Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who's is the Emperor of Japan?

All who read will know the answer to a simple question that concerns Japan's cultural heritage. In this respect, I want to make known a striking reality -- many young people in Japan don't know who their emperor is.

I will set the scene that brought me to this, well, appalling realization. I recently asked a group of middle school students (all of them were of Japanese ethnic background, born and raised in a very conservative country town in Kyushu) a simple question in English that goes something like this: "Who is your emperor?"

I was subsequently confronted by a sea of blank faces.

"All right, I'll rephrase that: Who is the emperor of Japan?"

Through the translation of my question to the students by an embarrassed Japanese teacher, it dawned on me (and her) that they perfectly understood what I was saying but just didn't know the answer.

I have, since my initial shock, asked this same question to high school seniors, some university students, and even some office workers; my hope being that a simple knowledge of one's own country and cultural assets might become apparent further down the line. A majority had no idea who the emperor was.

It is with some dismay that I now build a picture of an education system, older generation, "mono-cultural" society (call it what you may) that is producing a generation of young people ignorant of a few basic facts, their cultural heritage. I fear it is the latter in both cases; the fact that these young people don't know who the emperor is conceals an ignorance far more shameful -- they don't know what it is.

These young people know of David and Victoria Beckham, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Hamasaki Ayumi, Utada Hikaru, Bae Yong Jun, and even Elvis Presley who died long ago (but, who is still living in the spirit of Premier Koizumi and many other fans here in Japan and around the world.) Of course, nothing wrong about that! But…

Ironically, all the "foreigners" that I have asked the same question knew exactly who the Japanese emperor was.

Am I merely interacting with a set of unusually uneducated young people, or have I just missed another lesson in Japanese etiquette: that it's somehow disrespectful to announce the emperor's name in public and better to feign ignorance?

1 comment:

Pathdoc said...

It is difficult to determine the scope of knowledge that an educated populace should posess. In the United States where I live, a recent study showed Americans are more familiar with the fairy tale characters the seven dwarfs than they are with the supreme court justices. Students can only know "so much." Would we rather that students know calculus, physics, economics and biology (practical subjects) or understand the intracacies of quaint and irrelevant (in the modern sense) cultural anachronisms.