Monthly Archives: November 2019

Two Theories of Japanese Culture

Two favorite theories from Japan and the Shackles of the Past:

  1. Japan never had a true Axial Age moment – the moment where Athenian philosophy, Buddhism, and Judaic monotheism (among others!) all began to separate the material world we live in from the “spiritual world” above. All human culture to that point was animistic – where spirituality and real gods imbued every aspect of the world and to talk of a separate spirit world didn’t make much sense at all. When Buddhism arrived in Japan it never fully co-opted the native Shinto animism. And it is precisely this “spirituality in everything” approach that characterizes the Japanese reverence for small design details, ceremonial acts, etc.
  2. Feudal Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868) is widely known for the influence of the samurai warrior class and their spartan ethic of bushido. However, this was a peaceful period! In fact, the samurai were essentially useless at all for 250 years and they responded in two ways. First, they focused more than ever on an extreme version of bushido, seeking to one-up each other with asceticism and military technique. Second, though, they became decadent – noted for their patronage of everything from burlesque to prostitution — which developed customs of extravagant costume and theatrical presentation. It is precisely this dual nature that shocks one about Japan today – the ultra-serious business ethic coexisting easily with the hypersexualized otaku videogame culture, but it has a long history.

These are obviously oversimplifications and I barely know anything about Japan, certainly not enough to evaluate these two theories – but I enjoyed thinking about them.

Where are you from?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the question “where are you from”. It rankled me for a long time – in San Francisco when I first arrived it felt like a provocation, a way of checking if you were a native or a gentrifier. Then I made a friend who has spent a lot of time in Navajo nation building relationships with folks there. They ask the same question, apparently, because their relationship to the land itself is so much of a part of who they are, that knowing you grew up on a particular mountain or stream tells them about you in ways that go beyond “local culture”. So I started thinking about which parts of your background are important to get to know you? Which fields have you studied, who are your intellectual and ethical ancestors? Is there a “small talk” question that gets at that? “What did you major in” is probably close, for more intellectual folks who are still in or near college, but is still a pretty weak shadow of what I’m trying to get at. 
And this becomes even more relevant when you think about statelessness and movement as political issues. The 21st century doesn’t have a monopoly on this – human history is full of forced and voluntary migrations – but there are particular new spins on it. Cosmopolites (which I just read and is very good) talks about bidoons in the UAE, whose ancestors were nomadic desert people just like everyone else, but missed the citizenship initiatives of when those states were forming, and are now stateless – and the UAE’s efforts to buy them citizenships in Comoros, a poor island in the Indian Ocean. The most marginalized want citizenship as a way to secure their rights, to be legible to government and justice. Then of course the ultra rich are stateless in a different way – trying specifically to escape from government responsibilities like paying taxes, they collect residences and passports in the most convenient nations. Climate refugees may be one of the key stories of the 21st century and this question of “where are you from” may have a completely different meaning for them.