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    Zak, who comments here sometimes, directed me to an old post of his on the Japanese willingness to part with priceless artifacts:

    A Japanophile is merely someone who doesn’t really know Japan.

    Sometimes you will hear people refer to “old cultures” as though that age gives the culture some measure of wisdom. What rubbish. The opposite is perhaps more likely to be true: the older a culture, the more time it has to accumulate really stupid ideas which become part of the national consciousness and continue doing damage century after century.

    Sure, some beautiful things have originated in Japan. But, the whole culture seems geared towards insuring that those things don’t survive. This is visible on many levels. Again in the shakuhachi world, for instance, traditionally if you go see another teacher you’ll be excommunicated from your old one. So, everyone practices and learns in little pathetic isolated islands, prevented from venturing out by fear that they’ll never be let back in.

    Ask most Japanese people if Japan is an “ashi no hippariai no sekai,” and most them will nod. This is a particularly Japanese phrase which means “pulling each other back to ensure no one gets ahead.” This is not just me ranting—most Japanese people freely acknowledge this to be the case. It’s just that no one really minds. Japan is an “old culture,” after all, but not one where people are stupid; this just means that its dysfunctionalities are recognized but met with nothing but blithely passive acceptance.

    Zak’s covering a lot of ground there, some of it a bit sketchily. At its broadest, the issue is that the Japanese tend to accept external reality as obdurate, something to be adapted to, even as they recognize that particular circumstances are endlessly shifting. One reason for that is the environment: Much of the country consists of near-impassable crags and gorges; a lot of the soil is poor for agriculture–we modern Western students, having been preached at about healthy Japanese eating habits are since we were little, are often shocked to learn in Japanese history classes about the poor food quality that was the rule until the Meiji Restoration–and natural resources are few. Even the closest trading partner is a sea journey away; for all intents and purposes, the Japanese Archipelago is at the edge of the world. It is also regularly visited by earthquakes, vulcanism, tidal waves, typhoons, and heavy snows.

    Therefore, the Japanese have felt isolated and at the mercy of nature for pretty much the entire history of their civilization. I don’t know that the way society evolved to value group affiliation, discipline, and emotional detachment was inevitable, but it was certainly understandable. Nature frequently took away things that people had let themselves get invested in; in those sorts of circumstances, one reasonable reaction is to avoid investing yourself in things and to find safety in numbers.

    Japan has taken those ideas to extremes that, it could be persuasively argued, aren’t very wise. But then, let’s remember that they aren’t necessarily very old, either. In many fields, the idea that there’s a rigid, codified “right” way of doing them down to the last millimeter actually originated in the Meiji Restoration in attempts to “reclaim” a static, idealized Japaneseness that was in fact being projected backward. Not that Japan up to 1868 was a devil-may-care kind of place–art forms had gone through the usual stages of fresh experimentation through balanced formal perfection through ossification and breakdown. Still, the great Japanese art traditions overall involved improvisation based on circumstance and idiosyncratic wisdom that was passed down by masters, and other sets of customs–the warrior culture and native religion among them–weren’t nearly as formulaic as we’re accustomed to thinking of them now.

    And where Japanese mediocrity is concerned, blithe is possibly the last word I’d use. Mediocrity here is in fact full of tension, maintained as it is through constant effort to avoid doing anything that would be (literally) egregious. The costs have become obvious. Tamping down individual initiative not only keeps people from pursuing contentment but also keeps them from following through on offbeat, experimental ideas that could bear unexpected dividends later. But there are benefits, too. Strict adherence to group and hierarchical roles provided stability, which is a value in its own right.

    It’s starting to sound as if I disagreed with everything Zak wrote, I fear. In fact, I agree with him in the main with regards to Japanophilia, one of the most tiresome mental disorders on the planet. Far too many Westerners, undervaluing the rich strains of spiritual quest in our own traditions, are willing to look at any and every custom in Japan as a manifestation of mystical profundity, toward which the proper posture is receptive, uncritical awe.

    Japanese customs are actually like everyone else’s customs, having developed through the usual combination of practicality, happenstance, and arbitrary decisions along the way. Many of them serve a purpose very well–Japanese society wouldn’t still exist, let alone be this successful, if they didn’t–and others could stand to be transformed or dropped. In some contexts, the emphasis placed on how ephemeral this life is is as pragmatic and as moving as it’s cracked up to be; in others, it produces needless waste. It’s possible to love Japan and acknowledge that.

    Added on 9 April: Rondi Adamson has kindly linked this post and added some interesting observations of her own, based on her experience of having lived not only in Japan but also in Turkey and in France. Worth reading as always.

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