Thursday, February 19, 2009

Japanese Culture

On Thursdays, I write about something more personal than my technology and policy blog entries. Since I'm in Japan, here is my homage to Japanese culture. What is it I admire so much about this country?

The Food - as a vegan, I've been enjoying meals made with fresh, regional ingredients prepared in a way that appears to all the senses. Shojin Ryori, the vegan meals created by Buddhist monks, are made from Tofu, Yuba (the skin created by heating soy milk), Okara (the fiber left over after soy milk is made), fresh seasonable vegetables, rice, and green tea. These meals are low fat, high fiber, contain no cholesterol and are among the most delicious foods I have ever tasted.

The Clothing - traditional Japanese clothing is extremely comfortable. There is nothing more refreshing after 24 hours of travel than a soak in a Japanese bath (described below), putting on a Yukata (Japanese cotton robe) tied with an Obi (Japanese cotton sash), and then a Haori (overcoat) and Geta (wooden shoes) for a stroll to a forested shrine. This is what we do on Miyajima, the sacred island off the coast of Hiroshima.

The Living Spaces - Japan is a small country in that it is so mountainous that the majority of it's 127 million people live in the plain between Tokyo and Osaka, making the amount of space per person some of the smallest in the world. This means that the Japanese people must live low impact lives - small homes, small cars, small amount of belongings. People think about the needs of the many - they wear masks to prevent the spread of respiratory illness. They carry small towels to avoid the need for wasteful paper towels in public bathrooms (Japan is where Douglas Adams, the author of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, got the idea that you always need to carry your towel with you). A traditional Japanese living space has a futon for sleeping that may be put away during the day. Zabuton are pillows for sitting on. Eating may be done on small tables set on the floor. Dinnerware consists of lacquerware, pottery, and chopsticks. Belongings may be minimalist, but they are of great beauty and utility. The concept of green living combined with great aesthetics truly appeals to me.

The Onsen/Baths - Japanese love their hot baths - natural hot springs (onsen), outdoor baths (Rotenburo), and even simple cedar tubs for soaking. You wash off outside the bath, then soak in 104F (or hotter) water. Americans may find the idea of public baths (always gender specific) to be a bit odd, but it really works as a cultural experience.

The Arts - Japanese arts include Cha no yu (tea ceremony), ink painting, zen gardens, Kabuki (theater), Honkyoku (Shakuhachi meditation music), and Koh do (incense). These art forms are great for the soul.

The Religion - Shintoism celebrates the miracle of nature and the Japanese landscape. Buddhism celebrates the achievement of the individual to find enlightenment. Both are very peaceful religions and do not attempt to convert others, impose political beliefs, or criticize other religions. Western religions could learn much from this approach.

Japan is truly my favorite country to visit and I try to visit every year. In my own home and life I try to include as many of these cultural principles as is possible. My daughter hopes to live and work in Japan after college. I'll welcome her lessons learned.


Christine Kraft said...

This is a wonderful post. I almost feel like I am in Japan with you.

The quality of Japanese culture that most amazes me is how public and private spheres of life are so purposefully drawn. There is much to learn about healing from the Japanese.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your entry about Japan.
As a Japanese, I 'm very honered to have had you here .

See you again!

Kotaro Numazawa from Nagoya

CM said...

I'm a med student- nearly done - and had a previous career in IT working in Tokyo. I love Japan and miss it very much. I'm always learning from my Japanese friends and wife, who is Japanese.

In regards to Christine's comment - Although the Japanese are perhaps more "traditional" than Americans with regards to sexuality (a loaded statement I concede), I certainly felt Japanese culture is MORE tolerant of non-straight, non-conventionally gendered individuals. Sure, there is a lot prejudice in Japan, but people keep it to themselves for the most part - as they should. In the US people wear these attitudes as badges of honor on their sleeves. For better or worse, many Americans feel it is their moral duty to make private beliefs a matter of public discourse (e.g. abortion). My wife laughs when she hears Americans brag about how open our society is!