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Where is Japan’s culture and is it disappearing?

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I was not sure what to expect when I entered the office of anime, models, dolls, tanks, and starships that belonged to Professor Darren Ashmore of Akita International University. But as I was to find out: never a judge a book by its cover. With his nearly two decades of Japan studies throughout all of Japan, with his specialties in anthropology, pop culture, and folk art revival, I knew could finally get to some questions on everyone’s minds.

We all have our own reasons for coming or staying in Japan. Whether that be anime or manga as seems to be the stereotype, or a more traditional perspective on temple, shrine, or history appreciation, there is no one "correct" way to experience Japan. In fact, through Professor Ashmore’s infamous "Manga Mania" class, students end up learning not just about popular manga or its history, but how that manga is a reflection of history, politics, religion, and culture.

What is culture?

Professor Ashmore has a knack for getting his students and others think beyond the obvious. I wasn’t falling for his tricks of saying that culture is everything, what we make it to be, or what society believes. This was an interview and I wanted answers.

Culture is a mix of traditions and customs, he explained. After a quick glance up the skirt of one of his anime maid figurines, I asked him to elaborate. Customs have a practical use and a fairly evident purpose. Traditions on the other hand once had a practical use and purpose, but today that no longer applies — yet the ritual continues.

Often these customs and rituals blend, allowing for multiple interpretations of meaning. I could recall a mix of custom and tradition in many of my own daily life rituals in Japan. Perhaps the most well-known cultural characteristic of Japan is removing your shoes before entering a house (shrine, temple, tea room, tatami room, etc). Traditional thought dictates that the outside is unclean and inside is pure; this is an almost spiritual way of thinking. The more practical way of thinking and practice, however, is to keep mud and dirt outside where is belongs.

How about an example?

Giving credit to his current stomping grounds of Akita in northern Tohoku, Professor Ashmore said there is no better example than culture, both as a tradition and as a custom, than is illustrated by the Namahage. Every Dec 31, the gods dressed as demons of Oga Peninsula and other less advertised locales of Japan descend from the mountains to terrorize families and their children. Banging on the doors and windows, they burst through the front door yelling for the children to be judged. The Namahage, with their large knives and buckets, have been rumored to skin children that are lazy or don’t listen to their parents. Thankfully, some kind words and offerings of food and sake to the Namahage from parents is enough to convince them to leave. Of course, this is on the assumption the children promise to behave themselves.

For anyone who has been to Tohoku, you will know the winters are extremely harsh with snow well into March and April each year. And let’s not forget the wildlife, particularly bears that roam the forests. A major purpose of the Namahage ritual is to have children behave. Wandering off in the winter and getting lost in a snowstorm or attacked by an animal could mean death. Yet today, urbanization, snow plows, warmer clothes, heaters, and hand warmers, make going outside far less dangerous. Still, the tradition is held onto for tourism and bringing the community together, and for the few firm believers that think we should hold on to tradition for tradition’s sake.

Is Japan’s culture disappearing?

With hints of what was to come, I asked my final question: Is Japan’s culture disappearing? “Yes, to put it bluntly,” was my response. And the reasons can be the introduction of technology, the reducing population, the lack of interest or perceived importance, or the lack of practicality tradition has today.

Continuing with his Namahage example, Professor Ashmore expanded on the idea of the Yamahage, a small town’s variant on the Namahage tradition. With the youth leaving for the bigger cities, there was a lack of people willing to become the demons of the night since several years ago. A witty grandmother came up with the idea of using local international university students to fill the role because demons have conventionally been viewed as outsiders. The village elders agreed to set up the culture exchange and today, year after year, we see non-Japanese maintaining Japanese culture through scaring Japanese children. For the record, we don’t masks to do that.

We can easily see pop culture clashing with traditional culture, but the modern man or woman needs to really understand both views to see Japan as it is today. Japan is connected with the past in many ways, even if those ways are becoming fewer. Sometimes a tradition becomes a custom, or vice versa. Other times the only way to preserve culture is to modify it with the changing situation and times. The alternative is to let a tradition disappear. When we try to hold onto a tradition that has no relevance today without lenience to change, there can only be failure. And we lose part of culture with every lost tradition. But you can’t force tradition—it must be accepted by society to live on. To wrap up the interview, the ever genki Professor Ashmore left me with one thing to ponder, a customized "Star Wars" quote no less: “The more you tighten your grip, the more traditions will slip through your fingers.”

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14 Comments
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Japan has an extremely strong culture to my way of thinking. I don't see a clash of old and new - I see the ability of Japanese people to creatively foster new culture which is also totally unique to Japan, such as the pop culture, but retain it within the overall Japanese culture. Japan looks incredibly modern and progressive but the old fingers of culture and tradition run right the way through everything that happens in Japan - and I have often thought this is one of the things that fools many of the younger expats who go to Japan expecting one thing and get incredibly frustrated and disillusioned on discovering it is something entirely different.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

The great thing about culture is that it changes.Yes, some traditions may die out but new ones are always being created. In 200 years, profs may be worried that the tradition of Christmas cake is on the brink of being lost.

I think Japan does a good job of keeping its traditions and culture, even though there are a few things I would like to see disappear (my community sports day is tomorrow...in the blistering heat of August)

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This article is nonsense and should be retitiled "Where is Japan's TRADITIONAL culture and is it disappearing?" Culture does not equal TRADITIONAL traditions and customs. Culture changes and so do traditions and customs. Modern technology and anime are culture too. Old traditions and customs can easly make a culture stagnant and deal less appropriately with modern challenges and problems - impractical - as the author says. If this same lamenting went on the US or Canada, everyone would adopt the lifestyle of modern day Amish or Mennonite peoples. No offense to these peoples, but I think this example illustrates the point I am trying to get at.

Can we retitle this article please?

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I love the bit about getting the foreign devils in to scare the children to stay indoors. That's one aspect of Japanese culture that will endure forever!

1 ( +4 / -3 )

Japanese cultural customs are dying because everyone is too busy with their empty, emotionless careers and pursuit of soulless material possessions to ever think about, ponder or practice them.

When we find a way to vanquish workaholic culture, we will see a return of Japanese culture.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This is an interesting article, as it sheds light on how culture both evolves and stays the same.

It's true that the demands on peoples' time and energy are eroding their ability to participate in customary activities and traditions, so culture is suffering at the behest of an aberrant socio-economics confiiguration.

What makes culture persist, however, is how it continues to speak to people across the ages in relation to recurrent universal themes in a given society. Many of the most durable one's will be readily intelligible to people from different societies, too, insofar as they represent shared traits that humans generally have to cope with in every society.

The shift of populations to the cities is a general phenomenon in industrialized societies, so it is interesting read about how the local community has invited in viable participants from another aspect of industriallized societies--colleges--from neighboring area to both preserve the custom and enhance the experience of the college students by introducing them to something traditional that relates to the locale they live in rather than the more general and universal subjects they are probably focused on at university.

By the way, editor the "don't" in the following sentence should probably by "don".

For the record, we don't masks to do that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I have just traveled in Shikoku, and, like elsewhere in country-side Japan, the customs and traditions are still alive. Especially those friendly ones.

For example, I was walking to one of Shikoku's famous 88 temples, this one located deep in the rice paddies in Tokushima Prefecture, when an elderly man on a bicycle stopped in front of me. He opened his bag and pulled out a tomato, which he offered to me. So being polite, I accepted it. Then he offered me a cucumber, but I declined it, saying the tomato was enough.

I have been told more than once that this is an old custom in Shikoku when the locals meet "pilgrims" walking from temple to temple. They offer something to help them on their way to the next temple.

At the time I was in the middle of nowhere (that is, no vending machines or stores within sight) and the sun was blistering hot. So I enjoyed the freshness that the tomato offered. All of this thanks to an old man who still practiced a culture and traditions from times past.

I find such friendliness alive & well in all parts of Japan ... especially deep in the countryside. And, of course, even in Prof. Ashmore's Akita Prefecture and Tohoko district.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I read once that the definition of culture is the collective conception for vague nouns like "religion," "food," "art," "language,' and so on. Every society has these things, but they differ from society to society. And since they are made up by the people who make up the society, any immigration over time will necessarily change the culture. This isn't good, or bad, it just is.

Problems arise when you identify your value as a country with any kind of culture. Then as your culture changes over time, as it inevitably does, it will seem as though you are losing value.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Change of culture takes long time and it first starts at mind level-thought level. The root less U.S. culture has propagated 'spend and enjoy' phylosophy-while eastern culture is"save and spend for others'. To save our kids from western culture keep them away from US TV shows, and also avoide over dosage of ENGLISH.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

To save our kids from western culture keep them away from US TV shows, and also avoide over dosage of ENGLISH.

This is a wonderfully insightful comment. How true, that Japanese kids spend their time conversing excessively in English and watching imported TV shows like "Breaking Bad," Madmen, 3rd Rock from the Sun," etc.

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

I don't agree with tradition as being something that used to make sense but now is just mindlessly handed down. If it were not valued, and useful, it would not be handed down. Furthermore it is the ppl doing the handing and the receiving that are important, as much or more than, the content being handed, that are important. I do Japanese music, for ex. Many/ most of the songs are "traditional" as are the instruments and certain ways of playing them and thinking about music (what would be termed "music theory" in the west). I like the music, so does my teacher, so do the ppl who invite me to give concerts for them. Sure, Jpns music it is not as fashionable these days as guitar, but it is certainly living, not dead. I would say this about all sorts of other "traditions" I have seen/ participated in here. (and not just "arts"). I would say tradition is something that is strong and gives ppl meaning.

The bit about the foreign students being used to scare the kids kind of gave me a chill. I wouldn't want to be the token gaijin-as-a-demon.

All the bears I am friends with tend to sleep for the entire winter. Do they have a different kind of bear in Akita?

Overall a weird article. Also don't know about that professor in Akita. Sounds like an academic type who's gotten himself some ideas and enjoys espousing them like they are our reality. Maybe a facet or two, but...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japanese culture is still strong.It is ingrained into the national character.It continues to evolve and mutate like most other cultures, but retains it's Japanese-ness.When you live in a place where everything 'cultural' is borrowed, then you see how strong the Japanese culture is.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@ubikwit thanks for the clarification...I was wondering about the impact of scary foreigners "don't use masks" scaring these kids for life. lol

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Pranavk, Jefflee. If a mere language skill is enough to take down your "culture", it certainly isn't strong enough to survive and should be allowed to fade away.

My native culture has grown ever stronger in my mind and heart since I moved to Japan, even though I speak Japanese plus two others on top of my own native tongue. Forced upkeeping of any culture is rubbish. If it's strong enough to survive, it will do so.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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