Houses, hair, Engrish, and normality

The old joke, “What do you call French bread in France?  Bread.” does not work in Japan.  If there is such a thing as “Japanese bread”, it sells at specialty shops for 2000 yen a loaf.

The term “Japanese” itself exists even in Japanese as a form of marking alongside those for other cultures and countries.  As a modifier for a noun, it lifts that noun out of the normal exemplars of its category and says, “this is a special kind of this thing, unique to Japan.”  Thus, the “Japanese garden” in the pictures below is not a typical garden in Japan, but one ostentatiously evocative of traditional (another loaded term) gardens.









In the common idiom, “Japanese” means not “that which is normal in Japan” but “that which is regarded as unique to Japan and elevated enough to represent it on the international stage”.  Normal, everyday things follow what may be considered an international standard, albeit interpreted through a Japanese view of the outside world.  A well-known example is the banality of Engrish, a way of “internationalizing” public communication in a way that has few counterparts in other countries.  This paradox, that common things in Japan are considered inauthentic examples of Japanese culture, and things considered truly Japanese are rather rare, occurs in fashion, housing, and language.

Making the code that a message is presented in part of the message is not unique to Japan. In this sense, Engrish is just an extreme example of a very common phenomenon.  It is extreme in the imbalance in attention paid to message compared to attention paid to the code, and extreme in its commonness.  One often hears kanji tattoos compared to Engrish as a way of saying hey, we all do it.  Of course, that’s like saying there’s violence in Caracas, and there’s violence in Winnipeg.  Just browse this men’s t-shirt section of a well-known clothing catalog and reflect that this type of clothing is the default – you will see hundreds of shirts like this before you see even one that has a  message in Japanese on it (and that one will be on a member of a biker gang).


The same is true of loanwords themselves – a word like ペーパードライバー peepaa doraibaa (paper driver) probably only means “person with a license who doesn’t drive” in Japan, and I would wager that more people know this word than can write the kanji for “rose” (薔薇, easier to type than write).  Undoubtably though, the first will not be considered part of Japanese culture, while the second, once you tell people what it means, will.

As for housing, Americans seem to imagine a Japanese house as looking something like this:


Bryan Cranston’s character lived here in the Godzilla remake of a few years ago, and clearly the filmmakers wanted his house to read as “suburban home in Japan” in a few seconds to an audience who has never been to Japan.

Real homes in Japan, to paraphrase Dogs and Demons, aggressively deny any type of Asian aesthetic.  In the best cases, new homes in Japan look like the kind you would expect in a utopian future where humanity has outgrown parochial concepts of nationhood, and in the worst cases look like they were built by Hasbro for the Soviet Union.


And as the site that this image comes from points out, despite the fact that almost all new houses in Japan look like this, these are not considered “Japanese” houses.  Japanese houses are the kind with the heavy tile roofs and meticulously tended gardens, usually owned by people at least 70 years old with generous pensions and lots of time on their hands.

Hair is another often-remarked-upon example of the inversion of commonness and representativeness.  Anyone familiar with modern Japan knows adults very often sport dyed brown hair.  Like African-Americans who may regard untreated hair as a bold assertion of identity rather than just the normal way it grows, straight black hair in Japan is seen as self-consciously Japanese, perhaps a bit too solemn for everyday life.  If you want to look modern and socially well-adjusted, get some waves in it and color it mild chestnut.  What makes Japan’s case different from African-Americans is that the people who set the standard for brown or blonde hair don’t exist in large numbers here, the result being an almost uniformily Asian nation with almost uniformily non-Asian-looking hair.

There is a principle outlined in Thinking, Fast and Slow called the fallacy of representativeness, which says that people tend to overestimate the odds of something happening when it conforms to stereotype, even calling it more likely than an event which a priori has to be more prevalent, such as “precocious kid grows up to be a janitor who secretly solves crimes” over “precocious kid grows up to be a janitor”.  I think a related principle might relate to the way people talk about world cultures – that when asked to say something about what the members of a culture do, they’ll simply recite a stereotype supposedly unique to that culture even when even a cursory glance at human behavior should rule that out as impossible, and ignore the majority of behavior within that culture that overlaps with 99% of the rest of the world.  For example, rather than “Japanese buy homes made with the available materials”, people will judge “Japanese buy homes made with the available traditional materials bearing a unique sense of the coexistence of humanity with nature” as more likely.  Rather than “Japan has problems with political corruption”, “Japan has problems with political corruption springing from its conformist culture” rings true.  The same thinking could lead one to designate that which considered unique rather than that which is normal to be the dominant image of that culture.

Contrarily, if you let commonness rather than closeness to stereotype determine what is and isn’t Japanese, you end up with a lot of counterintuitive definitions:

-The typical Japanese worker is not a briefcase-carrying salaryman at an international corporation like Hitachi, but a woman at a small, local company.

-Japanese clothes are not kimono and yukata but puffy down jackets and tights worn under jean shorts, along with t-shirts that say “Michigan Athletic Department: Glorious Convulsion”.

-Japanese children’s extracurricular activities are not calligraphy or judo but piano and English.

-Japanese popular television is not Naruto but 15-minute soap operas.

Of course no one besides sociologists and statisticians uses that definition of “Japanese”.  What is the point of arguing such an abstract point as the definition of a culture?  Well, I get upset when the definitions of the communities that people consider themselves part of exclude most of the things they actually do, and delegitimize the lives of real people as part of the forces that animate world history.  On this point that Howard Zinn book obviously had a big effect on me.  It is also dismaying to see “Japan” and “Japanese culture” locked behind glass as something too good for people in Japan to interact with or reinterpret, and annoying when people who have no contact with those things refer to them as part of “their” culture.  If current Japanese culture is the Catholic church pre-Martin Luther, I’d like to see a reformation happen and for people to see that Japanese culture is not what lurks in some corner of Kyoto but what its members really say and do.


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