Saturday, June 18, 2011

Understanding Cultural Identities

     As the semester begins its last half here in Japan, papers are being written. I've mentioned before the classes I'm taking in a previous post, but this is a paper, intended to be a short response of 300 words, that was to ask the question below. The question's response quickly ballooned into a much longer answer, but I feel I answered it better with 850+ words than I would have with 300. I've included links in the transcript below, so I hope some of you will watch the videos my response is referring to. They are all available on YouTube, and worth the energy.

Nerd In Japan

    What does it mean to be Japanese (and/or American), when these national identities form around an international component?

    Various forms of media have been used as a tool, and a means, to cross-culturally pollinate understanding and self-reflection between seemingly opposite cultures of the world. Media affords us the ability to use satire, comedy, opinion and various other formats to question the different perspectives that make up our understandings of ‘truth’ concerning the differences between cultures arbitrarily divided into ‘East’ and ‘West.’

    What it means to be of a particular culture depends on what parts of that culture you value, see as a valid demonstration of that culture, and understand as being vital for that cultures existence. Very few definitions of a single culture will adhere to all individuals living within, and identifying themselves as a member of the culture. The examination of an opposite culture (or a perception of an opposite nature) from your own has the ability to allow self-reflection on how you understand the supposed different culture from which you come. By approaching a cultural concept you feel as opposite of your own, you immediately begin to relate to the culture as being the things you are not, if it is truly opposite.

    In The Japanese Version, created during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the videotape, although dated, offers insight into how to approach this idea of national identity, in relation to international awareness, as well as how we understand “our” culture versus “theirs.” Arranged by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker, The Japanese Version attempts to show a different (of its time) kind of Japan, by illustrating the similarities Japan shares with the American “West.” Perhaps, Japanese and American cultures are not so different? Though this question is rhetorical, the answer most likely gleamed would be that they are indeed different, just in ways one might not expect.

    The Japanese, culturally, have a rich tradition of adopting and incorporating foreign ideas into their own national identity. To this degree, they have long been internationally minded. However, by assimilating these foreign ideas and cultural aspects into distinctly Japanese ones, a particular sense of the internationalism to be gained, is lost.

    Not all Japanese people fall into the identity many around the world would apply to the Japanese culture. As much as the film, The Japanese Version, questioned the possibility of America learning something of itself from its perspective on Japan, there exists Japanese media makers that explore how Japan can understand itself in relation to a perception of how the world at large views Japanese culture and society.

    The Japanese, in many regards and quite often, are very sensitive to outside perception of their culture. While many Americans are accused, and remain capable of blissfully living their lives ignorant of, and disconnected with, international connections, the Japanese demonstrate a desire to be viewed on international terms as modern, yet distinctly keeping with their cultural history. The online-available video series The Japanese Tradition appears to have been created to teach and inform foreigners about the unknown aspects of Japanese culture. On closer inspection, the series’ satirical aim becomes more apparent.

    Created by the comedy duo Rahmens, The Japanese Tradition uses and explores imagery that an international audience could relate to, in terms of understanding the culture of Japan. The humorous series, which illustrates seemingly culturally distinctive and time- honored traditions, was crafted more recently (between 2006 - 2007) than the works of Alvarez and Kolker. Although an international audience could view and appreciate the material topics covered, the videos were never designed for such an audience. The fact that the work was created for a Japanese audience suggests that there are Japanese individuals, outside of institutions of learning and those normally connected to international systems of business and trade, that would understand, and are aware of, a foreign perspective on Japanese culture. The Japanese have shown a desire to evolve their culture to make room for internationalization, while holding onto, and continuing to refine, their specific traditions of cultural significance.

    Many in the west still view Japan, and much of Asia, as an exotic land of extremes. In regards to Japan, the balance of hyper-traditionalism and futuristic, technological advancements are often discussed as the wonder of modern Japanese culture. The fact that Japanese society has held on to traditions, while also advancing into modernity is an idea that should not be seen as unique to Japan. Many culture around the world have accomplished the same thing. The difference is, we are often involved intimately in those other cultures, while Japan has remained truly foreign for many.

    As time continues, Japan, the United States and the world will (hopefully) become increasingly internationally aware. It will be the balance between traditional and distinctive cultural legacies with an increasingly international nature that will allow people to maintain a separate identity, culturally, along side a more global sense of self. Hopefully, this international component, and the questions it challenges various cultures with, will solidify and enlighten all our identities.

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