Thursday, August 17, 2006

Contemporary Japan: Westernized?

In any fast changing society there are curious and sometimes uncomfortable contrast between traditions inherited from the past and new characteristics produced by new technologies and institutions. Japan having moved faster and farther than any other nation during the past century may be subject to particularly severe strains of this sort, but they are not different in kind--only in degree--from what the West itself experiences.

I believe Japan has not been Westernized, as is commonly asserted. Nothing is more central to traditional Western culture than Christianity, but less than 1 percent of the Japanese population has embraced this religion. What Japanese have taken over are the modern aspects of Western culture, which for the most part the West too has only recently developed in response to modern technology--things like railroads, factories, mass education, great newspapers, television, and mass democracy. In this sense Japan has more significantly become modernized, not Westernized, and the process of modernization has taken place on the basis of Japan's own traditional culture, just as happened in the West, with same sort of resulting contrasts and strains.

A head start in the West of four decades in railroading and a few years in television did not make these features of modern life distinctively Western as opposed to Japanese. Japanese are every bit much at home with them as are North Americans, Europeans and others. Tea which is an East Asian drink, coffee from the Middle East and Africa, kimono-like dressing gowns, martial arts, sushi, Chinese foods, African rhythms in music... have not produced traumas or schizophrenia in West. Why should multicultural values, foods, arts, music... have this effect on Japanese? Mozart and Beethoven now belongs as much to Japanese as to other Asians, Australians, Africans, Americans or even Germans. "Happy Birthday," sung always in English, and "Auld Lang Syne," sung always in Japanese, are as solid natural parts of Japanese folk today as of North American.

Only old ladies and some very wealthy women commonly wear Japanese kimonos, while most other women reserve them only for very festive occasions, such as Coming-of-age and university graduation ceremonies, if they can afford them at all. The Japanese find nothing incongruous in the contrast between the traditional Japanese garb of brides at Shinto wedding ceremonies and the traditional Western white they usually wear at civil ceremonies or Christian weddings, which are popular even for nonbelievers. Grooms are almost always dressed in Western style, specifically in cutaways in more affluent circles, a costume that is much used for formal occasions in Japan and is called "moningu" from "morning coat." Hardly any men ever wear traditional garb of any sort. Neither did their fathers or many of their grandfathers, and they would feel almost as self-conscious in a traditional Japanese costume as a North American native in Indian dress.

We all naturally live in multicultural societies, and nobody can deny it (at least people who are well-educated.)

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