The small island country of Japan is rich in a culture that has developed over thousands of years. It is very difficult to analyze another culture without some knowledge of that culture first. During my two year residency in Japan, my eyes were opened to the culture of Japan and its people and I grew to love it as much as my own. (The ideas expressed in this essay mainly consist of my own knowledge and observations of Japan). The Japanese are a very traditional people.
But this should not be confused with a primitive people, because the Japanese are not primitive by most dictionaries' definitions of the word. Japan has been changing in recent years in its view of its own economy, in its social interactions, in its thoughts about religion, and in its overall view of its place in the world and among other nations. For the past decade, the Japanese economy has been one of the strongest and most stable economies in the world. In analyzing why it has been so successful, several factors must be considered.
First, the education system of Japan is one of the highest ranked in the world. The reason for this is that Japanese children go to school and study more than students in most other countries. The school year lasts for 240 days and each school day is very long. Furthermore, most students go to "cram schools" to study even more after the regular school day is over. This is all in preparation for the college entrance exam (Morton, 251-255). Some people have also said that this prepares Japanese youth for their future in companies with jobs that require great dedication and 80 to 90 hour work weeks.
This dedication of Japanese employees to their work contributes greatly to the strength of the economy of Japan. They feel like they are part of a big family (the company). Employees work together for the benefit of the company as a whole. They truly feel that their hard work and success contribute to the company's uc cess and growth.
Companies also have special programs and classes for the employees, who are the children, to make them feel at home. There are company athletic clubs and cultural classes, such as flower arrangement and the tea ceremony. Since everyone is a member of the "family" in Japan, decisions that the company must make are circulated among the lower echelons of the work force for their opinions and continue until they reach the executives, who decide the final outcome (Morton, 213-220). With all of this "training" in their younger years, the Japanese are hard workers. And with their math and science skills and hard work combined, they are one of the world's leaders in high technology.
Over half of Japan's total economy is represented by the exports of this high technology. Automobiles and electronics (televisions, stereos, video games) are among the goods that Japan sells to other countries for high profit, thus high economic gain. Therefore, it can reasonably be said that Japan is a rich country. The Japanese people have this wealth divided fairly evenly among them.
Most families are in the upper-middle class. But there are still social differences between different people within this culture. Japanese people are very fad-oriented. They want the newest and the best in every thing they have. As a result, they only buy name-brand clothes and goods. Having name-brand things is a sign of their social status.
If they can afford "better" things, then their status is higher. Social status is very important to the Japanese. For example, the depth of one's bow when meeting depends upon the other person's status comparative to one's own. If it is higher, then one's bow must be deeper, bending at the waist. If it is lower, then just a slight nod of the head may suffice. But that is to be judged the instant one meets someone for the first time.
There is also a language, called "kei go", within the Japanese language that is specifically used when addressing someone of a higher social status. This dates back to the ancient times of the relationship and language used by the samurai to his lord. This may seem rather stiff and formal to foreigners, but to the Japanese, it is a part of their culture that has been practiced for centuries. Even with the different levels of social status, Japan is a very homogenous nation. Most of the population of Japan (99%) is 100% Japanese. In other words, their parents and parents' parents have only married other Japanese people for generations and generations.
This is in part due to their isolation from the rest of the world for thousands of years. It is very fun to be a foreigner in Japan. In Japan, one is either Japanese (Nihon jin) or a foreigner (Gaijin). If one visits Japan, he or she would most likely be called "Gaijin" several times. In this aspect, there is no differentiation made between the many foreign countries. To many Japanese, one is either Japanese or he is not.
However, there are exceptions. Instead of calling all foreigners "Gaijin", some Japanese people call them "Amerika jin" (American), which angers foreigners who are from Europe or other countries. This happens because the Japanese hold the United States and its people in very high regard. In many ways they consider themselves inferior to Americans. On the other hand, the Japanese believe themselves to be superior to all other Asian nations.
This can be seen by the way other Asians are treated in Japan. Until recently, women were always thought of as having less importance than men in Japanese society. They were expected to stay at home and raise the children, along with fulfilling other household responsibilities, while their husbands went to work. Women were always supposed to be meek and submissive, always subservient to the men. However, in recent years, women have been leaving home to work and enjoy their own lifestyles in greater numbers. They are beginning to break the mold that Japanese society has made for them since ancient times.
The Japanese concept of religion would probably seem more like part of a culture to a westerner. The religious attitudes of most Japanese people today "seem to be basically of a pragmatic, rational, or scientific turn of mind" (Morton, 263). Although most people one talks to in Japan claim to be Buddhist, many of the same people also claim to be Shinto. "Japanese may employ Shinto rites when they marry and Buddhist funeral rites when they die" (Morton, 263).
It has been Buddhism and Shinto that have contributed most to the Japanese understanding of themselves and the world around them. Shinto has no founder and no sacred scriptures, no specific religious philosophy, or a specific moral code. The Shinto world-view is basically bright and optimistic and its purpose is the celebration and enrichment of life. Worship in Shinto is done to show gratitude to the gods and to secure their continued favor.
Since Shinto has no scriptures or moral codes, worship has always had a central place in the religion. Instead of church and Sunday school, it has been through festivals and rituals that Shinto has transmitted its characteristic attitudes and values. The other major Japanese religion, Buddhism, has many scriptures, elaborate doctrines, and a well-organized priesthood. Although its view of the world is quite different than that of Shinto, the optimism that the two share causes them to mesh well. Christianity is also present in Japan, but only about 1% of the total population is of the Christian faith. In spite of the low percentage of Japanese Christians, many people have Christian weddings in Japan now.
Finally, comparing Japanese culture to American culture is a very daunting task. Japan is a country which is thousands of years older than the United States. Although one might think the Japanese seem to be nothing like Americans, they are outwardly very much the same. For example, the Japanese listen to music, watch movies, play sports, and go to work and to school the same way Americans do.
But it is the "kokoro", which is the mind and soul, of a Japanese person that is truly different than that of an American. This "kokoro" is something that can not be easily explained or understood. It is an awareness which one slowly receives as he or she is truly immersed in the culture of the rising sun of Japan.
Morton, W. Scott. Japan, Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994.