Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cultural Contributions - part 2

(Part 1 is here)

A good indication of how mainstream some elements of Japanese culture are in the U.S. is reflected in sales like the one pictured above.

In terms of what I see as Japan's long-lasting impact on other cultures up to this, I tend to see much of the obvious. Since I currently reside in Japan, it's a bit difficult for me to pick up on things which have had a subtle impact as I'm seeing through the eyes of the media rather than as someone residing in a country other than Japan.

The strongest influences that I believe Japan has had are those on popular culture. Mainly, I think they've shared their culture in these areas:
  • Anime-style artwork and action. I've noticed that traditional comic book-style has been altered or supplanted in many ways by huge-eyed, tiny-chinned looks. Even when some looks aren't direct copies, many are distorted to fit a similar look. I don't think this is going away any time soon as it dovetails very nicely with the move in the West to infantilize everyone and everything popular. If you look around at trends, you'll notice that everything seems to be moving toward removing all signs of maturity from pop icons including body hair and hints of wrinkles. Also, most actors are considered physically most desirable if they fit the "Q-tip" ideal - big head, tiny body which is also a part of anime. While I realize big heads are a part of all cartoons, it wasn't the norm that long, skinny bodies sat were the norm before. It was usually big heads on stubby, funny bodies or huge grotesquely muscled ones. Anime-style suits this trend very well though I don't believe Japan is in any way responsible for the trend toward infantilizing people and promoting it as attractive or an ideal.
  • Food culture. I think Japanese cuisine has only partially penetrated most cultures but it will continue to do so, though most likely in a modified format for each culture that adopts it. The main impediment right now to Japanese cuisine going completely mainstream around the world is a lack of a fast food equivalents with high name recognition and low prices. One of these days, someone is going to work out a formula for dumbing down the core cuisine and serving it up cheap and fast and it'll find even broader acceptance than it has already. I think the push to move away from meat and foods high on the food chain may aid this as soy-based foods will hold more and more appeal as long as they are modified to suit Western tastes.
  • Karaoke. I think this is going to be around for awhile and, like sushi, will be something that is always going to be a part of the Western cultures though clearly it'll be more or less popular in certain areas.
Ironically, I think there are some aspects of Japanese culture which I believe would be good if they rubbed off on Western culture but I don't believe they will be conveyed. In fact, I think that individualism and the resulting effects will continue to infiltrate Japanese culture. A few of the things I've noticed about Japan which I think would be good would be:
  • A greater sense of responsibility at a younger age. I've noticed that Japanese young people, while they tend to remain more dependent into adulthood, face their lives with a greater sense of personal and interpersonal responsibility. Their attitude is not as self-centered as you tend to see in the West. They don't address every experience with a "what's in it for me" attitude.
  • Fiscal conservatism. The Japanese are world-class savers and expert at deferring purchases in cases where making them would require them to go into debt. They have extremely low credit card debt on a per capita basis. While you do have people blowing money on expensive name brand goods, you don't have them racking up debt to do it.
  • Food portions and menu diversity. This is a point of culture which the West, and America in particular needs rather badly, but it's unlikely to make in-roads for a variety of reasons. First of all, diversity requires more time and effort and people in the States have seen food as something that should be gotten out of the way rather than labored over. However, I think that the tendency among most people to eat a mix of items in small portions is part of what contributes to longevity in Japan.


Roy said...

Unless you really follow it you probably haven't noticed that the style of Japanese anime character design has changed dramatically (in my opinion) over the last 25 years or so in a direction that I'm not fond of. Back then anime was more mainstream and the designs were more "realistic" (can't think of any other word here) but now they are more "bishojo" style which is because most anime is targeted to the otaku crowd rather than the mainstream audience. Anime is big business in Japan still but is targeted to a niche market now rather than the masses like back in the early 80s. Although this niche market is older with more money. This doesn't have anything to do with your post but I just thought I would bring it up.

BTW, you may be happy to hear that I've been redesigning my blog and will relaunch it as soon as I get some momentum behind it and have finished all the backend work to make it stable. You can see it here but I will cut it over to proper subdomain once it goes live.

tornados28 said...

I have winessed these good traits as well. I do feel it is not a stereotype actually is true that Japanese people are substantially more polite then Americans.

Even discrimination in Japan for the most part I do not believe is based in hate but just a beliefe that Japanese people are different then non-Japanese. Whereas is the U.S., discrimination often comes from racist attitudes full of hate.

ThePenguin said...

A very thought provoking pair of articles. I feel a rant coming on about Japan and its general direction, but I'll save that for when I have the luxury of time to think about it rationally.

Regarding Japanese food going mainstream, I was working in Bangkok fairly recently and was (pleasantly) surprised to find a variety of "Japanese" fast-food chain restaurants serving cheap and simple ramen / udon / soba dishes (and possibly some simple rice-based dishes like chahan, though I don't remember exactly). As I wasn't accustomed to Thai food, they kept me alive fot the first couple of weeks, and I remember wondering why there aren't places like those here in Europe to complement the now-omnipresent "sushi".

Chris said...

***off topic warning***

Can you send me that scan so I can put the icon/link on my blog?


Shari said...

Roy: Thanks for the information. Even though I don't follow anime, it's interesting to hear a more informed perspective.

I'm very, very pleased to hear you will be coming back. I was concerned that you may have just burned out on the whole thing and given it up. I hope that you find the refreshed site more of interest to you and can find a good pace that doesn't squeeze out your real life stuff!

I live the new look, btw. I'm bookmarking it and will be following your progress. :-)

I'm having some issues now with my own interaction with my blog which I'll probably go into at some point, so I can see why you needed a hiatus!

tornados28: I think that the thumbnail version is that Americans are warmer and friendly, but Japanese people are more ritualized and formally polite. Japanese culture has clearer rules and expectations for social interactions, but Americans are more genuine when they are kind and polite. You get a lot of perfunctory and obligatory politeness here which allows for a more comfortable veneer overlaying all interactions. The U.S., lacking this, can seem a really rude place, particularly in cities and places where you encounter a lot of strangers who have no compunctions about treating you in a cavalier fashion.

To me, being here sometimes feels like having a thin crust of politeness followed by a dense layer or resistance to really connecting with people. In the U.S., you have rapid connection, but none of that "crust" of social smoothing. Both have their merits and demerits, but I think the ideal situation meets somewhere in the middle. It'd be nice if people could manage to be both warm, open, and welcoming as well as civil.

thepenguin: I think that someone could make a lot of money by locating a winning formula that can market fast food in a Japanese style to Western countries, but it'll take a hell of an investment and well-designed style. Ironically, I think the limited notions of Japan as being weird, hard to fathom and full of strange and dangerous food is going to be the biggest impediment to the food going mainstream.

Thanks to all for the comments!

a joe said...

A big problem with Japanese fast food is some cooking actually take skill to master. If someone can simplify it into a matter of slapping together a burger maybe it can be accomplished.

I've always liked Yoshinoya though. It's really like slapping a burger together, if not easier.

Not a big fan of anime myself, but isn't a large part of anime production now being out sourced to Korea, China, Phillipines etc.? Doesn't that degrade its quality?

ターナー said...

Agreed about the food portions, but I think the youth of the western world could do without the responsibility and pressure I see bestowed on Japanese.

Shari said...

a Joe: I'm afraid I don't know much about anime, but I think there is Japanese style food which can be modified to fast food status. As you mentioned, there's Yoshinoya. The main problem is that a lot of it requires fresh food and can't be made with frozen ingredients. Basically, there's very fresh or very pickled and the latter is usually a condiment or side. The former just won't work so well for fast stuff.

Turner: I think that the crushing responsibility of entrance exams is not good, but the feeling that one is an adult and has to consider the needs and feelings of others is something Western kids need. Kids back home are pretty selfish and irresponsible. Many of them grow up to max out their credit cards in college and rack up far more debt than necessary because they can borrow more from a bank.

However, I do agree that there is an aspect which is pretty awful and needs to be dealt with in Japan.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Hi Shari,

Great stuff. It's very beneficial for anyone interested in learning about Japan (like me) to get this kind of perspective from someone whose lived there for nearly 20 years and comes from a similar background to myself.

I'll continue reading your blog via my blackberry :-).


Shari said...

Hi, Michael, and thanks for the comment. I sometimes read pages on my husbands PDA, but find the length a bit of a hassle. It is convenient though and removes that "chained to the computer" element from it all.

Marie said...

I enjoyed reading both your articles. Your views are very interesting. I have heard the bubble story many times and I am aware of the contributions that you have outlined, but the way you conveyed it in your post is very intellectual and also very well-worded. Thanks for the inspiration, Shari!

Shari said...

Hi, Marie, and many thanks for your very kind comment. :-)