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Sometimes Japanese refer to Tokyo as a big collection of villages. Of course, it's not a village; it's one of the world's largest cities, highly industrialized and all those sorts of things. But, what I think they mean when they talk about it as a collection of villages is that Tokyo, like many Japanese cities, still retains a strong sense of neighborhood, of very small spatially discrete, socially discrete, areas that have a real flavor and character of their own.
Oftentimes these neighborhoods are organized around a Shinto shrine. They may be organized around some other local institutions: a neighborhood association; a local shopkeepers' association that may be sort of a Chamber of Commerce, but for an area that may only be eight or ten square blocks, so these are very small, small-scale units.
VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENTS
You wouldn't think that a city like Tokyo would need volunteer fire departments. After all, it's a big modern city, an industrial society. But in fact volunteer fire departments are everywhere; there are hundreds of them throughout Tokyo, and they play an important role in sort of defining the social institutions of particular neighborhoods.
But, there are also practical reasons why volunteer fire departments are necessary. If you look at a map of Tokyo, for example, you'll see that throughout the city, the street plan is this mass of twisting, turning, little alleyways. There's no straight line between here and there. And so in many neighborhoods volunteer departments are needed if only to be able to guide the professional firefighters to the scene of a fire, tell them which alley to go down, which street they need to turn at, because unless you're a native of the neighborhood you may not be able to find your way.
Here's an example of some of the things that a neighborhood association might do. Let me ask you, in your neighborhood, do you know who the oldest person living there is?
This is something that happened to a friend of mine in Yokohama, which is as urban a place as Tokyo. You wouldn't expect this, but her mother, living to the age of 94, after the age of 90 received a prize and a congratulatory visit every year from the head of the neighborhood association. And when she died, the whole neighborhood association went to her funeral. That meant the neighborhood association chartered buses, organized the people to know when it was going to be, and in that way the neighborhood showed their affection and appreciation for my friend's mother, though many of them probably didn't really know her personally.
NEIGHBORHOODS, CRIME, AND POLICE
One of the social consequences, social benefits, of the fact that Tokyo and other Japanese cities have such reasonably strong neighborhood associations and sense of neighborhood place, is that it contributes to a very low crime rate in Japan, for a couple of different reasons.
One of them is that, to the extent that there are strong local organizations and a strong sense of consciousness of "I am a resident of such-and-such a place," people simply take responsibility for the area that they live in. They pay attention to what's going on. They have a sense of belonging to the place, and they also have a sense of mutual obligation to the other people who live there. So, people tend to watch out for one another, and they tend to watch out for what's happening in the area that they're living.
Another factor that contributes to relatively low crime rates in urban Japan is an institution called koban, which literally is a police box. The way that the Japanese police system is set up, in most neighborhoods, or in clusters of several neighborhoods, there's usually a small police box that's staffed by perhaps two or three police officers, usually twenty-four hours a day, and those police officers are responsible for circulating throughout the neighborhood. You often come across them at night riding a bicycle down a back street, just sort of checking out to see what's going on. And of course, in the process of being assigned to a police box that covers perhaps an area of twenty or thirty square blocks, of course they get to know residents; they get to know what's going on in the neighborhood. They try (to) be approachable, so that they're not viewed by residents as sort of distant police officers, but rather "our friendly cop on the corner." And indeed, that's what it used to be that's the way police systems used to work in other countries as well. Some critics of American police argue that the worst thing to happen to American cities was when police officers started riding around in patrol cars rather than walking a beat, because they were then isolated and stopped interacting with local residents.
Our image of Japan today is as a highly urban society, but we shouldn't forget that there are rural areas too. The family farm even is still a reality in many areas, and the political importance of rural areas is also very great.
Rural areas these days tend to suffer from some problems regardless of region. For example, nearly all of them are losing population and therefore their tax base the funds that can be available for basic social services are in some jeopardy.
Also, the population of rural areas is increasingly an aged population, which requires special social services, particularly relating to medicine.
Rural areas, because of their growing depopulation, find it difficult to educate children in each community because there simply aren't enough children in many small towns to justify maintaining a school. Thus, many children of middle school, high school, even primary schools, must sometimes be bussed to another larger town, or must board in a larger town, just in order to go to school.
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THE MODERN JAPANESE FAMILY
Most families in Japan today are nuclear families, such as we have here in the United States, and in North American generally. That is to say that a married couple lives together with their children, perhaps with one grandparent. But for the most part, the Japanese family today looks much like the American family.
The appearance of similarity is very strong, but of course, historical differences are also important, based on the traditional Japanese family, the ie, out of which the present forms have developed.
And so if you look at the contemporary Japanese family and the contemporary American or European nuclear families, you might assume that the societies are the same and that the family plays the same kind of role in both of those societies, but if you look historically at Japanese families, you find that there really is a very different kind of social-cultural dynamic at work.
TRADITIONAL FAMILY: IE
The traditional Japanese family, known in Japanese as ie, is a very complex kinship unit, a very complex kind of a family system. It's multigenerational; it's an extended family. That is to say that there may be three, four, and conceivably even five generations of a family living together, so great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, and then perhaps even the children of children. And it has a variety of characteristics that are perhaps unfamiliar to most Americans because they're outside of our experience.
First of all it is very clearly a patrilineal system in which all of the property, all of the social standing, all of the rights and duties and obligations are expected to go from father to son, father to son, father to son, which has a number of implications. One of them is that, in this particular system, only one child inherits. All of the other children in any generation are expected eventually to leave the family and go establish themselves in some other family or some other social institution. So, in anthropological terms, we call this primogeniture, where the eldest child, and usually the eldest son, inherits the family, everything to do with the family, and the rest of the children have to find their own way in the world.
This kind of traditional Japanese family system the multigenerational family organized around primogeniture, that is to say passing the entire estate of the family, the social role, the financial assets, the occupation, the profession, from father to the eldest, usually the eldest son is a distinct characteristic of the Japanese kinship system. But, it's not unique to Japan by any means. Many other societies, including many societies in Western Europe, have a similar kind of a kinship system. And indeed, one explanation for some of the colonization of the United States is that eldest sons were inheriting family farms in Europe, and younger sons were being sent off to settle the "New World."
And this is essentially what happened within Japanese history as well. That, particularly from the middle of the 19th century onward, rural families that had more than one son would often send their second, third, fourth son, off to the newly growing cities to find employment in what was beginning to be the industrial revolution in Japan.
Now some economic historians argue that this ability of a rural family system to send excess children into the cities to work, without undermining the fundamental stability of rural life, was a real important social factor in explaining why Japanese society was able to undergo industrialization with relatively little social breakdown. The fabric of rural society was maintained intact, but at the same time there was an ample supply of young people willing and able to pick up and move into the city and start entirely new lifestyles.
In the traditional Japanese family system, because it was organized around the idea that only one child would inherit, and that was usually the eldest son, this of course raises the question: What happens to the other children?
In the case of daughters, the normal expectation would be that the family would arrange a marriage with another family, and so a daughter would go as a bride and be incorporated into some additional family. And this is true in many societies where families' traditional kinship organization is through arranged alliances by arranging marriages between members of the same generation.
But this raises the question also of what happens to the sons. If a family has say three sons, and only one son is going to inherit, what happens to those other two sons? Well, Japanese kinship, traditional Japanese kinship, has an answer for that, which is to say that just as women can be married out as brides into another family, in essence men can be married out as grooms for other families.
The particular social custom is called, in translation, "adopted sons-in-law," so that a family that had daughters, but no sons, might adopt a young man and have him marry their daughter, and when the adoption and marriage was completed, he would take on the family name of his wife's family, and for all intents and purposes would be considered the heir to that family. [So] it's not inheritance through the female, but still inheritance through the male, but the male's role is created socially through the process of adoption.
ROLES IN THE FAMILY
In the Japanese family today, the roles of mother, father, child, and grandparent are in some ways very much like the contemporary American family. In many families, the father goes out to a job that is, does not work at home, though of course there are many family-owned businesses where the family may be living in the same building where their place of business is. In that case, we don't necessarily see a separation between the family and the place of the man's work. However, it's probably more common for there to be such a separation, and that separation, so that the man is at a job for many long hours, creates a distinctive dynamic in family life.
The fact that Japanese fathers in contemporary urban households spend so much time at work, and the company demands on them are so great, means that they often really have very little time or energy to spend with their children, and so not only does the responsibility for raising children, overseeing the education, fall onto the mothers, but fathers themselves are absent, removed, from the children's lives. A few years ago I saw some statistics that a Japanese food manufacturer had compiled, on the number of times a week that children in Tokyo ate dinner with their fathers present, and it was I don't remember the exact figures but it was an extraordinarily high percentage of children who reported that they never ate dinner with their father present except on weekends or special occasions.
It is common for the mother to bear the full responsibility for raising children, overseeing their education, and also managing the family's finances. This puts a heavy strain on Japanese women, and also a strain on the relation between the mother and the child.
One of the interesting things about the social dynamics within a traditional household is that perhaps the greatest amount of tension was between the role of the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. And if you think about it, both of them are people who were not born into that household; they are both strangers to the household. The mother-in-law of course in an earlier generation has had to go through the same process that the daughter-in-law is going through now, in order to become a full-fledged member. And so, in a sense you have two outsiders fighting with one another, or at least struggling with one another, to define their legitimate role within the household.
But, even though they aren't born into the household, they are of course absolutely crucial members of the household. The wife's role, whether mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, is to be the manager of the household, to in many cases manage the finances of the household and so forth an incredibly important and pivotal role in keeping the whole family enterprise going.
Perhaps the most vivid symbol of this central role of the wife and mother in the household is a rice paddle in Japanese called a shamoji a kind of ping-pong-paddle-shaped bamboo implement that a woman would use to stir rice as it's cooking in a pot, and then would use to scoop cooked rice out into bowls and feed members of the family with. And at the point when a young wife, a daughter-in-law, had reached maturity, had proven herself to be a loyal and productive member of the household, and her mother-in-law was at a point of being willing to fully welcome her into the household, in traditional times they would have a ceremony at which the mother-in-law would ritually pass the rice paddle on to her daughter-in-law, signifying that she was relinquishing control of the household from one generation to the next.
The expectations on women's roles in contemporary urban life really mean that most women can't work outside the home. They're responsible for the education of their children; they're responsible for managing the household; they may in some cases have responsibilities for aging parents. And so culturally, as well as just in terms of the allocation of time, a woman is expected upon marriage to essentially give up her career and devote herself full time over the next fifteen or twenty years to raising children and all of the other household responsibilities that appear, so that occasionally you find women who do attempt to have a career outside the home, but it is very difficult and certainly much less common than it is in the United States.
CARE OF THE ELDERLY
One of the stresses for the contemporary Japanese urban family has to do with questions of care of the aged. There are many stresses on the mother's world already, but now that Japan has become a so-called "graying society," in which the proportion of the aged is rising more rapidly than in any other industrialized nation, the fact that social policy for the aged has not developed very far results in the expectation that Japanese women will be the ones to care for their aged parents, or the parents of their husbands. This puts an extra burden on the stresses that Japanese women face within the family, given that they are already expected to bear nearly the fully responsibility for their children's raising, education, family finances, and so on.
Not only do woman have heavy burdens in terms of their children's education, but as long as society does not have a social welfare system that provides for the independent living and care of the elderly, many Japanese women at some point in their lives are going to find themselves having to take care of elderly relatives, their own parents, or their husband's parents. And so again, the social realities of life don't permit people, don't permit women, in many cases, to get outside the home to pursue an independent career.
In the United States today, as many as half of first marriages end in divorce. But in Japan, the rate of divorce is very low. I believe it has never gone much beyond two percent of all marriages.
One of the interesting things about looking at the history of the Japanese family over the last century or so is that Japan is one of the few countries that's gone through industrialization and had the rate of divorce drop.
In traditional Japanese families, the traditional ie, there was actually a fairly high rate of divorce, where families would send back a bride, or in some cases send back an adopted son-in-law, if they didn't feel that the marriage was working, or that the person wasn't able to contribute to the household. And as that traditional family system was transformed into the contemporary nuclear family, and more and more marriages were based on free choice, or relatively free choice, actually the divorce rate went down a great deal. In most countries going through urbanization and industrialization, it's quite the opposite.
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ROLE OF THE MOTHER
Japanese women are expected to manage the education of their children more or less on their own. Because Japan is such a competitive society, it's not uncommon for children, even of nursery school age, to be attending a kind of cram school so that they can attend, or be admitted to, a prestigious primary school.
For many mothers, the consideration is how to create a situation in which the child will not be so pressured by examinations later on. How, for example, they might be able to have the child enter a school which will have a kind of escalator quality, so that having entered a good primary school, they can more or less automatically enter a good middle school, and then a good high school, without having to face the so-called "education hell" which characterizes the competitive nature of Japanese education today.
However, to do this requires both that the mother take a great deal of responsibility for knowing how the educational system works, for persuading very young children to cooperate and to devote themselves to that kind of education, and furthermore, for overseeing the results all the way up to college. This is a full-time job for anyone. It's more than that when we consider that the mother is also expected to prepare the family's meals, to take care of its finances, and basically manage the household in all its aspects.
The education system in Japan is extremely competitive, and from a very young age, children have to begin to prepare for entry examinations. Most levels of Japanese education, at least for better schools, require an entrance exam, and those examinations require an enormous amount of preparation, and so from a very early age, children spend what to an American parent would look like an enormous amount of time studying. American parents worry about how much homework their kids get in third or fourth grade and elementary school. Japanese parents are concerned that their children aren't getting enough homework in kindergarten.
Children's lives in Japan are really organized around the education system, far more than American children's lives are. Their time is taken up by not only school, but going to after-school training, in many cases to prepare for exams, and in some cases devoting months and months and months after they've finished, graduated from elementary school or graduated from junior high school, spending months simply preparing for exams for the next step.
Education and the pursuit of education becomes sort of the defining characteristic of a child's life. The time for play is limited. Of course Japanese parents worry about the fact that their kids don't get out, don't play in the streets, don't have friends outside of school, but given the competitive examination system, there's no way out of the system. You either succeed or you fail.
It's tough to be a kid in Japan. Imagine going to cram school just to get into a good primary school, then continuing to go to cram school, doing your homework both for regular school and homework for the cram school, plus taking on some sort of extracurricular activity, like playing the violin or practicing calligraphy, that may be your mother's idea of a good time, but you may or may not like doing that, and following that routine from the point of entering primary school all the way up to entering college.
LEVELS OF SCHOOL
Japanese education is compulsory through middle school. That means primary school, then middle school. However, almost all Japanese pupils go on to high school and at each of these levels they have to pass a very difficult set of examinations the more so if they're planning to go to college. And the college examinations are thought to be the most difficult and stressful of all.
By the time a Japanese girl or boy has finished high school, they have actually gone through another 180 days longer than an American high school student. The academic year is very long, and, imagine this, there's even homework during summer school, during the summer break.
LEVEL OF SKILL
In part because the Japanese school year is longer, I think that the summer vacation is only 40 days a year, and in part because the education system puts such as emphasis on mastering basic skills in science, mathematics, and so forth, by the time a Japanese student graduates from high school, an ordinary public high school education in Japan, it's likely that they have science and math skills at a level that a sophomore or a junior in an American college or university would have.
There are many problems with the educational system in Japan. However, it is worth pointing out that basically a 100 percent of the population is literate, and that the levels of achievement in science, math and other skills of Japanese high school students are among the highest in the industrialized world.
COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY EDUCATION
One of the really interesting paradoxes about Japanese education is that you have a very rigorous, very intense educational system up to getting into college, and these very difficult entrance exams. And once students get into college, oftentimes people joke that college is the four-year vacation in a long and hard educational life. Once you've made it into college, you've made it to wherever you're going to get educationally.
And so, if you look at the lives of Japanese college students, they're very relaxed, they pursue their hobbies, they go skiing, they play mahjong, they go out drinking with their friends they very rarely study. And many Japanese college students that I've talked to justify this by saying: "Look, for the last 16 years I've been studying for exams, and now finally I've made it to the university. I don't have to study anymore!" unlike American students.
If you compare American universities and Japanese universities, they play really different kinds of social functions. An American college student chooses a major, develops a set of skills, and uses that four years in college to create the base for some kind of professional career. And so Americans look at what you do in college as being what's going to determine what kind of a career you're likely to follow, in terms of the skills you acquire, in terms of your level of competence and so forth.
Japanese, on the other hand, tend to regard university education as a kind of pre-determined pathway to particular kinds of careers, so that, for example, graduates of Tokyo University are typically recruited by the national bureaucracy to work in government. And it's less a matter of what they have learned in the university, and more a matter that they have proven themselves through the exam process to get into Tokyo University. So by arriving in a particular university, they don't have to study, because their future career path is already, not certain by any means, but open, possible, welcoming.
For the last hundred years, the most prestigious university in Japan has been Tokyo University. It's the most difficult to get into, the entrance exams are ferociously difficult, the acceptance rate is very low. One of the reasons that it's so prestigious is that it's the traditional route into the national bureaucracy.
Now, Americans may look at the prospect of graduating from college and going to work for the government as kind of a boring outcome, but, certainly in the last century, the national bureaucracy in Japan has been the most elite career that somebody could aspire to. If you are an employee of the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, you are an incredibly elite, incredibly important member of society, and Tokyo University has been the pathway to get there.
MEN AT WORK
Japanese enterprises, companies, expect that a man will devote himself very whole-heartedly to his job and expect that he will not go just nine-to-five, but will be devoting himself to whatever extent the company requires him.
WOMEN AT WORK
The expectations on women's roles in contemporary urban life really mean that most women can't work outside the home. They're responsible for the education of their children; they're responsible for managing the household. They may in some cases have responsibilities for aging parents. And so culturally, as well as just in terms of the allocation of time, a woman is expected upon marriage to essentially give up her career and devote herself full-time over the next 15 or 20 years to raising children and all of the other household responsibilities that appear, so that occasionally you find women who do attempt to have a career outside the home, but it's very difficult, and certainly much less common than it is in the United States.
One of the common stereotypes about Japanese work life working in corporations and business is the notion that Japanese companies engage in lifetime employment. That you join a company or an organization when you finish your education, and that you stick with that company or organization until you retire.
Now, historically that's been true for part of this century, since World War II perhaps, but it's only ever been true for a very small proportion of ordinary Japanese workers. It's been true for males, but not for females. It's been true for fairly well-educated employees, but not for less well-educated employees. It's been true for mainly white-collar workers, rather than blue-collar workers. And it's been true largely only in the biggest Japanese corporations. So, the huge multinational Japanese corporations that people know about, like Mitsubishi or Mitsui, have for part of this century had this practice of hiring people right out of college and keeping them on until they retire.
But in fact the percentage of workers who have ever been part of a lifetime employment system in Japan is probably no more than 15 or 20 percent at any given time. And in the last few years, from the early 1990s onward as Japan's been in a recession, those institutions have begun to crumble, so that it's very rare now for people to expect to work for the same company throughout their life.
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One of the things that people, both Japanese and foreigners, often talk about when they think about Japan in comparison with the rest of the world, is to emphasize how unique Japan seems to be. On the one hand, Japanese like to think of their society, their culture, as having this unique identity that is sort of inaccessible to foreigners. On the other hand, foreigners, particularly Westerners North Americans and Europeans have always regarded Japan as this very exotic distant culture. So both sides like to see Japan as somehow outside the realm of the expected, the normal, so it has to be unique.
But, if you look at Japan in comparative perspective and look at the inner workings of Japanese society, there really isn't that much that's unique about Japan. The same kinds of social trends can be found in one form or another in almost any other industrialized society.
Perhaps what makes Japan seem unique is that the combinations of institutions say education, religion, family, and so forth the way that those are combined may be somewhat different from what we expect in the United States, or different from what one would expect in any particular Western European country. But the elements that make up society are more or less familiar if one pulls aside this curtain of uniqueness and starts to look at the different parts of society.
One of the ways in which Japanese think of their own society as "unique" is to emphasize the homogeneity of Japanese society, and indeed by lots of comparisons, Japan is certainly a much more homogeneous society than say the United States. There are relatively few linguistic differences between different parts of the country. In terms of social class, peoples' lifestyles are quite similar. The degree to which rich people and poor people are differentiated from one another economically is much less than in the United States. And, it's often said by Japanese that they are ethnically homogeneous, that there are no real foreign populations in Japan.
The question of this ethnic homogeneity of Japan is an important one, because though from a distant perspective Japan does look very homogeneous, in fact there are a number of very significant minority groups ethnically different minority groups in Japan today.
The Ainu, an indigenous group that now consists of probably fewer than 30,000 people living primarily on the northern island of Hokkaido in some ways the history of Japanese relations with the Ainu parallels the history of North American settlers vis-à-vis American Indian groups. In other words, the Ainu were sort of pushed back and back and back as the frontier of Japanese society expanded. That is to say, Japanese society expanded to fill up the entire Japanese archipelago, from say the 12th century onward, the northward expansion of Japanese society was constantly pushing up against indigenous peoples like the Ainu, pushing them farther and farther back, farther and farther north, to today, where most Ainu today live in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the major islands in Japan. And that process really continued until almost the beginning of the 20th century, because Hokkaido was a frontier region well into the 19th century, even into the early 20th century.
Another major ethnic group in Japan is the Korean Japanese population in Japanese sometimes called zai-nichi kankokujin, "Koreans-resident-in-Japan" who are a large population estimated in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps in the low millions, of descendants of Koreans who were brought to Japan as forced laborers from the Japanese, from the beginning of the Japanese colonial period in Korea, which started in 1910 when Korea was annexed by Japan.
The population of Koreans who live in Japan now occupy a very difficult social and political situation, because they're not recognized by the Japanese state as being citizens of Japan, but their claims to citizenship either in South Korea or North Korea are equally problematic, so they're sort of caught in a socio-economic political vacuum. And because of the intense amount of discrimination that Japanese have felt towards Koreans in the past, many Korean Japanese find if very difficult to enter mainstream companies, get into good schools, pursue sort of ordinary middle-class aspirations and lifestyles.
The idea of Japan's homogeneity is often presented as something that gives the country its renowned ability to achieve consensus, to act together as a group. However, if we look at this consensus model, or the homogeneity of society, from the point of view of minorities living in Japan, we can see it from a very different angle.
Koreans living in Japan rather regularly say that they feel shut out of ordinary society and that they may be born there and grow to adulthood without really having a Japanese friend [or] ever having been inside the home of an ordinary Japanese family. And for them, homogeneity is not a warm, cozy harmonious thing, but something from which they feel excluded.
Koreans have been coming to Japan for millennia. In fact, some of the earliest settlers of the Japanese islands no doubt came from the area which today is called Korea. Koreans were among the most important people transmitting the culture of the Asian continent, including Buddhism, to Japan. This kind of contact was uncontroversial for many centuries. It's really only in the modern period, when Japan made a colony of Korea in 1910, that contact between the two countries became politicized in an antagonistic way.
One of the things about Japanese social relations that foreigners frequently comment on, and indeed Japanese comment on a lot themselves, is the character of interaction between people. For example, Japan is widely, and I think correctly, regarded as a fairly hierarchical society. People are expected to understand and know their social standing vis-à-vis the people that they're interacting with. If you've ever seen pair of Japanese businessmen exchanging name cards, for example, they will spend a great deal of time very carefully studying each other's name cards, not simply to know the name of the person, but also for clues of their social status. Do they work for a more important company or a less important company? Are they from a major city, or are they from the countryside? From their job title can you determine whether they're sort of senior to you or junior to you? Because all of these things are important markers for how you're going to interact with one another.
Perhaps the most classic example is the fact that in Japanese polite conversation, you have to adopt a relative standing to the person you're talking to. You have to assume that you're either the social superior or the social inferior, because the structure of the language requires most polite conversation to include degrees of deference and respect and distance, so that if you get the clues wrong, you can offend the person you're talking to by sounding as if you think you're superior to them when you should be more deferential, or sounding insincerely deferential when it's clear that you are the senior person in this conversation. So, people are very concerned about establishing a hierarchy, even on the most initial meeting, to understand two people are supposed to react to one another.
Another important aspect of the way in which social relationships are structured in sort of the day-to-day interactions of people in Japan, is a strong consciousness of in-group versus outside-the-group boundaries. And this gets expressed in all kinds of settings.
Students are very conscious of the school they go to and the class within the school that they're part of, and that forms sort of a shell, a social shell, that people who are within the shell are expected to interact with one another rather informally and rather intensely, and interact with people outside that shell, or outside that boundary, in a more formal, more distant, perhaps more hierarchical way.
So at schools, in families, there's a clear distinction between who's a member of a family and who's not; in communities, there are clear distinctions between people who belong to the community and people who are outsiders; in companies, a very clear sense of division; in political parties; even in ethnic relations, relationships for example between Japanese and Koreans who live in Japan, the sense of insider versus outsider status.
THE IE AND GROUPS
It's very difficult to say exactly why Japanese social relations take the form they do. Why are social relations hierarchical, or why is there a strong emphasis on in-group versus outside-the-group interactions? You couldn't necessarily come up with an historical reason for this, but certainly there are parallels to other sets of social institutions. If you look at the traditional family structure, for example, the so-called ie, as it's known in Japanese, it is a kind of a family, a kind of a kinship organization which puts a great premium on understanding hierarchy and rank, that every member of a traditional family stands in a very complicated set of relationships with every other member, but they can all be ranked in some kind of a hierarchical form.
So, for example, the eldest son occupies a social role that is quite distinct from a second or a third or a fourth son. The eldest daughter occupies a rank and position that is quite distinct from younger daughters. Certainly fathers and mothers occupy different ranks from their children and so forth. So, it's a very hierarchically structured social unit, and some people would argue that that's sort of a template for understanding why hierarchy is such an important part of Japanese social relationships.
In another sense, the fact that the traditional Japanese family system puts this great emphasis on defining sharply the boundaries between people who are members of the extended family and people who are going to have to leave that is to say people who are going to become non-members in the future is a social template for this emphasis on in-group, inside-the-boundary membership versus relationships outside or across a boundary to people who are not part of that social group.
Consensus is a well known part of Japanese social relationships. It seems, to an outsider at least, as if everything in Japan is decided by this sense of harmony and this sense that everybody has to agree. And there are all kinds of trivial examples that you can come up with, like if you watch a group of Japanese businessmen sitting down for lunch, it's likely that everybody around the table will order more or less the same dish, and people point to that and say: "A-ha! this is a harmonious society; everything has to be equal."
And indeed, Japanese talk a lot about how to preserve this sense of equality. One of the ways in which they do this is by making sure that any decision that affects a group as a whole is at least going to be circulated around and discussed amongst all its members. So indeed, Japanese organizations do often appear to have a much higher degree of consensus about policies, about aims, about aspirations, than would be true in an equivalent American group.
On the other hand, it doesn't mean that Japanese inherently agree with one another, or that there isn't conflict in society, but rather that conflict is managed within the group, and conflict is negotiated against other demands of personal interaction, personal social relationships. And eventually the goal is to, through conflict and through very carefully managed conflict, to come up with some kind of unified position that everybody can agree with.
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POST WWII: GODZILLA
One of the most interesting parts of Japanese society and culture today is the whole area of popular culture. That really means youth culture. Thus, young people are at the center of some of the most lively developments in Japan today. Japanese popular culture has a very interesting history, and if we had time, we could trace it all the way back to the Edo period, that is, to 1600 or so, at the very least.
Let's focus on Japanese popular culture since the end of World War II, that is from 1945 or so, on. Many people, even today, are quite familiar with Godzilla, who was maybe the earliest post-war great success of Japanese popular culture. We know from the American remake of this movie, that there are many ways to think about Godzilla and what he did, but the context of the creation of Godzilla in Japan was perhaps different than what we might most often think.
Godzilla grew out of a feeling in Japan after 1945 of pacifism and opposition to war. Godzilla was a creature who, in the movie, is said to have come about through a mutation and through the results of atomic experiments which brought him out of the sea where he was living a peaceful existence. And, in other words, the effects of atomic war turned him from a peaceful creature into a being that rampaged through Tokyo and eventually had to be destroyed. Thus there was a very serious social and political concern in the creation of Godzilla.
Of course, Japan is the only country to have experienced atomic bombing, and the atomic bombing experiments which prompted later Japanese popular cultural developments, such as Godzilla, were largely American.
There are all kinds of genre of popular culture, many of which are now pretty familiar in the United States. Manga, for example, comic books, have been around in Japan since at least the 17th century, but since World War II they've become a massive industry. It's argued I don't know if this is actually true but it's argued that Japanese manga are the best selling publications in the entire world and that they sell in the hundreds of millions of copies every year.
There's also anime animation. Japanese animation is amongst the best in the world, most sophisticated. A lot of it is now available in the United States, has been released in other countries, ranging from animation for relatively small children Pokémon cartoons, the Power Rangers television series a few years back to much more sophisticated, much more serious popular culture, including the film the full-length feature film Battleship Yamato, and Akira, that deal with serious themes of popular culture, much the same way as Japanese novels deal with real-life issues, but in a more fantastic setting.
Japanese popular culture has become one of the most globalized aspects of Japanese society and culture today. And, in the United States, there are many college-age students for whom the Battleship Yamato is a memory of a story much like folk tale might have been to previous generations of people. Thus, Japanese popular culture is coming to have a global influence and a deep influence on the psyches of many people around the world.
The first Godzilla movie, and then the many sequels that were spawned by it, is definitely a story about Japan and its experiences with atomic warfare. But it's not a story that's necessarily aimed at explaining to other societies, other cultures, the impact of atomic bombing, or the impact of war. I think it's really a story for Japanese, by Japanese, to Japanese about those sorts of things.
But there are many other examples of Japanese popular culture coming out of World War II that do in fact seek to teach the rest of the world. There are many Japanese comics, for example, that take Hiroshima survivors as a theme, and many of those have been translated into foreign languages and make a real statement to a global audience about the horrors of war and the impact of the atomic bomb on the lives of innocent civilians.
AMERICAN POP-CULTURE RETRO-BOOM
Just as Japanese popular culture is becoming more popular in the United States through anime, manga, video games, and so forth, there's also an awful lot of interest in Japan amongst Japanese teenagers for example in American popular culture. But oftentimes it's an American popular culture of an earlier generation there's sort of a retro-boom. James Dean is wildly popular in Japan. Elvis is wildly popular in Japan. Dressing up as sort of teenagers of the 1950s in black leather jackets and slicked back hair is popular in Japan these days.
And there's a sense in which I think many Japanese regard America as, not the source of popular culture, but rather there's a global popular culture to which anybody is entitled to participate in, and so the icons of 1950s popular culture in the United States become the global icons of Japanese youth in the 1990s.
One of the interesting things about Japanese popular culture, and the fact that it really is youth culture, is that on the one hand you have the sense of Japanese children not having a lot of time, not a lot of "youth" to spend, they're so wrapped up in the education system. On the other hand you have this incredibly complex, incredibly vibrant popular culture. I think one of the keys to understanding this apparent contradiction is that Japanese popular culture has excelled in portability. There are all of these things that kids can take with them and do as they're traveling, perhaps on the trains or the subways from school to cram school, or from cram school back home. Think, after all, about the Sony Walkman. I mean, this is music on the move. You're no longer tied to anything; you can just seal out the world and listen to music. Think about video games, Game Boy, things like that all of which are portable, highly engaging, but can be taken anywhere.
All of the little characters the dangling key chains, the Hello Kitty, the Hello Kitty notebook, the Pokémon pencil box all of these are educational tools that are easily wrapped in the characters of popular culture, so that children can sort of carry popular culture with them wherever they go through the adult world that looks and says: "A-ha! They're going to school. That's fine." Well, yeah, they're going to school, but they're also spending as much time as they can paying attention to the idols and the heroes of their popular-culture world.
If you just look at Japanese popular cultural products, like for example the whole series of things that have come out in the last few years about Pokémon, it's easy to forget that these fit into Japanese culture in particular ways.
The thing that strikes me, for example, about Pokémon my son is a Pokémon fanatic, so I know quite a bit about it from, at least, a parent's view is the number of things about Japanese social life it actually reinforces. Pokémon, if you play it as a video game, is an interactive game. It works best when two people are cooperating and playing against one another and can exchange characters back and forth. It's not necessarily an individual activity, it's a group activity. So it reinforces the sense of producing interesting things by cooperating with other people.
Another aspect that's often overlooked is the extent to which Japanese popular culture really contributes to and grows out of the fact that Japan is an incredibly literate society. In order to play Pokémon, one has to be able to read Japanese characters at a fairly advanced level. So, in fact, it stimulates, I think, young children to want to learn to read. It certainly doesn't present itself as a reading program for kids, but in order to understand all of the ways in which the characters operate, their strengths, their weaknesses and so forth, you have to be able to read a fairly sophisticated vocabulary. And I think it stimulates all kinds of questions in a kid's mind about the symbolism of characters, the background, the historical allusions and so forth. So it's really, in that sense I'm sure many teachers would probably find this an odd statement but in that sense it's a very rich educational environment.
Another example of the ways in which Pokémon characters, the actual figures on the cards, reflect certain kinds of Japanese values are that, though this is cast as a battle of people fighting with their Pokémon, and their Pokémon clashing, there are no casualties. Pokémon don't die, or at least they don't die or get hurt through the battle that they're engaged in. The only way that a Pokémon is in mortal danger is if the human fails to take care of it. So it has this sort of nurturing sub-text to it that, if one is going to be a responsible Pokémon player, one has to take care of the characters that the game depends on. So, though it can be seen as a violent game, I don't think that it actually is.
But there are other ways in which Pokémon characters reflect other, even more subtle themes in Japanese culture. If, for example, you look at the ways in which the characters are configured, and their attributes, there are certain ways in which they reflect traditional East Asian cosmological beliefs about elements fire, water, metal, earth, wood each interacting with others. The categories of Pokémon characters are more than five, but they interact with one another in a way that, to me anyway, is reminiscent of this sense of a cosmological system in which symbols relate to one another in very prescribed ways, and that you can kind of predict that this substance, this essence, will triumph over that one. So, I think that in that sense, a kid who plays with Pokémon is learning something about a sort of a traditional East Asian world view of elemental essences that act upon one another.
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MULTIPLE RELIGIONS AND AFFILIATIONS
Many people think that Japan is perhaps the most secular society on earth. That is to say, the society where religion has the least influence. A secular society is one where religion has very little influence or place in the public realm. However, if we add up the number of people who belong to all of the branches of Japanese religions in the country, we get at least twice the number of the total population. This has been true since the 1950s. Why is this so?
The reason is that, historically, the Japanese have been affiliated with a branch of Buddhism and have also been linked to Shinto. They may belong to a family temple in the case of Buddhism, and also be a member of a parish of a Shinto shrine in the neighborhood where they live.
Thus, for a very long time, the Japanese have had a pattern of belonging to at least two religious groups. That has been true since the Edo period, that is 1600 to 1868. A long time in which these patterns became very deeply entrenched. Added to that, Christianity came to Japan in modern times during the Meiji period, beginning in 1868, and it achieved a very strong social influence in the country.
Shinto is an indigenous religion of Japan. Its deities are called kami. The kami may be deified human beings that is, ancient heroes. They may be the gods of ancient myth. They may be natural phenomena, such as a striking tree, a huge boulder, a waterfall. In some eras of history, the Emperor has been considered a kami. Shinto is a religion that's restricted to Japan. It hasn't tried to proselytize or make converts in other places.
The institutions of Shinto are called shrines. There are hundreds, thousands of shrines in Japan today. Indeed, on every street corner of virtually every city, one can find a shrine.
A shrine is typically a place which is a little piece of nature. Even in the cities, they are liable to be a place with trees, even if the surrounding area is all concrete. Natural symbols, such as trees, boulders, waterfalls, and other things are very important to the shrines.
Even in the biggest cities in Japan, there are shrines everywhere. A neighborhood where I did research some years ago had a large shrine easily identifiable by the distinctive gate it's called a torii in Japanese, it's of two cross-beams erected on a couple of pillars which marks the outer boundary of the shrine. And inside the shrine (are) trees, potted plants, some boulders that had been brought there years ago, things that were reminiscent of nature. I think that in some ways Shinto has a certain reverence for nature. It doesn't necessarily manifest itself throughout Japan, but at least in little enclaves of shrines, people try (to) bring something natural and consider it worth revering, if not actually worshipping.
Traditionally, most Japanese families have a long-standing affiliation with a particular Buddhist temple, and it's related in part to the family system that a traditional family, known in Japanese as an ie, would have a particular temple at which the funerals for their family would be performed, and where memorial services for the ancestors would also be performed. And one of the duties of the heir to a family in a traditional family only one, usually the son, only one son would inherit the responsibilities of the family among the responsibilities would be taking care of the memorial tablets that are kept in the family altar, called a butsudan, from generation to generation. So one of the ways in which you can sort of tell whether a family is inheriting the main line of a traditional family is whether they possess a butsudan, something to worship the ancestors. Other children who leave the family and have to establish their own households wouldn't necessarily have that.
During the Edo period, national law required every Japanese family to be affiliated with a Buddhist temple. At that time, the custom arose of families entrusting, so to speak, their ancestors to the care of a Buddhist temple. And for their part, the temples required each of those affiliated families to have funerals and periodic memorial rituals performed by the temples. Thus, in Japan, ancestor worship has, at least from the beginning of the Edo period, that is to say 1600, been almost exclusively a Buddhist observance.
Shinto funerals are not unknown, but nearly so. Thus, while in China, ancestor worship is more connected to Confucianism, in Japan, ancestor worship is almost exclusively a Buddhist phenomenon, based on this historical background.
The number of Christians in Japan has never exceeded about one percent of the population. However, during the Meiji period (1868-1912), Japanese Christianity was highly influential in promoting women's education and promoting the abolition of prostitution. Therefore, its social influence is much greater than the numbers of its members might suggest. This continues to be true in Japan today. There are many branches of Christianity represented there, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, many Protestant denominations, as well as Evangelical Christianity and Christian new religions.
In addition to Shinto, Buddhism, and Christianity, Japan is home to a number of new religious movements. The term "new religions" in Japan can be a little bit confusing, because it refers to lay-peoples' movements founded from around 1900 to the present. Thus there are some of them which have nearly 200 years of history, and it's hard to think of them as "new" in the same sense as a group that may have been founded as recently as 1985.
A recent encyclopedic dictionary of new religious movements in Japan lists over 600 new religious movements. This is, however, only one subsection of Japanese religious life.
New religious movements may be Buddhist, Shinto, Christian, or entirely independent movements which originate in revelations to a founder. Many founders of new religious movements are women. Some of the most important would be Tenrikyo, founded in 1838 and still today having about 250,000 members. This group is a rural new religion, but it also has branches all over the country.
There are many Buddhist new religious movements. They tend to prosper more in the cities and to be influential in community life, and also at a grassroots level in political life. Sometimes new religious movements function as a surrogate family or a surrogate community for people in the cities who may be cut off from deeper ties to their family of birth, which may be back in the countryside.
New religious movements are active in society in a number of ways. The 1964 founding of the Clean Government Party by Soka Gakkai (Soka Gakkai is a lay organization for believers in a branch of Japanese Buddhism called Nichiren Shosu or orthodox Nichiren sect) is the most visible aspect of new religion's political activities, but in many areas they are active in a less visible way, not necessarily endorsing candidates, but perhaps going door to door for candidates who may be members. Sometimes they do endorse candidates. In other ways, they may be active in social welfare activities, founding hospitals, clinics, activities for the aged and other types of social welfare activities.
Rissho Kosei-kai is a Buddhist new religion founded in 1938. It is active in Japanese politics in a very distinctive way. It doesn't sponsor a particular political party, but while it provides sponsorship and funds for some politicians, it nevertheless has a litmus test about who it will support. It refuses to support politicians who have been linked to corruption of any kind, and it also puts a premium on maintaining the separation between religion and state, so that politicians who use their office, for example, to sponsor the pre-war shrine to the war dead, called the yasukuni shrine, are also excluded from its political support.
OLD VS. NEW RELIGIONS
New religious movements represent the most vital sector of Japanese religions today. By contrast, temple Buddhism and shrine Shinto have been in decline since the end of the World War II. While the membership in Japanese new religions has been rising since 1945, the ties between the people and their temples and traditional shrines are tending to weaken since 1945.
If you think about the social context of Japanese religion, in some senses Buddhism is about the family and about the ancestors, and Shinto is about the community. Shinto shrines are organized around a geographical place, around a community. And so, people in their religious lives may be celebrating different aspects of their social world in different religious settings. Now because Shinto has a complicated history ideologically, it means that the link between the community and Shinto can also be controversial.
So, for example, many new religions which are very popular in urban areas are at best antagonistic, in some cases hostile, to Shinto. So, people who live in a community but are hostile to Shinto may find themselves outside of many community institutions that feed back into the Shinto shrine at the heart of the traditional community.
Similarly, people who, for political reasons, see Shinto as extremely conservative or linked to the pre-war and wartime governmental political military structure, may be reluctant to participate in community events if they think that by doing that they would be endorsing Shinto in this sort of old-fashioned ideological sense.
WOMEN AND NEW RELIGIONS
Many new religious movements have been founded by women, and in fact, the majority of the membership in new religious movements tends to be female. That is to say that women find many important and fulfilling outlets for their talents in new religious movements. Not only the aspects of faith and belief, which of course attract many people of both sexes, but it's also the case that women can participate in new religious movements' activities outside the home without giving up their primary roles as wives and mothers. This means that they are prominent as grassroots organizers in the new religions, and as proselytizers as people who bring in new members to the new religious movements.
COMPARATIVE INFLUENCE OF RELIGION
Many people believe that one of the characteristics of the modern world is the decreasing influence of religion. If we look at the industrialized nations today, we find that, with one great exception, they are very much alike in their rates of religious participation, membership in religious organizations, and so on. Japan is very much like the nations of Western Europe. The great exception in world-wide terms is the United States, where levels of expressed religious belief, the level of religious influence in politics, and so on, is in fact much greater than we see elsewhere in the world. Japan is much more like the nations of Western Europe and other industrialized societies in the area of religion than it is like the United States.