.


  1. I think living in Japan I have learned just as much about America and being American as I have about Japan. One thing I am less "blind" to now is how violent (and I guess dangerous) The U.S. can be.

    1. That's true, I do feel safer (usually) in Japan!


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