Friday, April 27, 2007

General Contentment

Some of the things you learn from living in Japan come quickly and are like a culture shock slap to the face. Others take a long time to see and understand (and perhaps some things just never come). When you first arrive, there's novelty everywhere and you take note of all the quaint little customs that seem charmingly Japanese (e.g., bowing, the way business cards are dealt with). You also take note of how you are regarded as a foreigner in both favorable and unfavorable ways.

If you live here long enough (and are American) and are lucky enough to forget the rampant emphasis on materialism, success, and money that is a pervasive part of American culture, you might absorb some of the sense of contentment that a lot of Japanese people seem to feel with a life of moderate comfort. It's often said that the Japanese are a culture of middle class people with relatively few people who are seriously poor or very rich. While there has been an increase in the number of people who deviate in financial status from the median, it's still by and large the case that people are middle class.

After you associate with enough people, you see that most people aren't pining constantly for what they can't have. You don't see people struggling to keep up with the Joneses (or perhaps the Satos in this case) or attempting to define themselves by their possessions or their hobbies as much as you do in the States. Of course, there are otaku but they aren't a significant part of the population. They are simply the part which attracts a lot of media attention.

It seems to me after a lot of experience with Japanese people that the bar for contentment in this culture is set lower than the bar in the U.S. Of course, I could be completely wrong and it may be that modesty prevents people from talking about their more lavish possessions in which they take pride or that the people I associate with do not share their material desires or general dissatisfaction with their lifestyle to me. I believe this is rather unlikely though since students tend to reveal more to foreigners than they might to Japanese people because we aren't evaluating them by the same cultural standard as their peers.

Sometimes I think that the best thing that might have come from living in Japan is a sense of contentment with a more modest lifestyle and an almost complete loss of material longing. I guess this may simply be a function of age and not part of the culture rubbing off on me but there appear to be plenty of people my age back home who worry about being able to buy this or that or like nothing more than to talk about what they buy.


melanie said...

Well said and so true!

Just found your blog through Gaijin Girl.

Shari said...

Hi, Melanie and thanks for your comment. BTW, I'm not familiar with "Gaijin Girl". Could you post an URL, please? :-) I'm always looking for good blogs to read.

tornados28 said...

I think what you said is true also. I have traveled to Japan often including three different trips in the last 12 months. I too have seen how Japanese people seem to be more content with a moderate lifestyle and less interested in showing a "certain lifestyle" like people in America.

I like that about Japan.

I believe this is the Gaijin Girl blog link:

Androo said...

Most of the friends I still keep in touch with in Japan were very unassuming, fashionably reserved people. No Louie Vuitton bags here.

But one of my friends came to visit me stateside and asked me to take her to a pretty nice mall in southern California. She bought a Gucci watch, 2 Coach bags (one for her mom!) and a LV wallet, spending over a grand in the first hour. Apparently they're just cheaper over here, so she was waiting for when she'd visit me. I think maybe the consumerism that's so rampant in places like Shibuya exists elsewhere, but is a bit less aggressive.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me for disagreeing. I have always thought that Japanese in particular young Japanese ladies have a passion for designer products? I was once told by an older Japanese gentleman that this is one of the reason why there are more and more "parasites" in Japan. Not having to fork out a pretty penny for rent and food enables them to splurge on the luxury goods they're so enamoured with.

I stand to be corrected but I think they even have magazines which feature nothing but designer bags & shoes from cover to cover. Readers of such magazines are given every detail about the products featured such as model number, size, colour as well as price.

I've always been under the impression that Japan is a paradise for all designer product companies judging from the sheer number and size of branded goods shops in Japan (most if not all are enormous by Asian standard, particularly their flagship stores). If I'm not wrong all designer goods companies are represented in Japan.

Even when Japanese travel abroad one of the first thing they seek out is branded goods.

Shari said...

You make good points which are absolutely true but only when applied to a limited portion of the population and are somewhat outdated. The designer craze was much more omnipresent about 20 years ago when there was a lot more disposable income and nowhere to spend it for the most part. A lot of people went designer crazy because they couldn't afford cars or houses but they wanted to treat themselves. These days, that sort of thing is far less common.

Additionally, you are correct that tourists seek out designer goods though they don't always buy them. I've asked my students about this and a lot of them look but don't buy.

I'm also sure that many young "parasite singles" pursue designer goods but I think that, like otaku, they don't represent a majority of Japanese people. The majority live more average lifestyles. The designer crazy Japanese, like the cosplaying, anime loving Japanese or the refined gentile Japanese ladies doing tea ceremonies and wearing kimono, are highly over-discussed by western media.

Androo said...

I think the question of consumerism is also distorted by the disproportionate exposure of Tokyo. When I was in places like Kanazawa, Shizuoka, or Nagoya (certainly not bumpkin hamlets, but not major metropolises either), I felt and saw much less of the rampant consumerism you might see in a ward of Tokyo.

melanie said...

Hi Sorry! It's been a while since I checked in. The link to Gaijin Girl is;

Once I get a chance - I'll link your blog to mine so I don't have to go through hers to find you ;)

Looking forward to reading more from you.