I find that in the States, two stereotypes dominate our perspective of Japan. The first is of Japanese “Zen”; a notion that Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist cultural roots place a higher value on nature, peace and tranquility than the Hollywood-corrupted Americans do. Most younger people also have been exposed to the trans-pacific bombardment of Anime- Japan’s rather odd (but nevertheless entertaining in a pathetic way) form of cartoons. I’m sure the image of Japan as the land of high-tech gadgetry and action has also been firmly planted in the minds of people under 18. In addition to these stereotypes, a powerful cultural difference many in the US are unaware of lies in Japan’s “group mentality”; Japan, and the East in general, place far less emphasis on the individual’s powers than does the West. Seeing whether or not these kinds of stereotypes hold true has shaped my experiences in Japan.
Because Feudal Japan’s social structure was designed to promote harmony on at least a smaller scale (in its medieval age, the country was at civil war for centuries at a time), Kyoto does have a sort of calming feel to it. Children are discouraged from loud or extremely wild behavior, and the cherry blossoms falling all around the streets help maintain the feeling that our “Zen” stereotype holds true. A trip to the local zoo, however, quickly eliminates the thought of Japan as an animal-friendly society. We were treated to polar bears pacing around in cages not much larger than they are, deer that have become nervous wrecks, and lions forced into a cage with little shade and no sources of entertainment. I would have thought this zoo to be an exception, but when our family visited an aquarium and watched seals swimming in water too thick with seal-crap to see through, my feelings here were confirmed.
Upon our arrival, Alex was severely disappointed to find that Japanese TV was completely devoid of anime. He was expecting to find “Yu-gee-oh” on 24-7, yet not one show came on the whole day. The closest thing we heard mention of is “Anpanman”, a superhero who can remove pieces of his candy head to feed people. Anpanman, along with Mustard man and Toast-Head, protect people from “Super-meany-man”. The brief advertisement I saw for Anpanman left me curled up in a fetal ball in the corner, scared half to death. It turns out that most anime is in novels for older kids and adults, and those books are everywhere- convenience stores, Laundromats, and waiting rooms all have scores of comic-novels out for everybody to read.
From the pictures of engineers doing pre-work calisthenics as a group, to the white collar workers taking their mandatory group run after work (all the name of building togetherness), Japan’s workforce, and society as a whole is focused on the group. Rooting from feudal Japan’s rigid, ultra-formal hierarchy, which required that all but the top of the social pyramid give up personal ambitions to better serve the group, Japan’s group-oriented society has been the sharpest contrast from the individualist, often chaotic, Western attitude towards life. The levels of devotion to the group, be it the company, or Japan itself, rival with the Hindu concept of dharma (duty). Likewise, those on the outside of the group can never be truly accepted, and as foreigners, my family is sometimes ignored (though rarely in an intentionally offensive manner).
My first week in Japan has truly been enjoyable; whereas in India we witnessed a society-structure not working, in Japan we just see a different way to make society work. Kyoto itself is very reminiscent of Seattle, and the temperate climate, fresh air, and natural beauty all serve to make daily life more enjoyable. Since I’m not the one paying for it, I find it hard to find too much fault with our trip here.