A fun way to understand how Japan being a chain of islands has helped to form its distinct culture.
Everything in Japan from Ramen to Kabuki, anime to religion are all tied to the influence Japan has gotten from overseas and cultivated as something of their own through time. Show host Kyota Ko explains the foundation of Japanese culture found in its geography in this podcast episode.
Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese bringing you a podcast about all the wonders I personally think you should know of Japan and its culture. My name is Kyota Ko.
I am actually half Japanese half Taiwanese. My mother is Japanese and my father is Taiwanese. I was brought up in Tokyo and went to an international school there, I stayed in the US for 4 years for college. I was in North Carolina. Davidson College. And then I came back to Tokyo to get my first job.
Until then, I really had no sense of identity. I didn’t go through Japanese education, I had never lived in Taiwan, and although I spoke English, I had no real connection with any English-speaking culture.
But later on in life, at the organization I currently work at, I was assigned to a project that involved teaching the Japanese language to foreign nationals. And I thought, well, to teach the language, I need to understand the culture. So I started studying Japanese culture from all angles I could imagine. The history, food, art, religion, architecture and business. And then I compared them with those of other cultures. American, Chinese, European countries, South East Asian countries, Egypt, to name a few. And then I realized, there is a fundamental uniqueness in how the Japanese perceive the world.
All the tangible cultures that Japan promotes to the world, like sushi or Kabuki or cherry blossoms, are yes, all very tasty, exciting or beautiful, but those are just the tip of the Japanese cultural ice berg. The really fascinating beauty of Japanese culture is intangible. You can’t appreciate it with any of your 5 senses. It’s gotta be felt. You can only feel it with your heart. I think this goes for all cultures. You feel nostalgia or striking sympathy only after you establish a deep-enough connection with that culture.
For instance, I feel a longing for the days I spent in college or summer camp in the US when I come across really gooey cookie dough or gooey chocolate pudding. It’s that realization that the astoundingly pleasurable taste and texture overrode your concern for developing diabetes from all the added sugar that must have been used that brings back all the memories of the wonderful people I met in the United States.
I believe the American perception of the world has something to do with Americans knowing the best way cookies are served. I don’t know enough about American culture to guess what that is. But for all the things Japan has done to express its culture, I believe I have an explanation.
My goal is to entice you further towards Japanese culture by explaining how the most peculiar world view and concepts of beauty came about in Japan and how these led Japan to be what it is right now, Every traditional and modern representation of culture you see today are a birth-child of the Japanese world view, like Japanese food, Kabuki, animation and manga, cities like Tokyo and Osaka, Japanese companies like Toyota and Panasonic, Japanese politics, hospitality, everything is a birth-child of the Japanese world view.
So today, for a start, I’d like to discuss the geography of Japan. The word “geography” doesn’t sound really sexy, I know. But Japan being a chain of islands has a lot to do with the reason it cultivated a one-and-only culture. Modestly speaking, I would say it’s a queer culture.
Japan, as you may know, has almost never spearheaded technological advances of the world. It has always adopted new technology invented for example in the US, refined the technology and often made better versions of it than the original. Toyota is a good example. Cars were of course not invented in Japan. But the top 8 most durable cars in the world are Toyota brands. They run for a decade or a decade and a half and they’re still fine. Toyota mastered the craft of making durable cars.
I think people in many parts of the world associate hybrid cars with Toyota, but again, Toyota wasn’t the first to invent hybrid cars. It was Porsche.
So Japan doesn’t innovate, but it does darn well in borrowing ideas from other cultures and refining them into something more valuable or molding them into something uniquely Japanese. Japan has had a lot of practice in this since the beginning of its history, because of its geography. And this is definitely an amusing part of Japanese culture.
Japan learned a lot of culture from China. Things like Chinese characters and literature, food culture and religion. But because there was an ocean between China and Japan, China couldn’t be bothered enough to ensure that their culture was imitated accurately.
So for example, in Chinese cuisine you often switch between using chopsticks and a spoon. You pick up solid food with your chopsticks and scoop liquid food with your spoon. Around the 7th century the Japanese emperor back then really looked up to China so when he had his people adopt the Chinese dining culture, they started off with using chopsticks and spoons, exactly the same as how people ate in China.
But probably because it was common for Japanese people to eat on the floor back then, using a spoon didn’t really work. The bowls were too far from their mouths. So it seems like people were spilling soup all over the floor trying to eat with a spoon, and at one point they said “You know what, fuck spoons.” So they figured that picking up their bowls and bringing them directly to their mouths was more efficient.
And therefore in Japanese cuisine, you eat with chopsticks in your right hand and a bowl in your left. We just kept the chopsticks. And maybe China was like “Fine. Suit yourself you barbaric people who don’t use a spoon, but you live too far for us to come and teach you the right way to eat. Damn you Japanese.”
Also, when Buddhism was brought to Japan, it was accepted by the imperial family as a new and hip religion of the continent. So they tried to make Buddhism the national religion. But up until then, Japanese people believed in Shintoism, and in Shinto belief, there’s a god in everything. There’s a god in each mountain, river, tree and flower.
But the problem here is, that there is no god in the original Buddhism. Buddhism in its original form is technically not a religion because there is no god. You are supposed to reach enlightenment through thinking and feeling within yourself. It’s more of a philosophy than a religion.
But Japanese people were like “But it’s a religion. There’s got to be at least one god. Come on. So is Buddha a god?” And then the missionaries were like “No, there’s no god. Buddha is an example you should follow, not a god.” And then Japanese people were like “Noooo no no don’t give me that shit. You gotta give us a god and a heaven to look forward to.” So the missionaries were like “…Fuck you guys. OK fine,. Buddha’s the god. We’ll call enlightenment your heaven. Believe what you want to believe.”
And so Japanese people mixed up Shintoism and Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism now has so many deities who are supposed to decent from the heavens every now and then. To this day, many Japanese people are confused as to what the difference is between a shrine and a temple. Buddhist monks are not supposed to get married or have sex in the original Buddhism, but Japanese Buddhist monks get married all the time and they produce offspring. But high monks in India didn’t come to Japan to correct them, simply because it’s far and there’s an ocean to cross.
So we have Japanese Buddhism, which we might as well say is an almost completely different religion from Buddhism of the continent.
Kabuki is 400 years old, and it got its roots in Japanese Noh theater, which is about 600 years old. And Noh theater has is roots in Chinese performance art which came into Japan around 1,300 years ago. Kabuki and Noh theater have been developed to a level of sophistication where they have both become recognized as Intangible cultural heritages by UNESCO, as distinctly Japanese performance arts. So thank you China.
When British merchants brought curry powder into Japan in the 1870s, Japanese people loved it, and integrated curry with rice into their food culture and now we have a whole industry of refined Japanese curry rice. Try curry rice at a Japanese curry rice specialty restaurant if you haven’t already. You’ll be mesmerized. So thank you India and England.
So you see all these borrowing and adaptation of foreign culture throughout Japanese history. When Japan is exposed to new things, it just takes the parts it finds useful and discards everything else, and then develop them into something distinctly “Japanese.” Japan was allowed to do so because it was surrounded by sea. It could pick and choose foreign influence for its own convenience.
And the interesting thing is that Japanese people know that we suck at innovating. We suck at inventing stuff. We understand that our strengths are in refining and cultivating ideas and techniques brought from other countries.
And all of us are aware that many of the things we appreciate as parts of our culture now are not of Japanese origin. We know Ramen and gyoza were originally from China. We have Gundam and Ghost in the Shell, but we know Science fiction did not start in Japan. The first floor of Isetan the department store in Shinjuku is one of the most important commercial centers of the make up industry of the whole world, but we know lipsticks and eyeshadows did not originate in Japan.
So many Japanese people love foreign brands, especially those of Western countries. The newest ideas always come from overseas. Anything beyond the ocean is just there to awe. But when they make it here, we refine them like no other, into something distinctly Japanese eventually.
So there you go. That’s how geography has played an integral role in structuring Japan. I hope you enjoyed this episode. それでは、またお会いしましょう。