Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Changing Impressions

Osaka at night. Water and buildings.
 When I first arrived in Japan last August, I have to admit that I had an image of Japan more directed towards its traditional customs. Classical cinema, chado, costumes, arts and so on were my interests even though I knew that it was “the paradise of technology and modernity” – whatever it means – and didn’t have much expectations about Japan. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised by this modernity penetrating every sphere of Japanese culture, especially those of Japanese youth. I saw that, like in every society, Japan contains its apparent paradoxes. Considering the cultural effervescence in Japan, I was, and still am, wondering about how do people personally deal with this tugging situation and how do they make sense of that. Apparently, my stay in Japan isn’t long enough to answer all my questions, but still I do have a better idea of it.

From an image of Japanese people being calm, quiet and shy, I also met the yelling Japanese when they welcome you in a shop; the extremely noisy bars and restaurants or the extroverted people wearing all kinds of clothes and accessories. Some specifics areas and moments seem to be designed for the counterpart of silence and calm.

Man taking a rest on Mt Hiei

Also, I noticed the separation between the individual sphere and the collective sphere. Some activities seem to be designed as specifically collective and others as being individual. Japanese people like to go see autumn leaves together (even though not everyone go there in group); sightseeing together; taking pictures but would prefer to remain silent when they are on means of transport for example. Of course, these separations imply differences in social behaviours. Alone, a person in Japan will – at least upon my observations – rather look on the ground and be quiet when walking or waiting for someone instead of interacting with people. In group, they appear to me as being more open to interactions with other people outside of their group and they look more likely to accept the making of noise.

In a bookstore, Japanese people reading one next to the other.

Japanese woman taking automn leaves in picture.

Furthermore, tradition and modernity are explicitly mixed in Japan. Monks in sports car; temples and shrines between skyscrapers; katana shops next to manga shops; kimono one day and the typical salary men suits the other; and so on, show the meeting of historical moments and socio-cultural sweeping changes.


Around Osaka Castle: natural traces of a past.

Here are only some of the observations I have done during this four-month stay in Japan. I learned a lot on Japanese culture and of course, this visual anthropology class helped me to think about it more deeply and to see it from another perspective, i.e. behind the camera lens.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Foreign Languages in Japan

Two things apparently in contradiction caught my attention since I arrived in Japan. First, Japanese people intensively want to learn English. Second, Japanese people don’t really speak English. An easy example is shown on the Kansai Gaidai campus. How often do Japanese people ask to foreigners to practice with them their English speaking? Taking into account that most of them are learning English as their major in KGU, it is very surprising to notice that some of them are indeed really good at it, but for many others it seems difficult. Indeed, many Japanese people told me that in general, people in Japan are really poor at speaking English even though they can read and write it. Perhaps related with the educational system in Japan or other cultural aspects, for sure English is a big issue in Japan.
As you all have probably noticed, English is everywhere in Japan. We can see a lot of adds for English lessons, English teaching, English tests (TOEFL, TOEIC), English conversation workshop, etc.  And of course, we can see an important English presence in the Japanese vocabulary. But, despite a growing bilingualism in English, for the most part Japan remains a monolingual nation.
Apart from English, the Italian and French languages and cultures seem to have a significant influence on Japanese culture. Although I presume they are much less important than English, they are still present – most of the time with mistakes in the writing! - in many restaurants, boutiques, shops, on cosmetic products, foods and in the language, translated into the Katakana writing. This can lead to the following question: Does the use of foreign languages, as English, French or Italian, imply an interest for Japanese people of being involved with something fashionable, new or prestigious? The use of these foreign languages in media, magazines, music, advertisements, etc. may be seen as a way to create an image appealing and valuable for Japanese people. Some of them even say that their language lacks of something that English or other languages can fill. It would be interesting to know how Japanese people perceive their language in relation to foreign languages.

Italian Caffè

Italian restaurant


French Boutique with mistakes on the sign

French Boutique

Monday, November 22, 2010

メリークリスマス !

Even before Halloween, Christmas decorations already adorn many shops and houses in Hirakata city. Christmas trees; lights; English-language Christmas music; Santa Clauses color the atmosphere. What is Christmas in Japan about? It is for sure a Western tradition incorporated within the Japanese culture, but implying several differences. Only one to two percent of the Japanese population is Christian, even so Christmas in Japan seems not to be limited by a religious purpose. On the contrary, it looks like focusing mainly on the commercial aspect of this yearly celebration. Christmas Eve is the night for couples who want to spend a romantic time in restaurants and hotels; the time also to eat the main dish of the day, the Christmas cakes (made of sponge cake, strawberries and whipped cream); to exchange presents and cards with friends; and I even heard that it is an especially overcrowded evening for KFC restaurants! Basically, family meeting is not the primary aim of this celebration, as it becomes also the case in Canada.
Christmas day is not a holiday for Japanese people. Since they work during the day, Christmas Eve is more celebrated. Hopefully, sometimes December 25th is on weekends so that Japanese people can enjoy for a longer time this happy day. For some, Santa Claus is played by Hotei-Osho, a Japanese monk bringing presents to children in every house. And for others, it is the big-belly-white-and-red man who brings on his back the big bag filled by gifts.

Neither a religious thing nor merely a commercial one, Christmas in 
 Japan while being influenced by the West tends to create a tradition meaningful for the Japanese people and, at the same time, makes Westerners thinking about their own Christmas traditions. What does it represent for us?

 Websites about Christmas in Japan: