Only In Japan

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Island Country

"Why are the Japanese so bad at English? After all the time they spend studying it at school..."
"Why does Japan keep slaughtering whales to eat them? No-one even thinks they taste good!"
"Why are immigrants to Japan for 3 or 4 generations still considered foreigners by the Japanese?"

There are many such questions, baffling newcomers to Japan and embarrassing the Japanese. They are also difficult questions with no objective answer; and the Japanese hate potentially controversial topics, so in that kind of situation they generally try to dodge the question with some general comment. Notably, when the question is about Japan, they will often answer with "Well you know, we're an island country, so our culture is different..."

That answer always cracks me up. I know many island countries - Madagascar, Indonesia, the UK and Ireland, Sri Lanka, Iceland, to name a few - and I can't really think of any where island status would be used so widely to justify any and everything considered strange by foreigners. But here in Japan, conventional wisdom has it that the sea has always shielded the Japanese from the rest of the world, and that as a result they are a perfectly homogeneous and distinct people. Yes, they would tell you, Japan has received a lot of its culture and technology from other countries, but these are eventually always adapted in a way that makes them uniquely Japanese.

These arguments makes sense, and fit well with reality, but I think they are slightly flawed. Because Korea has exactly the same mindset: pride in its homogeneity and independance, and an awareness that despite all the influences from more powerful countries, the Koreans have their own unique mentality, culture, and way of doing things.
And as far as I know, Korea is not an island.

But Korea and Japan have one thing in common: a long period of isolationism under authoritarian leaders from the early 17th Century to the second half of the 19th Century. In both cases, communication with the outside world became limited to some commerce with China and the West, but was accompanied by almost no exchange of ideas or technology. The result was that both countries acquired a very strong sense of self, developped a more personal culture, and came to unconsciously divide everything into "local" or "imported" categories.

This last point is, at least in Japan, at the root of the widespread tendency to fiddle with and tweak any new import to make it more "Japanese". This sometimes results in better products, especially in the technology field; but quite often, "japanizing" an idea or concept makes it completely lose its soul and turns it into an empty shell. The legal system is a good example: theoretically, it works as in the West, but the Japanese police have the right to detain and interrogate suspects for long periods. This very generally results in the suspects "confessing" their crime, and at the end of the day the conviction rate is a very impressive 99%. Up there with Belarus and Zimbabwe!

Still, the question remains: why do the Japanese explain everything by their island status, and not their history? Well, because it is more convenient, of course! The Japanese don't like to talk about history as it can be a very contentious topic, the kind of talk that might lead to quarrel and disharmony in the group. On the other hand, geography is not something people can disagree on, so invoking it is a perfect way to dodge potential trouble...

So the right thing to do next time a Japanese person serves you that "island country" half-truth to answer your curiosity? Smile politely, say "Thank you for that wonderful explanation!" and ask Wikipedia, of course!

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