Japanese Group Mentality?

(Shibuya station of the Inogashira Line on an evening in May 2011.)

One often mentioned cultural characteristic (a stereotype, plainly put) that has been so deeply impressed into theories of Japanese culture is Japan’s so-called “group mentality.” This theory might have become something of a non-issue in Japanese cultural studies of late (except perhaps for scholars of “Nihonjinron,” theories of Japanese uniqueness from a rather Japanese perspective), but it is still perpetuated by international journalism, Western expats living in Japan, and many Japanese nationals, who are also considered experts on the issue. As long as this stereotype is so widespread, I think it requires a closer look.

The standard reason given for the Japanese group mentality is Japan’s tradition of rice agriculture, where close, careful relationships among community members were necessary to ensure the fair division of water resources even when they were scarce. The community, it is said, had to set personal differences aside to survive. But, large parts of Japanese society (fishing communities and the often low-class, mobile groups of society, for example) were never really tied to rice agriculture. It might be argued that these communities were not involved in determining the dominant culture. Do any of these types of social structures actually still influence the fabric of Japanese society today after agriculture has become such an industrialized industry that fewer and fewer people are a part of it and more and more people move to urban areas?

If the memories of major natural disasters persist for no more than three generations, what about major impacts on society that have a far less traumatic impact on most members? The recent major shift from agricultural to urban lifestyles in Japan happened in large part one or two generations ago. Those who started living in urban areas were not those negatively affected by the change. They felt little to no trauma (although there was likely some trauma among those left behind in rural areas). Few people I met in Tokyo ever spoke of agricultural roots. (I met a few more people with rural ties in Kyoto, but I guess I’m focusing on Tokyo culture in this post.)

Certainly, urban, corporate culture has also been changing within the last generation, from conservative models of group structure and hierarchy and so forth to more flexible, smaller, and independent forms of business. This, of course, is only an impression I have after working in a small, newly established company for a while and from friends who are young, creative people in Tokyo. But even among this young generation, there is a kind of group mentality that has grown within the last year.

Even during the earthquake a year ago, Twitter and cell phones connected my community of friends, many students, independent young entrepreneurs, and creative types. One friend called us all “single” people, a bit of an exaggeration if understood in a purely romantic sense. A few have significant others, but these people live relatively free of regulative social institutions. Most of them live alone, have self-delegated schedules, and are critical of conservative family, business, and other social institutions. In that sense, these people are all “single,” independent, and even individualistic.

Despite their perhaps unconventional situations and world-views, these young people formed a community in the weeks following the earthquake. Over our phones, we kept tabs on one another’s whereabouts and needs, and on one another’s mental shape as the death toll rose, aftershocks continued, and more cryptic news stories came from Fukushima. Having collectively looked into the face of our own mortality, we suddenly shared something few other communities share.

And this sense of community went beyond the people represented by entries in my cell-phone address book. Another friend tweeted at that time, she now saw the people around her as she navigated Tokyo as potential teammates, people she would have to cooperate with in the next earthquake.

So, if Japanese society may be charged with having a group mentality, it is not for any historical development from rice agriculture. It is a shared awareness of our own transient nature shaped by a common experience. This is not so very different, perhaps, from the effects of natural disasters on the cultures of other communities throughout the world. But it is very different from the respective cultures of people who see death as something one meets very much alone. . .

Phantom Earthquakes

The castle of Tübingen, which was supposedly damaged in a 1970 earthquake.

It has been far, far too long since I wrote here! A lot has been changing and happening in the world around me. (I moved to southern Germany in March and began studying at the University of Tübingen here.) And with getting used to all the changes, I have not been able to find a perspective on things to be able to write anything interesting on the blog. But that state of affaires can’t last forever. Perspective eventually arises in the chaos, a focus will at some point be found. . . even if its interest dissipates within moments of its having been uttered. The following is about a strange sort of experience I’ve had a few times (so, repeatedly) since coming here.

In an attempt to keep some sort of continuity here, I’d like to address the issue that first comes to the minds of people here in Germany when they hear I recently moved from Japan. They all mention Fukushima. Having been directly affected by power outages and concerns about food contamination, there is certainly something of great concern that I can address in such conversations. It seems, however, that this issue hugely overshadows the destruction that the earthquake and the tsunami wrought. The 15,854 deaths and 3,155 people missing due to the latter have even been mis-attributed by some to the nuclear accident, where no deaths have occurred. Which was the greater disaster? Which still holds the greater threat?

I have no intention to make light of the 6 workers who have received doses of radiation higher than lifetime limits and more than 300 who have received significant radiation (Wikipedia). And the issue of human error (for  which cronyism among government, nuclear regulation, and journalism has been rightfully blamed) is more obvious in the case of Fukushima Dai-ichi, although human error lies also with building cities in areas likely to be flooded by tsunamis.

Many seem to think that the earthquake and tsunami were a natural disaster, which makes them unavoidable, unlike the human disaster at Fukushima. But centuries-old stone markers that can be found throughout the Tohoku region warn about the dangers of building homes in low-lying areas, but few heeded those warnings. If not a faith in technology, at the very least a faith in progress – faith that the present generations knows more than those past – led to heedlessness. Certainly, the blame for this error was not as convoluted or tied to centers of political power as the error at Fukushima, but it is fascinating how the earthquake and tsunami are seen as an almost non-issue here in Germany.

Why are the earthquake and tsunami a non-issue? Is it because, being natural, it is unavoidable? Or is it because older Germans have a clear memory of Chernobyl (memories of disasters, it is said, last for three generations), and the emotional intensity of such memories evoke greater concern? Can Germans not identify with feeling the ground shake or huge waves wash over the land? Germany, particularly the Rhine Valley and the Swabian Albs in the south, has a history of seismic activity, albeit hardly comparable to that of Japan. Along the North and Baltic Seas there is little seismic activity and no great quantity of water as in the Pacific that could cause much of a tsunami. Is it because Germans have never personally felt that fear that they don’t understand the destruction? Whatever that answer, however, it is not a lack of compassion for earthquake victims that I want to address. . .

Life in Germany seems to be, for the most part, without any threat to life in general. No major disaster might suddenly kill thousands. The last great war was two generations ago and education about its horrors make memories present enough to prevent a reoccurrence. The economic crisis may have had its effects (although limited in this part of Europe), but none life-threatening that I am aware of. And so little to nothing threatens to cut the lives of the general population short. Few people here could imagine the occasional fear that rips through me when the floor shakes before my own reason reassures me that it must be a household appliance of some sort or someone bouncing their leg during class and no more. They don’t see the people around them as the people they would have to cooperate with should a natural disaster strike or as the people they might die with.

But a lack of fear is, in this and in most cases, something to be desired. (I certainly would feel less silly if I didn’t feel these phantom earthquakes.) What might be of value, though, is the reason for fear and a thorough knowledge of transience, an eventual end to everything that we know and rely on. Such a knowledge brings with it an urgency in people’s actions, a consistency and reliability in creativity (in a wider sense that includes more than just art, but rather all of human activity). Such urgency in creativity, in turn, brings meaning to life, for meaning, as I understand it, is the constant search for and creation of meaning.

Charity Noh

I recently posted about charity in the history of Noh and other Japanese traditional performing arts. Well, charity Noh have begun! The Kongo school is putting on a performance today in Kyoto. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there, because I didn’t hear about it until late last night. . .

For a list (in Japanese) of upcoming (and past) charity Noh, see the list on the Nohgaku Performers Association.

Sunday at the Philharmonic. . .

Yesterday afternoon, I went to hear the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra at Suntory Hall. They played a program of Debussy and Ravel that was truely ethereal. The Finnish conductor, Pietari Inkinen, was unable to come because of his country’s warnings against radiation, but Hirokami Junichi, the current conductor of the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra, stepped in and created a magnificent performance, and as planned, Kosugi Yu was on piano for Ravel’s Piano Concerto.

Of the three times I’ve heard the Japan Philharmonic, this was definitely the best. Their technical skill set off the deep, emotional waves of sound into full expression, a balance they were not quite able to achieve with Haydn a year or so ago. This time is was like entering a transient dream.

At the end of the performance, they announced the program they have started that sends musicians to the evacuation shelters in Tohoku. The sincerity of their effort moved me to tears. . .

(Video of the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra in Namie, Fukushima, from their blog.)


Adjusting to the Aftershocks

The aftershocks are slowly becoming part of the routine. It all goes something like this now:

1) cell phone earthquake alert

2) grab cell phone and computer

3) check surroundings for the possibility of falling objects and move to a safe place

4) shaking starts

5) assess strength of shake and take appropriate actions

6) check Twitter and the Japan Meteorological Agency site for information

7) wait for it to end

8) pick up whatever fell

9) report situation to parents

10) go back to what I was doing before the alarm.

We’ve got roughly two more months of aftershocks ahead of us, say experts. It’s a matter now of balancing precaution with a return to getting things done.

Tokyo Since 3/11 (Part II: A City on its Knees)

(Shibuya in the evening on April 1. The two large screens on these buildings are black, shop signs like those for Tsutaya and Starbucks are unlit, and billboards are not illuminated either. Only the street lights on Sentāgai street and the lights in the buildings are on.)

It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this post, but hopefully I can do it now. To understand what I’m talking about here, it might help to read the first part that I wrote about the city and how I experienced it before the quake.

As a person in the crowd before the quake, I hardly reacted to Tokyo as a whole. My moods were based on my own limited sphere of daily interactions with friends, in discussions at the university, or in communicating with people I work for. I lived in a tiny subsection of the Tokyo metropolitan area. . . That changed on March 11.

As it started shaking, the first reaction was in the nervous system. I sat in my apartment and saw everything around me shake far more violently than I had ever seen it shake before. But, when I went for cover I grabbed my computer and pulled it under the table with me. Twitter and Facebook were buzzing with people trying to assess the situation. It was as if the greater nervous system of Tokyo and of the affected parts of the country were reacting just as I had physically. Just as I had looked around the room trying to assess the situation in my direct surroundings, the greater community was trying to assess the greater situation primarily through the Internet. Even NHK was broadcasting online.

After the earthquake ended, I was in shock. I mechanically cleaned up my room and headed into the street. Everything looked normal. Even the supermarket was already cleaned up again, the only sign of damage a strong smell of alcohol in the liquor section. Everything seemed normal except at the train station, where people were waiting outside, and along the streets running parallel to the tracks, where people were walking in larger numbers than usual.

But beyond these concrete signs, there was a strange electricity in the air. I was super aware of my surroundings, and I think it wasn’t just me. Considering that every individual is so incredibly helpless in the face of an earthquake, and considering friends’ and acquaintances’ reports of higher levels of awareness that seemed similar to my own, it’s probably safe to say the whole affected area, including all of Tokyo, was in shock. Everyone was in shock.

In shock, people tried to find their way home amid the transportation shut down. In shock, people were faced with the messes in their homes and began cleaning up. In shock, people sought the company of others.

Shock, or acute stress reaction, supposedly lasts for two to three days. Amid aftershocks, however, I am sure that it lasted much longer that three days. Even now, after each new aftershock, I’m sure it sets in all over again, but I guess we’re getting used to that reaction in a way.

However, as I mentioned earlier, I went to Kyoto for a few weeks right after the quake (I had been packing to go when the earthquake hit. For more on that, see my post about the Kyoto trip.) When I arrived in Kyoto Station and saw the relative normality with which Kyoto was operating, I thought it very strange, probably because I was still in shock when I arrived.

So, I wasn’t in Tokyo when the shock there developed into sustained high levels of stress, but from my regular contact through E-mail and Twitter with friends, from conversations with those who came to visit Kyoto, and from the news, I got the distinct impression that Tokyo had been knocked to its knees. Department stores were closed, train service was running at about 70% on only local trains, blackouts rolled through the city to conserve electricity, and rain kept people home from work for fear of radiation.


(My train station on April 1. The lights are off and the information board shows only local trains are running.)

When I got back to my apartment in Yokohama on March 31 and headed into Tokyo on April 1, these changes were still apparent. In my neighborhood that first evening back, I noticed people were hurrying straight home instead of stopping in shops, pubs, or restaurants along the way. The convenience stores were half lit, and the quiet neighborhood streets seemed somehow quieter than they had been before.

The next day, I went into Tokyo to the university. Although it normally takes less than 25 minutes to reach Shibuya from my train station, on the local train it took almost 40 minutes. In Shibuya that evening, the large video screens and shop signs were dark. Shibuya was so dark, in fact, that it was hard to see people’s faces.

Not only was the lighting darker, but people were smiling less. Life seemed to move on almost like normal, but an unusual sensitivity and fear was palpable in the crowd. The devastation in Tohoku was far more real, far more present in people’s lives than it had been in the lives of people in Kyoto.

By now, I think I don’t notice the difference in mood much anymore. In the last two weeks, I have adjusted back to the crowd, and it’s harder to see how the whole city is doing. But when my Noh teacher visited from Kyoto last weekend, he confirmed that the mood in the city was different, darker, and yet hopeful.

There is a new sense of purpose, a new focus on the really necessary things in life. Most importantly, I have found a stronger sense of community here, and I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this. People are bonding in new, stronger relationships. It’s a great time to be in Tokyo. We’re standing up again. . .

A Tradition of Giving

(Pure Land Monks collecting contributions from the public on Shijo in Kyoto on March 16.)

Before I post the second part about Tokyo, I pulled out a post I’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s more on the cultural and historical side, but closer to what this blog used to be about, namely lots of traditional Japanese culture and history. . .

Shortly after the quake, feeling powerless to help, I began reading about charity in the Japanese middle ages (a hard to define period of roughly 400 years that covers from the end of the Heian period to the beginning of the Edo period). At that time, charity was a major means of rebuilding sites of worship and infrastructure. In my own experience, having been involved in the past in various creative and academic endeavors that tried to collect donations for their activities, I became familiar with the common perception that Japanese culture doesn’t include a custom of donation or charity. But considering the history and the response after the quake/tsunami/nuclear reactor disaster, I want to disagree. Japanese do engage in philanthropy, though perhaps justifiably not always for the same causes or in the same way as in other countries.

So, this post is going to be a little bit about my research in relation to my recent experiences. I noticed  already in that first paragraph that I use different vocabulary when I talk about my research than when I talk about recent events. I’ll try to say things clearly, but please bear with me. What I’m writing about has to do with today, not just with the distant past, because I think the past can help us deal with the present. Sometimes simply knowing it has been done before makes it easier to do again.

The first week I was in Kyoto, I met with a friend from Germany for coffee. It happened to be his birthday, so we went to have drinks at his favorite bar later in the afternoon. Although it was his birthday, he ended up paying for my drink (cultural differences). As I was going from the bar to meet with another friend, a former colleague, for dinner, I saw Pure Land monks on Shijo, a major shopping street in Kyoto, chanting and collecting donations. I promptly donated the cost of the drink I’d just had. Then when I saw another group of them, I gave the last of the money in my wallet. Again, not the smartest move on my part, because I couldn’t find an open ATM after that. In the end, my colleague friend paid for dinner. . .

However, what excited me about these monks more than the groups of university students and other volunteers collecting money (although I gave to them as well), was how their activities draw on a long tradition of charitable work that reaches back to the time when their denomination was just developing in the middle ages.

In the middle ages, New Buddhists were some of the most active promoters of charity work (called kanjin in Japanese). This work later developed into huge open air performances of noh and other popular performing arts. The money collected from admissions to the performances were used for various causes. I imagine they must have been something like outdoor benefit rock concerts. (Maybe I can find an illustration sometime to show you what they looked like.)

Pure Land Buddhism was the first of a string of populist Buddhist movements in the middle ages. These are generally called New Buddhism. New Buddhism broke Buddhism out of the institutions that claimed authority over the religion. These already established institutions had temples where participants operated in complex hierarchies with aristocratic members and government support. Pure Land was the first New Buddhist movement. By stripping the religion of its complex rituals and focusing on a simple chant (the nembutsu) and wholehearted faith, Honen, the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, made Buddhism appealing to the masses.

Therefore, the masses began engaging in Buddhism, believing that chanting nembutsu would allow them to be reborn in the Pure Land of the Amida Buddha after death. As a result many also began taking care of their dead within the Buddhist faith. Why is this important when talking about charity? Because most of the charitable causes taken on by Buddhist monks were rather religious. For example, the great Buddha in Nara was rebuilt at the end of the 12th century by a monk named Chogen with donations from religious believers (it had been burned down by Heike warriors in 1180). By donating to the cause, people believed they were helping their own deceased family members. Most donations were small, but Chogen was able to appeal to large numbers of people and thereby gather the required funds.

More secular projects were soon also taken on by the monks who worked as charity organizers (kanjin hijiri), walking all over the land, collecting money, materials, and labor for projects that included rebuilding bridges as well as temples. Considering that monks such as those of the Ritsu sect conducted charitable work for the poor, for lepers and outcasts, I imagine they must have collected donations for this purpose as well although that would be called seeking alms, not kanjin. In any case, since at this time in Japanese history the central government was weak, Buddhist monks, who were seen as reliable and trustworthy, took over this kind of social and infrastructural work (so says my advisor, Matsuoka Shinpei). These monks seemed to function much as non-profit or non-government organizations do today.

(Note: You might be familiar with the story of the Noh “Ataka,” the same story as that for the kabuki “Kanjincho.” In it, Yoshitsune and his retainers, including Benkei, pretend they are kanjin hijiri, so that they might be able to pass a check point along a road.)

Later, Buddhist monks began to create massive performance spectacles to bring in money for community projects. (Performers were in a very, very low social class, so this work had a socially supportive aspect as well.) A lot of the performance content incorporated themes based on the missionary work and memorial services for the dead of New Buddhism. That is why my advisor says so many Noh plays deal with the dead, but explaining that belongs in another post. . .

Since the East Japan Earthquake, there have been benefit concerts like the Concert for Japan by the New York Japan Society, in which performers of traditional Japanese arts performed, but that tradition is different since it is based on a Western, secular, high society tradition of bazaars, auctions, and benefits for charity. The monks I saw in Kyoto, then, are the only people I’ve seen so far who are really drawing on the Japanese tradition of charity in their work. (Please tell me if you are aware of something else!)

What I would like to see is traditional actors and performers joining in, supporting the relief efforts, and giving  new meaning to the tradition of kanjin. In the process, I imagine support for the traditional arts would improve. As long as representatives of the traditional arts keep to themselves and their communities and don’t engage in contemporary issues, they are seen in the wider public as irrelevant to society. If they want to bring in new audiences and new participants, the traditional arts better reach out and help people, thereby creating community beyond their own base through activities such as charitable work (examples of which may be found in their own tradition). Building community is based on a mutual give and take, and also on a willingness to listen. Traditional artists, are you watching the news? Can we count on your support in the relief and rebuilding efforts?