As we prepare to leave Japan in two weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to something that’s been in the back of my mind for most of the three years we’ve lived here: writing down the things I love and hate about the place. Last week I griped about the things I find most annoying. Now it’s time for the bubbly conclusion.
So here’s the stuff I’ll miss when I go.
Shinto is Japan’s home-grown polytheistic/animist belief system, which I would loosely describe as a cosmology representing nature and our place in it. In day-to-day life, Shinto manifests itself by marking places of beauty, celebrating life events, and throwing really cool festivals.
The iconic red Shinto gate is one of Japan’s best-known symbols. These shrines are so pervasive in Japanese culture that their bright red-orange color has its own kanji, 朱, translated as “vermillion” in English. Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of Shinto shrines fully makes up for the country’s otherwise ugly construction practices. Nothing spruces up a wall of concrete like a bright and cheery shrine where you least expect it. The arches themselves aren’t always beautiful — sometimes they’re made out of concrete or even metal tubes — but the very fact that they’re there means someone thought this place deserved to be commemorated, and that makes life just a little bit brighter. And shrines only get better with age: a shabby arch is just as cheering as one meticulously maintained.
And Shinto festivals are simply fabulous. The priestly costumes are out of this world. The festivals themselves usually consist of huge groups of people getting together to do something useless but entertaining, like carrying heavy shrines across town and back, or into a waterfall. Followed, of course, by drinking (see Non-Puritanism below).
Some (probably not many) may wonder why I haven’t mentioned Buddhism along with Shinto. Indeed, the boundaries between the two are essentially indistinguishable in Japan — many Buddhist temple complexes contain Shinto shrines and vice versa. But as it was wonderfully described to us by Johnnie Hillwalker in Kyoto, Buddhism deals with death, while Shinto deals with life. Buddhism is much more of an organized religion: centralized temples, cemeteries, services, chants; whereas Shinto is more about appreciating nature and and our place in it. And while I love Buddhist temples too, it’s the Shinto shrines I’m going to miss when we leave.
Japanese people live forever, and they always seem to look about ¾ their actual age. Some of that is genetic, but it doesn’t hurt that it’s extremely easy to get good, healthy, locally-grown food in this country.
Traditional Japanese food is known for its tiny portions and intricate preparation. Just the other day, in fact, Steph’s adult English class threw a going-away party for us, which involved of one of these 和風 meals. It consisted mainly of small bits of fresh, mostly unprocessed ingredients — by which I mean not fried, or sweetened, or greased. There was raw fish and shrimp, broiled salted fish, delightfully presented veggies, a squid stuffed with rice. (I have to admit, the latter tasted alarmingly like cat food.) With this as a traditional meal, you can see how modern Japanese cuisine would still tend toward the small and simple.
We’ve got it doubly good where we are, because the food only has to travel a couple of miles from farm to plate. Every supermarket has a section devoted to local produce: mushrooms, carrots, corn, eggplants, onions, potatoes, and various leafy things. If you go to a local restaurant, your meal is likely to be made by hand from fresh ingredients (seasonal, of course), not from a package. Even Mos Burger, Japan’s home-grown McDonald’s equivalent, exhaustively lists the farms where all its vegetables are sourced.
When we moved to Japan, I immediately lost 15 pounds — 10 of them in the first month. And my weight has remained around the same since then (ignoring the spike caused by going back to America for three weeks!) with no particular effort. So while I don’t always like Japanese food, I will definitely miss the effortless healthfulness of it.
It’s a cliché that living in a foreign country teaches you things about yourself that you never knew. We all grow up immersed in our native cultures, not noticing all the biases and assumptions that surround us every day. Viewing America from the other side of the world has really brought home the degree to which the country’s social mores are descended from the Puritanism of the original settlers. Even after the astonishing social progress of the 20th century, American values still show their conservative roots, which I would describe roughly as: the body is sinful (so nudity and various bodily functions are considered embarrassing or obscene), and anything pleasurable (sex, alcohol, drugs) should be banned whenever possible… or at least done behind closed doors and never mentioned in public. I’m a pretty socially liberal guy, but even so, these priorities always seemed “natural” to me, though of course I was always aware of other cultures who weren’t as uptight about certain things — for example France with sex, or Amsterdam with drugs.
If I had to distill all of America’s social norms into one basic pattern, it would be that everything is treated as a moral issue. If you offend me, you are a Bad Person. In Japan, on the other hand, things tend to be treated as issues of etiquette. If you offend me, you’re a Bad Public Citizen. Most cultural norms here seem to come down to how your actions affect the group: If you’re not hurting anybody, usually you won’t be bothered about it.
And I love it that way.
Take alcohol. Japan is just as buttoned down as America when it comes to drugs like marijuana or anything “harder,” but alcohol is a completely different story. By American standards, most Japanese men would be considered raging alcoholics. (In my experience, women tend to drink much less than their male counterparts.) But whereas in America drinking a lot would be considered a sign of moral depravity, or at least weak will, here it seems to function mostly as a tool for relaxation — a temporary release from the more formal day-to-day strictures of Japanese society. The lack of moral judgmentalism really hits home when you see how casually alcohol is discussed in the public sphere. A few weeks ago we were doing a taiko performance at a retirement home, when our good friend Mr. Bean, who was serving as MC of the event, happily announced to the crowd of wheelchair-bound octogenarians, “Sorry I’m a bit spacey today… I drank way too much last night!” And Steph regularly encounters elementary school classes where “Do you like beer?” is one of the lesson-plan dialogs for practicing English.
Then there’s nudity. Showing body parts is just not a particularly big deal. Public baths are a societal fixture; everyone has seen a million naked strangers by the time they’re old enough to even think about it. Parents bathe with their children at home. Japanese sporting events don’t have streakers, because nobody would care.
If anything, Japan goes a bit off the deep end when it comes to their love of one piece of anatomy: the rear end. Indeed, Japan’s “butt culture” is a head-scratcher. Store windows will have cartoon blobs of poo advertising products. NHK (that’s right, the PBS of Japan) created a cartoon character called oshiri kajiri mushi (“butt-biting bug”) who has his own catchy song. One of our friends in Noshiro has a plush poo-doll sitting on her living room bookshelf. Steph’s theory on the fascination with poo is that it comes from the traditional squat toilets — in which your poo greets you, up close and personal, when you’re done.
When I set out to write this, I didn’t intend to pen a big meandering philosophical treatise on Japanese vs. American culture! And poo. Nor do I mean to imply that America is repressive or not a good place to live. Every country has its hangups, and America and Japan certainly both have them in spades. But I have found Japan’s general lack of holier-than-thou moralizing to be refreshing. I’ll remember the feeling fondly.