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. . .

Hirozawa Lake

(Hirozawaike, a lake near Arashiyama with views of the western mountains of Kyoto, at the beginning of September.)

I have posted about the yearly Horinji performance on September 9th (9/9) to mark Choyo and celebrated with chrysanthemums and chrysanthemum sake a number of times before. It feels like an end-of-summer ritual to me.

After the performance, my noh teacher’s students join him for the summer’s last Uji kintoki (delicate shaved ice with green tea flavoring and a dollop of sweet azuki) at an outdoor cafe at the edge of Hirozawaike. This year was no different, and just before we left in the late afternoon, I took the picture above.

Now a little more than a month later, it already seems so long ago.

Where is Home?

(The Ammergasse, an alley in the center of Tübingen with a small stream, the Ammer, flowing along one side. As kids, my sisters and I played Poohsticks on these bridges and all along the Ammer through the medieval city center.)

I recently returned to the town where my parents met, where I was born, and where I spent two years in school, the fourth grade in elementary school and the ninth grade in gymnasium. It was my first trip back to Germany in almost four years.

As a kid, I used to say that this town, Tübingen, was where I felt at home, but the town I spent more of my childhood, Salem, Oregon, was where my friends were. I had very few friends in Tübingen, but Salem as a city just didn’t hold my fancy. I wanted to go as far away as I could once I graduated high school. And that’s exactly what I did, going to the East coast for college and then moving to Japan after graduating there.

You might wonder why I didn’t go to Tübingen or at the very least study German language and literature like my sisters did. The answer to that is a bit more complex and would lead me far away from the question at hand, but simply put, I realized the world was larger than western Europe and North America, and I wanted to see something different. Or at least, that’s how I explained it to myself at the time. . .

So, I studied Japanese and came to Japan, first to Kyoto and then to Yokohama and Tokyo. And I’ve lived more years in Japan now than I ever lived in Germany, but that doesn’t make me Japanese. . . Those kinds of judgments make me smile. Due to my fascination with the cultural arts in Japan and particularly when I’ve worn kimono, Japanese have told me I’m more Japanese than they are. No, I’m not Japanese, although I find that compliment flattering.

Would a Japanese person want to learn their own culture from the inside out in the same way I did, by taking lessons in tea ceremony, kimono, calligraphy, and noh performance, and even then, still not satisfied, by going to university in that country to acquire a historical perspective of the cutlure? But more importantly, is being Japanese (or fully integrated, which is pretty much the same thing in this case) necessary to feel at home in Japan? I don’t think so.

So, why have I stayed in Japan so long, for most of my twenties? I can’t dispute the fact that personal relationships have played roles at certain times, but when they ended, I remained here. A certain drive to be able to show something for my struggles here was also a factor, but that’s not all. This place slowly became familiar to me, perhaps it grew to be a cultural home to compliment my other homes in the US and Germany. But these kinds of designations become clearest to me when I leave to go somewhere else. When I’m in Japan, I still feel somehow unsettled. I guess I’m not quite at home here yet, although I love this place.

Dilek Zaptcioglu, a Turkish author of German upbringing, said in a radio interview once that her friends of multiple nationalities ask each other, “Have you found your third country yet?” They go to Turkey or to Latin America in search of a third country, a country to call home. But in the end home is probably not a country, a culture, or a community, although these might have something to do with it. Instead, it is perhaps a deep feeling of contentment in the place one finds oneself or maybe it’s a feeling that one doesn’t have to fight for one’s own space.

Not that I know. I still haven’t found my home yet! Haha!

The adventure continues. . .

The Maternity Shrine

I took this picture on a neighborhood tour near Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto. This shrine is located in what looks like the garden of a private home. Since I was chatting with another person on the tour, I did not catch the whole explanation, and I can’t find any information online, because I don’t know the name of this shrine. So, here is the story as I think I heard it told by the guide.

Before the shrine was built, a young woman and her husband lived in the home next to the shrine. The woman died giving birth to a son, who survived, but he would cry and cry without end. Nothing would soothe him, until they built this shrine to his mother. He probably just wanted to be breast fed, commented the guide. Now, expectant mothers come to the shrine and lay dolls there in hopes of having a safe delivery.

When the conversation I was having was cut short in front of this place, and I first saw the shrine, it gave me the creeps. The air seemed so negative in this place, but was it the effect of the dolls and the unkept nature of the shrine itself or was it a negative aura or spirit as some people would describe it? I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the house next door.

Life in the Shrine

I recently posted the question, how does a shrine fit into the community that surrounds it? In the case of Kamigamo Shrine in the north of Kyoto this summer, it was quite clearly a place for people of the neighborhood to escape to, either for respite from the heat in the small river or to look at some modern art.

Art students from Seika University had put up an exhibition of their work for the Kamigamo Shrine Art Project 2011. I was fascinated by how people were interacting with the art installations that covered the grassy field within the shrine precincts.

The atmosphere was casual and calm, mixed with a bit of fascination and a good deal of whimsy, much of it past the point of being bizarre. A number of the pieces were inspired by the shrine itself and some encouraged viewer participation. But I really liked seeing a young boy who was actively being artistically inspired by the shrine. He sat in the grass, facing the gate leading to the heart of the shrine, drawing.

I was even pleasantly surprised when a woman came over to invite me on a three part tour of the exhibit, the shrine, and the neighborhood. It turned into a very pleasant afternoon.

The World Around the Shrine

(The intersection just outside the front of Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto.)

I may have lived in Japan for most of my 20s now, but when I take pictures, they are still mostly touristy shots of shrines, temples, nice houses, and flowers that I see while traveling. (I only post a small selection of the photos I take.) And although I live in Yokohama, I feel in some sense like a tourist in this city and in Tokyo, where I go almost daily. But I think a tourist can have a kind of openness that a resident might not have, because a resident is familiar with their world and takes a good chunk of things for granted.

That is not to say, however, that a tourist doesn’t take anything for granted. They see the foreign world as it fits with cultural stereotypes. A common tourist’s photo of a Japanese shrine will show a red tori gate or the main shrine building with maybe a few Japanese people praying in front of it. These pictures show the quiet and calm within the shrine, a quiet calm that may or may not be because of a lack of people in these places. When shrines are full of people for festivals, for example, the atmosphere is completely different.

But how does a shrine fit into the cultural fabric of life around it? I don’t think I can answer that now, but that is the question that came to mind when I saw this picture again. It seems to give some answer, but I can’t seem to be able to put it into words yet. . .

Speaking of shrine festivals and the relationship between shrines and the world of the neighborhoods around them, I’m now reminded of a post I did a long time ago of a festival at Shimo-Goryo Shrine near where I used to live in Kyoto. The atmosphere there was very different from the atmosphere in the picture above. . .

In the near future, I’ll post a picture of the student art exhibition that was going on within the precincts of the Kamigamo Shrine during this visit. And the recent picture of children playing in the water was taken on the same visit.


High School Girls

(On a drier day, this is high school girl shopping heaven: Shibuya.)

I’m sorry for the recent lack of posts. So much has been going on with paper writing, rehearsals for a nō performance competition, traveling for rehearsals and the competition. I’m now finally in Kyoto, where I’ve been able to work on my writing far away from the recent dreariness of my home in Yokohama (a combination of a vague fear of radiation and the solitude of the metropolis).

However, on the trip here yesterday, I met a girl who tagged along as my travel companion for part of the way. Meeting her reminded me of another girl I’d seen on a commuter train between Shibuya and Yokohama recently. Both were high schoolers, and both had their little stories.

A while back during rush hour traffic back to Yokohama from Shibuya late one evening, I barely got a seat on a commuter express, and a high school girl in uniform with her pleated skirt rolled up at her waist and eye make-up on stood in front of me. She looked incredibly confident of herself as she looked out the window behind me, perhaps at her reflection.

However, not too long into the ride a look of terror came across her face, and she hastily pulled out a small mirror and make-up removing towelette from her bag. Partway through removing her make-up, a businessman turned around and came to stand next to her. She began to cry and hid her face in her hands. The man put his arm around her. It seemed clear that he was her father and she had first seen him reflected in the windows of the train.

Eventually, the girl cheered up a little and began bantering with her father. I couldn’t hear everything they said, but they joked about her mother a little. I think he asked her at one point if she had a boyfriend, and her sassy confidence returned as she answered “yes, it’s no big deal.” He didn’t probe further. Not there on the train right next to so many people.

But once they arrived at their station, and they turned to leave, he said to her casually, “let’s stop by a cafe on our way home.” Her answer “I’m not hungry” didn’t dissuade him. He didn’t seem to want to go to a cafe to eat. It seemed that he wanted to talk with his daughter about the ways of the world in relative private, away from the rest of the family. . .

Then, yesterday I came to Kyoto on the Seishun 18 Kippu, a JR pass that allows for five days of unlimited travel on local trains during school vacation season. That meant 8 hours on the train and 6 connections between Yokohama and Kyoto. Somewhere between Shizuoka and Hamamatsu, a red-headed young man spoke to me in German because I had pulled out a German book. He was Swiss, perhaps a little younger than myself, and was headed to Nagoya on the 18 Kippu.

Between him and me sat a girl, who because they chatted a little with each other I first thought must be his girlfriend (yes, I know it’s a white guy stereotype, I’m sorry). That turned out not to be the case as was clear when he asked me to look after his bag while he got something to eat at the next train station. The girl waited next to me, and we exchanged a few words. She was shy, but seemed to want to talk.

The three of us boarded the next train and had to stand for a while. Eventually a seat opened and the young man sat down. I kept standing, having had enough of sitting for a while and because I wanted to watch the countryside pass by. The girl stood next to me, silently.

At the next transfer, we had four minutes to catch the next train. The girl and I moved quickly, and I somehow lost sight of the young man. I wonder if he made it on the train or had to take the next one. In any case, the two of us were going further west than he was. She said she was going to Shiga, a prefecture just before Kyoto. We found seats together and after eating our rice balls, I started nodding off.

At one point I overheard her on her phone talking with someone about her plans to go to a fireworks display that evening. She said she would be stopping by her grandmother’s house beforehand to prepare. She was probably going to wear yukata, I thought to myself as I drifted back off to sleep.

Shortly before the next stop, I woke up. Until now I had mistaken her for a college student, and she smiled when I asked her, saying she was often mistaken for a middle school student. The lack of a school uniform had thrown me off. She said she had moved to the east to go to high school and was now on her way to her hometown for a part of her summer vacation. I wondered if she lived alone wherever it was she went to school, but her silence dissuaded me from asking.

Having realized how young she was, I began feeling a little responsibility for her. At the next connection, the train filled quickly, but I got us both seats. “Sit here,” I told her and she obediently did, but since we sat behind one another, we didn’t have another chance to talk. At the next station, she said good-bye. “Take care of yourself,” I told her and she told me the same.