So far, yet so close
|September 22, 2011||Posted by Sam Altmann under international, lifestyle|
I think we’ve all seen the advert where an Englishman is having dinner in a Japanese restaurant; he clears his plate – the polite custom where he is from – and is brought another course due to the Japanese custom that one should not finish all he is given. His courses get larger and larger until he is served something vaguely recognisable as a whale.
The moral of this story is meant to be something like ‘we are very different to the Japanese’, however I disagree with this and it has annoyed me for quite some time. Let me show you why.
Now, like any good argument, I intend to start with the counter argument before proficiently destroying it, so just bare with me. The first major difference is that we all know the Japanese to have a very strict, honour-bound culture enforced by peers and seniors alike. Now, we all see England as much more liberal, but is it really? The philosopher Rousseau once stated (in regards to most western culture, though at the time his intentions were more focused) that “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains”; referring, for one thing, to the social laws that are set in place by us, our friends, our family and the media. Or, as it is sometimes known, the status quo – which we must stick to or risk being disliked and ostracised by peers.
The other common argument for the differences is that the Japanese are polite, always learning and speaking the languages of places they visit – we all recognise friendly Japanese tourists trying their hardest to communicate with us. Whereas you then get us Brits, who do not bother to even try and speak the local lingo on holiday, preferring to use a mixture of vigorous hand gestures combined with speaking slowly and at a high volume. Well actually the Japanese are meant to do this too, a book called the Hagakure (book of the samurai – essentially a collection of philosophical notes on their culture by Yamamoto Tsunetomo) states that “it is vulgar to look down upon the ways of one’s own district as being boorish, or to be even a bit open to the persuasion of the other place’s ways and to think about giving up one’s own.“ This links in with the whole idea of them being highly honour bound, as they refuse to give up their own ways and to admit another’s is more correct, or closer to the ‘one true way’. It may also be worth noting here that many of the English are very polite, in fact we have often been known for it, especially by our friends across the pond.
Yet another difference is in the famous act of ‘seppuku’ (ritualistic suicide by disembowelment) which a Japanese was expected to commit should he bring shame to himself for, let’s say, not getting himself cut down by exacting revenge in the correct fashion: attacking a fortress on his own. I should also point out at this point that with the aid of westernisation, many of these customs have been stopped, ‘seppuku’ being an exception that was in fact stopped much earlier, around 1776. So you may argue now that we have no such thing in England… don’t we?
Well the fact of the matter is that we do, though ours, due to not being quite so drastic, has continued over the ages. Take a politician for instance. Should he make a bad decision and shame himself, he is then often pressured into stepping down; Tony Blair being a prime example of this. Other examples on a smaller, more relatable scale include headmasters who are pressured into leaving after a bad accident within their school.
Another similarity lies with our navies. In fact, the Japanese navy was modelled on ours, since Britain has always been famous for its sea power. They even went so far as to use our phrase “Aye Aye” instead of the customary Japanese “Oss”. This change took place around 1876 and hasn’t yet properly changed back; you can think of the events of the film The Last Samurai as a slight parallel.
There are also some differences which can be attributed to our surroundings, such as England’s trains having the ability to be consistently late, not to mention our buses. But studies in behavioural microeconomics and social psychology have been able to accredit these sort of statistics to things like laziness caused by a bad environment during youth, and by a bad environment I am here referring to the lethargic atmosphere that I am sure we are all familiar with, often manifesting itself in the form of ‘Oh, I’ll do it later’. This environment has then been obscurely linked (through the power of yet more social science) to the decline in the British Empire (people being big headed before losing it all, so getting used to just coasting along in life without particular goals) which I shall admit that I don’t totally understand. But on the other hand, the Japanese also once had a successful empire – though not an overly large one – which then similarly declined. Perhaps without all their rules being much more set in stone, or without the cultural similarities passed on to them through historical relation to the Chinese – also of honour and discipline – then they too may have descended into the same western mindset as we have. Or maybe this is too farfetched to be true; another great possibility.
On the subject of empires and power, one can see another similarity between us and the Japanese, in the success of past military campaigns. One possible explanation for the similarity between our records of victory and theirs may be the geographical relationships that are obvious to see. We are both island nations, separated from the rest of the continent which we are forced to frequently have interactions with, so it is possible this is a trait amiable for power.
You can then pick out a similarity when thinking about how England was conquered by the Romans/the French/the Danes, in relation to the fact that the indigenous Japanese people were originally conquered and slaughtered by the Chinese who then settled on the island, meaning very few Japanese are not of Chinese origin. Just like with us – I mean who can really say that their bloodline is pure British, without French or other European ancestry? It is worth noting however that, though one can see that we have more of a mix of races than the Japanese, this difference is perhaps down to our being in close proximity to numerous countries, as opposed to Japan’s single, albeit large one.
There are numerous more similarities and differences that I could go into, many to prove my point, many which will destroy it and so subsequently be swept up under the carpet. Though the main theme that I am trying to convey with this is that two cultures so seemingly different, can have so many subtle similarities if only you look for them.