Land of Silence

The society of Japan is perhaps the most enigmatic in all the developed world. A constant source of intrigue, the island nation has fostered a unique culture that stands isolated from the rest of the world. Even with the, at times, abrasive symbiosis that is characteristic of the information age, Japan has been apprehensive in embracing of the norms of the western world when compared to similar nations such as South Korea.

The Japanese have a treasure trove of words that explain precise events and phenomenon, for example, tsunami, meaning “harbor wave.” Historically, Japan was off-limits to foreigners for over two hundred years. Their word describing this period of closed borders enforced by the death penalty was known as Sakoku, meaning “closed country.” This isolation lasted between the 1630’s and 1853 by all accounts, including that of Michael Lewis who wrote Pacific Rift detailing the bizarre business relationship between Japan and the United States in the 1980s. By my critical assessment, this was Lewis’ worst book, but nonetheless a time capsule worth digging up for its wonderful anecdotes exposing the eccentricities of Japan.

The purposeful isolation and disdain for foreigners that carries on to this day can be partially attributed to Japan’s lengthy period of exile. I first wrestled with the idea whether or not this period was the main catalyst in forming the Japan we know today, or, rather, if this period was a natural extension of deeply ingrained ideals that existed in ancient Japan. After reading The Japanese Mind, a collection of essays exploring Japanese culture, I’ve concluded that Japan possesses one of the most homogenous and consistent cultures over the course of recorded history. The formal exclusion of foreign influence was, well, a formality.

We can agree that Japan is different, but there are plenty of odd civilizations and peoples that have been studied, what makes it so special? Japan persevered for hundreds of years, while maintaining a clear cultural identity. The country transforms its ancient cultural norms to modern peculiarities in Economics, Entertainment, Food, Military Science, and Technological Advancement.

What do all of these categories have in common? What makes the Japanese iterations of this smattering of categories distinctly Japanese? Many would surmise discipline. The Japanese are more robotic in their operations; they are less creative and more mechanical. I disagree, not with the justification for the categorization, but on the basis that discipline is a mere outgrowth of a more crucial, a more elemental phenomenon. Silence.

Japanese students have an especially hard time adjusting to western institutions of higher learning because they find it inappropriate to speak out in a classroom. Even infrequent prodding of the teacher is seen as disrespectful and detrimental to a class’s learning. On the other side of the coin, western instructors who visit Japan notice a similar thing: “Rather than questioning and challenging their teacher, they listen silently and politely, taking notes …” This is systemic: “In Japanese schools, however [in contrast with the west], most things are done according to a fixed pattern or plan … students tend to assume that there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything.”

The schools in Japan that train sushi chefs, or itamae, are run in the same vein. Sushi making is a time-honored past time with the best mentors having expectations that would seem inconceivable for westerners. A mainstream glimpse into this culture is Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary detailing the life of Jiro, one of the oldest most respected sushi chefs in all of Japan. Notable are Jiro’s apprentices, including one who spent years of his life perfecting Tamagoyaki (a type of omelette) before gaining his mentor’s praise and another who spent years perfecting his rice cooking before he was allowed to do anything else. One of them remarked “It is very painful training, which is very Japanese.”

A persistent theme in the short film is silence. Silence as the apprentices prepare various ingredients and silence as Jiro puts the final touches on the sushi before personally serving it to the customer. Further, a marked silence as Jiro sternly stares at customers sitting at his 10-seat sushi bar (something that has been criticized in his Yelp reviews).

This sense of duty to one’s profession harkens back to the days of samurais in feudal Japan. To be a samurai was to be the most respected and honored, it’s a reach to say a sushi chef is the modern incarnation, but the parallel has been drawn and I don’t find it particularly inaccurate. According to “The sushi chef is the heir to the samurai tradition and upholds the ideals of the samurai.”

Japan has the most feared military in the far east. The dedication of spirit and body exhibited by the samurais was passed on to the soldiers who fought in World War II. Kamikaze, meaning “divine wind”, was the method of Japanese soldiers deliberately flying planes into American warships. This has been often drawn back to the Bushido code of the samurai, which mandated honor and loyalty until death. These soldiers were the only fighters in all of the World Wars who were so thoroughly proud and willing to sacrifice their own lives.

Silence also pervades to Japanese popular culture. In the decades following WWII, the Japanese had increasingly bizarre cultural exports. Many classify this output as a product of stifled creativity for such a long period of time. Examples are anime and crazy Japanese gameshows.

The Japanese method of innovation has lacked creativity. “Japanese industrial triumphs have been based largely on efficient borrowing or ingenious adaptations of foreign technology rather than on independent scientific discoveries. Political thought, philosophy, and scholarship in the social sciences are to a large extent the reworking or synthesis of ideas derived from abroad, rather than original creative work. Japan’s past is studded with prominent religious leaders, great poets and writers, outstanding organizers, and even distinguished synthesizers of thought, but not with great creative intellectual figures.” From Toyota to toys, the examples of this are countless.

There are many lessons that can be learned from a careful inquiry into Japanese culture. While each of this issues mandates and is met with volumes of literature, it is important to view the culture of Japan as it is continually manifested in various cultural exports rather than in a static historical context. Japan’s ability to compete in industry and respond to western cultural norms, not just in the past, but in the present, speaks to just how deeply ingrained and under-appreciated these values are.