Japan through the looking glass

In his recent book titled 'Japan Through the Looking Glass', Alan Macfarlane has given an account of his vision of the Japanese culture and civilization as he found during his visit to the country. This book, published in the year of 2008 has already been acclaimed by the readers and also by the critics. 'Japan through the Looking Glass' is especially important since it addresses as well as provides answers for the questions and doubts and vague ideas about the culture and civilization of Japan. Alan Macfarlane in his book has described the country of Japan to be an 'enchanted' world. Allan also makes clear his notion about an integrated world. According to him an integrated world is a unique one that appears to constitute a significant shift from the paradigms of modernism of the other countries, avoiding the deeply ingrained binaries between the East and the West.
In his bid to share his experience of his travel to Japan and his attempt to define the Japanese culture as he perceived, Alan Macfarlane, the author seems to be keen on finding the differences between the American culture and the Japanese culture. In a word, Alan has made an effort to conduct a comparative study of the culture and civilization of the United Sates and of Japan. There is no doubt that the author has observed the country and the culture of its people. The comparative study that he did made him comment in this book that "Japan is so interesting because it is an industrial civilization fundamentally different from ours" (Macfarlane, 2008). It is, in fact very natural that the two countries that are located in different parts of the world would have some differences in respect of their culture and civilization, even if it is considered that it is the present age of modernization and globalization.
There is little scope for denial to the fact that most of the countries in the world are being influenced by the American culture. Japan is no exception, even though the influence of the American culture on Japan is not so prominent as in some of the other countries that have almost lost their own in their bid to be Americanized. However, the word 'fundamental' inspires some thoughts. It is true that the culture and civilization in these two countries are different from each other. Now the question remains of they are fundamentally different or are just different from each other just as there are, at least, some cultural differences between any two countries in the world.
The best way to find the justified answer if the American Culture and the Japanese culture are fundamentally different from each other or just different is to explore the culture and civilization of the country of Japan. To find the fundamental difference in culture and civilization it is also necessary to conduct a study of the history and development of the Japanese culture and civilization. It would be, then, quite easier as well as systematic to trace if the differences of culture and civilization of Japan and America are just different or fundamentally different. A study of the origin of the Japanese culture is also quite relevant in this regard.
Before we start exploring the origins of the Japanese culture, it is much necessary to define the Japanese Culture. To be very straight and simple, the Japanese culture is the culture of the Japanese people, as it has evolved throughout the history and reached the present status. It is to be kept in mind the concept of 'people' here is not biological or political, but cultural. Let us see what Robert John Smith and Richard King Beardley have to say on this subject. According to them, "the Japanese appeared on the Japanese archipelago at a particular time in history as a unified ethnic group with a common language called Japanese and with a common traditional way of life" (Smith and Beardley, 3). They had mush unity among themselves and the unity or the 'we-feeling' of these Japanese was most expectedly strengthened by the political unification into a single Japanese country. That they shared the common history and destiny after being unified contributed more to the fellow-feeling or the unity that they already had within them.
While discussing the history of the Japanese culture and civilization, it obviously quite necessary to find out if the higher civilization that came to be introduced into Japan in the fifth century A.D. by the Yamato Dynasty, had played any significant or decisive role in the creation or development of the basic or fundamental Japanese culture. If the influence of religion and faiths on the creation and development of culture is to be considered, the Japanese culture comes almost on the same platform as the Western culture. Just as the Western culture and civilization were significantly influenced by the Christianity and also by the Greek and Roman legacy, the Japanese culture was also remarkable influenced in its period of making, by Buddhism. Again, it is also true that there were some core features already existing in the Japanese culture even before it was influenced by Buddhism. And, those features have been carried even into the modern twenty first century. It is very much like the Germanic culture since the Germanic cultures had developed even before the introduction of Christianity. There may be doubts about if the first emperor of the Yamato dynasty was Altaic conqueror or not. But there is really no doubt that it was by the fifth century that the formation of the Japanese people was complete.
Some of the physical anthropologists are of the opinion that the Japapnese people are the direct descendents of the Jomon people. However, the basis on which they make such demands is the mere fact that "the difference of the skeletal remains of the Yayoi and the later periods from those of the preceding Jomon period can be adequately explained from the changes in the way of life" (Smith and Beardley, 5). However, this logic is sure to fail if the mixture of the heterogeneous races can provide a satisfactory explanation for this.
The exploration into the history of the creation or the development of the Japanese culture and civilization is to remain incomplete if the development of the Japanese culture concerning the Japanese language is not discussed. In the Jomon period, the people of West Japan used to speak a language of the southern origin. This language had the phonetic system that was very much like Polynesian of the present times. It was by the influence of the Yayoi culture that a new language with a vowel harmony and with grammar was introduced and spread rapidly. Along with the language some other cultural elements also spread from northern Kyushu. Some of these cultural features are rice cultivation, art of weaving and metal implements. Since mythological traditions are one of the most important and essential elements of culture, if not directly of civilization, it is necessary to discuss the mythological elements of the Japanese culture. It is also quite essential to compare these mythological elements with those of the American culture. Discussing the mythological aspects of the Japanese culture would be very systematic if several themes from the Japanese traditions are considered. One of these themes is the details of the eastward conquest by Jimmu and founding the empire in Yamato. So far as the first myth mentioned here is concerned, it mainly comprises three motifs. It was a divine order that Japan would be ruled by the descendants of the chieftains of heavenly deities. "Prince Ninigi, offspring of the chieftainess, descents from heaven through thick clouds, wrapped within a mattress" and "alights on the peak called Kushifuru or Kushihi" (Smith and Beardley, 13). On the other hand, there is hardly found any myth about the American culture that reveals a divine order to establish a new kingdom. Another aspect that is to be discussed in this respect is the existence of religious myths in the cultures of Japan and America. While most of the myths in the Japanese culture are religious or related to religion in some way or the other, the American culture does not appear to harbor much of religious myths. It is also to be noted that the cultures of the countries depend upon its history of development. Since the history of the Japanese culture is much older than that of America, it is quite obvious that there would be some basic or fundamental difference between the cultures of the two countries, especially in respect of mythological aspects. Most of the American myths are of the folktale types. Language is one more element of the culture of any country. While discussing the aspect of language in the Japanese culture, Robert John Smith and Richard king Beardsley opines that "relationships between languages is demonstrated by correspondence in (1) grammatical structure and (2) vocabulary, as corroborated by phonetic law (Smith and Beardley, 17). So far as the grammar of the Japanese language is concerned, it is very much like that in the Chinese and Austro-Asian languages. However, in respect of the structure of the language, the Japanese language is very much similar to the Altaic group. On the other hand, the Americans have been speaking English ever since its culture had started being formed. It is true that there are quite a number of dialects in different states of the Nation. The amalgamation of culture, especially in the present days, has resulted in the Americans using different languages other than English. For instance, the European-Americans use the Spanish language as their vernacular. It is also found in America that a particular cultural group is established merely on the basis of the fact that they share the same language. In some other cases, various cultural groups are formed basing on certain cultural elements being combined with the consideration of the geographical origin and also with the physical similarity.
When it comes to the matter of the diversity of the American culture, keeping in mind the language factor, "most Americans immediately conjure up visions of categorized social groups, African-Americans (most often meaning black Americans), Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, or any of the large number of ethnic groups with which they have had some contact" (Naylor, 118). Naylor also points out that "while they can identify such groups as Hispanic American, Asian American, European
American - they speak Spanish, come from Asia, they are white - many fail to recognize the large number of actual cultural groups obscured by the criteria used to categorize them". Such social or cultural phenomenon results in some difficulties. The difficulty occurs as the Americans fail to identify and differentiate the cultural groups and the social groups. In case of the cultural groups people learn the particular behaviors and beliefs that distinguish them from the other groups. It has to be kept in mind that the Black Americans or the Asian Americans or the Hispanic Americans are not anything like cultural groups. Rather, they are social categories that are established mainly depending upon the very simple and over-generalized criteria. However, the Japanese culture does not suffer from such kind of cultural difficulties. In fact, though there is cultural diversity in the Japanese culture, they are somehow related or similar to each other. Moreover, the extent of cultural and social multiplicity of America is much higher than that of Japan. What is even more important, in America the problems caused by or associated with cultural aspects of people like race or origin are quite obvious even to the casual observer of America and its culture. Cultural groups like the African Americans, Asian Americans and the Middle Eastern Americans are treated as racial or ethnic groups that represent the minority groups in the American context. In fact, the total diversity of America in respect of culture and civilization is the result of the development of American civilization and the emergence of the states based on territoriality, also taking into account the urban environments, occupational specializations and the necessities of the large number of people making an effort to live together. As beliefs and behaviors and the other cultural elements associated with these are shared all of these groups become part of the American culture, though they remain easily distinguishable from each other.
It is quite necessary in this regard to focus on the changing family structure of the Japanese people since, it must not be denied and the family structure is also a part of the culture of any civilization. As pointed out by Smith and Beardsley in their 'Japanese Culture', the Japanese families in the past had the patriarchal extended family system. The patriarch was the head or the governor of the family. Since it was a rule that only the eldest son of the family would be entitled to succeed the position of the patriarch, he was generally ranked highest, in terms of importance in the family. It is quite strange that though it was a male dominated society, the younger sons were subjected to "luke-warm treatment in their daily round of life as hiyameshi-kui" (Smith and Beardley, 47). Moreover, they never had any share in what the elder son inherited. Keeping in mind such forms of family system, it seems quite needless to mention that the women had a very submissive position in the family. Ti is thus very much evident that the Japanese family of the past offered little guarantee of the equal happiness of the individual members of the family. Rather, almost all of the members of the family were forced to serve the patriarch and the family, and make sacrifices. Since these groups of families were to perpetuate over the next generation, the parents, their children and the grandchildren used to live under the same roof. Naturally, such systems resulted in different forms of extended families, irrespective of the living conditions. During the feudal regime, of course, the Japanese people used to live in discrete local communities. What is even more extraordinary is that fact that the mostly remained socially, politically and also economically isolated from the others. As a result of this, there emerged a number of such groups of families that one could easily describe as uncultured.
With the passage of time and with the wheel of civilization moving rapidly in Japan, the family patterns have also changed. Typical nuclear family prevails dominantly in the Japanese society. However, extended families are also to be found in present Japan, but they are not certainly such huge in number as the nuclear families are. In the present-day Japan there are mainly seven types of family structure or family composition system, if the family structures are to be classified or categorized. These family structures are single-member household, household of a couple, household of a couple and unmarried child/children, household of couple with married children, household of couple and linear ascendants, households of couple, linear ascendants and descendants, and the household including the collateral kin. If the condition of the nuclear families is considered, there would be different results depending upon the variation of region as well as of occupation. Smith and Beardsley point out that the nuclear families in the urban areas are much stronger than those in the rural areas who depend mostly on agriculture for earning their livelihood. The decline of agriculture and the rapid growth of urbanization that characterize the present technological culture of Japan in the modern times are making larger spaces for the nuclear families. However, it has also to be admitted that a complete transformation of the family structure in Japan from the extended family system to the nuclear family system is almost impossible to be attained in a short time.
It is necessary to mention in this context that it was almost a century ago that some of the leaders in Japan could foresee the inevitable transformation of the family structure system of the Japanese families with the country basking the various advantages of modernization that had just begun. They insisted much on the revision of a particular Civil Code that covered the family systems in Japan. However, all of their initiatives turned to be fruitless as there were strong countermovement from the oppositions who were of the opinion that the family system that was existing in Japan was the representative of the time-honored custom that was, as they thought, was essential for the moral as well as political survival of Japan. Though this reformist movement remained subdued for a while, it regained its revolutionary activities after the end of the Second World War. The New Constitution that came to be promulgated in the year of 1946 had ensured the principles of respect for individual equality and dignity of the sexes, on which the new family systems were to be based. As an obvious result, the traditional Japanese family structure that was characterized by collectivity orientation and being patriarch centered was made to give way as it was deprived of its legal status. Smith and Beardsley truly concludes that "in this way, the family system, which had been in a state of "cultural lag" since the emergence of a modernized Japan, now leaped into the leading position of social progress" (Smith and Beardley, 51).
So far as the change of the family structure is concerned, America experiences the same kind of change at almost the same time. In America the extended family structure was quite dominant even before the Second World War. During the span from 1880 till 1940, the percentage of the extended family remained quite stable. However, the change of the family system was first noticed in America among the white people right after the Second World War. However, the Blacks took a little longer time to initiate the change into their family systems. It was since the year of 1960 that the Black American families started turning to be nuclear. In his article in the American Historical Review, Ruggles refers to what Marion Levy had argued. Levy had the argument that though the extended family if often considered being the ideal family structure in the preindustrial societies, its predominance in the real population was rare. Her arguments became further stronger as she explained that few people can reside with the elderly kin, considering the high mortality condition. Moreover, the three- generation families are not expected to be the norm, especially in a situation where most people die either before or shortly after their grandchildren are born. Ruggles also refers to Lutz Berkner who, in the 1970s, had articulated the stem family hypothesis. It is to be mentioned in this relevance that "in the stem families, one child remains in the parental household after marriage, while any other children leave and form nuclear households when they get married"(Ruggles). The younger generation in the stem families eventually depends on business or farm. It should be noticed that the concept of the stem family is not a particular type of household. Rather, it appears more to be a process. It is very interesting that each stem family has its beginning as a nuclear family that gets extended with the marriage of the child and turns into a nuclear family again with the death of the parents. Therefore, it becomes quite obvious that the extended family is a part of the process of the stem family system. Again, if the parents die early or if the child gets married late, there is no scope for the nuclear family to become an extended family or stem family. With the passage of time and with the advancements of the industrialization and modernization of the present age, nuclear families wield almost absolute dominance in the American society.
Before we start finding the differences of some other type between the Japanese culture and the American Culture, let us focus on the subject of Japanese-American relations in respect of culture. Referring to Culture Shock and Japanese-American Relations by Sadao Asada would make things even more distinct. This book clearly reveals how most Japanese people would fee while they would be amidst American culture. The author states that "despite my good intention to follow developments back home, Japan was fast receding from my consciousness as I came to identify more and more with America. Such cultural isolation would be difficult for Japanese students in America today to imagine" (Asada, 6). Such statements, even though they are personal and subjective, make one thing very clear that there are huge differences in the culture and civilization of the two countries, Japan and America. There is no reason to think that an American student would not be feeling the same when he or she is living amidst the Japanese culture. Had Asada been in Korea or in China, he would not have felt so much isolated as he was feeling in America, since in respect of culture Korea and China comes closer to Japan than America. This aspect is also discussed more theoretically and formally by Edward C. Stewart and Milton J. Bennett in their book, 'American Cultural Patterns'. They clearly state that "many, if not most, of the problems faced by Americans abroad are encountered in reverse by foreign students and scholars coming to the United States" (Stewart and Bennett, 5). It is for this reason that the foreign students in America or the American students abroad have to adapt to the classroom patterns. The authors also points out that the foreign students sometimes overreact to the "participatory atmosphere, monopolizing too much time and speaking dogmatically" (Stewart and Bennett, 5).
Let us now come to some aspects of common practices in both the countries that can be considered to be the parts of culture and civilization. These are the common human habits and some social practices in respect of which America and Japan differs from each other widely. In fact, it would not at all be an exaggeration to mention that at times the Japanese culture and the American culture stand poles apart, in spite of the strong influence of globalization and modernization.
It is the rule in America for the drivers to stick to the right while driving. On the contrary, people in Japan keep to the left while walking or driving. It is not that they have been influenced by the British. In ancient Japan, the samurai used to walk on the left side of the road. The Japanese people keep to the left only to follow the tradition of the great samurais. There is another very common aspect in which the Americans and the Japanese differ widely from each other. When in the United States, it is thought to be rude of a person if he or she keeps sniffing in public due to a runny nose. Better is to go and blow. Most extraordinarily, blowing in is thought to be indecency in Japan while one can keep sniffing to manage the situation. So far as the school hours are concerned, things are almost the same in America and Japan. In both the countries the school hours in general cases are from 9 in the morning till 3 in the afternoon, from Monday to Friday.
Let us now come to the food habits of both the countries. American food items are generally of mild tastes. Another important thing is that most American people are not habituated to season their food to any high degree. Americans also have the habit of having tea or coffee either with the meals or after them. The main course meals in America mainly include meat, fish or poultry. Since life is too fast in America, people generally rush through their meals during the daytime. Hamburgers and hot dogs are very much popular in American people especially among the young generation. The eating style of the Americans may seem to be quite funny to the foreigners since they use fork to eat almost anything. It appears that holding the knife in the right hand all the time or for too long a time goes against the table manners. Let us now discuss the food habit of the Japanese people. Though the consumption of rice is reported to have declined in the recent times, rice is still the staple food of the Japanese population. Rice cakes that are called 'mochi' in Japan are very common among the Japanese food items. The Japanese people have meals three times a day - breakfast, lunch and dinner. The main dishes take into account steamed rice, miso soup or soy bean soup and other side dishes. The some of the common Japanese side dishes are rolled omlet, grilled fish, dried seaweed, pickles and salad.
Now that the basic features of the Japanese culture have been explored, the process of the development of the Japanese culture since the ancient age has been studied, and they have been contrasted with those of the American culture, it is now almost needless to say that Alan Macfarlane was absolutely right in making the comment that the industrial civilization of Japan is fundamentally different from that of theirs.
There might have been similarities in certain aspects of both the cultures and civilizations of the two countries. Yet, the cultural behaviors and habits including the myths and social practices of the people of the two countries are completely different from each other. There are, of course, several reasons behind such fundamental differences between the cultures of the two countries. Apart from historically significant incidents and phenomenon, the reasons are almost the same as those for which there are differences in the culture and civilization of any two countries in the world. The difference of geographic location is also one of the major reasons since location has got to do a lot with the culture and civilization of a nation. Time is also a great factor that has to be kept in mind if the reasons behind such differences are to be traced. America came to be discovered in the fifteenth century and its development of civilization and culture started quite late if compared to the old history of the Japanese civilization that dates back to the fifth century. The modernization and globalization and even Americanization which has become a very popular trend, might have brought about some similarities in the cultures and civilization of the two countries. But, they are fundamentally different from each other. Both of them have their own ways of making the wheel of civilization move. Both the cultures have gone through radical changes down the ages. Yet, since the cultural tradition that both the countries have been nurturing since long past are unique in each case, they are sure to be different from each other. The stray similarities between the two cultural traditions cannot subdue the essential or the fundamental difference that exists between the Japanese culture and the American culture.

Works Cited
1. Asada, Sadao, Culture shock and Japanese-American relations, University of
Missouri Press, 2007
2. Macfarlane, Alan, Japan through the Looking Glass, Profile Books Limited, 2008
3. Naylor, Larry. L., American culture, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998
4. Ruggles, Sammuel B., The Transformation of American Family Structure,
American Historical Review, February, 1994, retrieved on April 4, 2009 from:
5. Stewart, Edward C. and Milton J. Bennett, American Cultural Patterns,
Intercultural Press, 1991
6. Smith, Robert. J. and Richard. K. Beardley, Japanese Culture, Routledge, 2004

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Japan through the looking glass 9.1 of 10 on the basis of 3708 Review.