'Weird Japan' blinds tourists to the real Nippon
Art-gallery-worthy kaiseki banquets, startlingly obese celebrity sumo wrestlers, hour-long tea-making rituals, boiling baths without soap and many more seemingly unique aspects of Japan have long been a draw for visitors, but is there a chance the "weird Japan" obsession hides a far more interesting reality?
If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’ll have heard all about how strange, bizarre and even downright alien to Westerners it all is over here. Usually from locals, of course, who typically add the somewhat ambitious qualifier of “unique” for good measure.
As a long-time resident who’s heard the spiel more than a few times, I suspect, however, that this obsessive navel-gazing is more about wishful thinking and less about anything particularly odd about an entire country.
More precisely, I believe it’s a relatively small Japanese cultural twist and focus on formality -- or fetishism, if you prefer -- that creates an impression of huge cultural differences and that’s what I’d like to explore.
And before you page down to the comments section, ready to bash the keyboard a new one, let me assure you, this is not another article about how “alien” Japan is -- in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Put the kettle on
The British (it is said) love a cup of tea. In this 1940s promotional film they even designate a time of day for drinking it and explain the best method for brewing a cup. Yet sitting down at 4.30 p.m. and brewing tea using the best temperature and method is about as ceremonial as it gets for tea in Britain.
In Japan, however, it gets as ceremonial as ... well, the tea ceremony.
Posture, clothes, the perfect grind, the number of times you turn the cup, the presentation: it’s one of those rituals that makes Japan so Japanese, attractive and -- there I’ve said it -- unique.
But at the heart of the ceremony is still the simple act of drinking a cuppa.
Or take Sumo. Strip away everything (well, not everything -- you automatically lose the match if your mawashi belt falls off) and you are left with a wrestling match.
Wrestling is a sport the world over -- sure, in Turkey participants oil up, in Mexico they might favor masks, in the United States they assume a fantasy personality.
But it’s Japan where the rituals and fetishes of hairstyle, ceremony, purification with salt and special water and eating one particular food (chanko nabe) to gain weight make it especially ... yes, you guessed it -- Japanese.
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Clean up your act
Or take the onsen experience. Everyone likes to bathe (except, it is said, certain Europeans) but don’t be confused by the wash-first, bathe-without-soap, shower-after, carry-a-small-towel (for a veneer of privacy and drying), then relax-on-the-tatami ritual of public bathing in Japan.
Japanese bathing may be about the only bath style that has generated “how to” guides, but is this element of ritual accompanying things that could otherwise be everyday beginning to sound familiar?
You might even say, ritual itself is ritualized.
All about the fetish
The truth is, often the object at the center of attention is fetishized and that’s really all that’s at the root of this “weird Japan” hype that certain elements of the Western media get so worked up about.
OK, “fetish,” in its common-or-garden usage, perhaps suggests other things not usually discussed on travel websites.
Things such as the attention to detail, to specialty knots and to form in Japanese bondage sessions, or such fetishistic subcultures as being turned on by bandages and eye patches.
Perhaps by attempting to remove the everyday understanding of fetish from the argument I might inadvertently have helped prove my point -- that tiny cultural kink in Japan of enjoying ritual or fetish applies in most every walk of life.
It’s not that the Japanese are weirdoes -- they just tend to have a different focus is all.
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Getting back to our friends the Brits, it is said they venerate cynicism even more than they do their beloved tea. It gives the culture its celebrated satire and its controversial comedy, after all.
But it also makes it slightly less likely that a British picnic will be organized around a specific event such as hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, in a way that will bring people into groups and even sometimes allow folk a few hours off work and the chance to booze it up on company time.
In fact, British cynics might say such an act can sometimes seem kind of “strange,” but that doesn’t mean the Japanese appreciate nature any more or the British appreciate its beauty any less.
Just that the British are particularly prone to cynicism and the Japanese particularly prone to ritualizing things.
Not so different
Or perhaps the U.S. emphasis on individuality, or the Italian tendency to shrug and let things slide, just as examples, might be cultural traits that in themselves amount to no more than the Japanese trait of formality.
In Japan it just could be that small twist at work, not that imagined “alien” culture sprung whole and separate into existence.
You might say that surely we should celebrate this uniqueness, which, after all, can benefit both sides -- Japan feels singularly proud, the tourist feels singularly exploratory -- but perhaps it can also act as an unnecessary barrier.
Tourist chiefs, take note
In fact, it's a barrier that keeps visitors at arm's length when they come to Japan.
Most take that expensive trip-of-a-lifetime holiday in the country, then leave without getting beyond its seeming strangeness and that whole façade of the “weird Japan” thing.
Meanwhile, the Japanese can happily enjoy the illusion most hold so dear of a separation from the rest of the world.
But if that difference causing the “uniqueness” is only a small one, then recognizing it could lead to more of a culture share and less of a culture shock. Tourists might even get more out of a trip too, which would be good for everyone concerned.
I’m British, by the way, and prefer coffee -- but that doesn’t disprove anything.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Pothecary.
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