12 June 2019

Flying My Otaku Flag

So, I'm watching an anime on Hulu called "Samurai Harem", which as the name suggests is totally frivolous piffle. But, even this can make you think.

* One of the characters speaks in archaic Japanese which is translated into English with words like thee, thou, and dost. I wish I knew the Japanese language well enough to figure out what is being done in the original to convey this archaic sense.

* Episode 3 has a scene where a new transfer student (Tsubame) to a reasonably ordinary urban high school is asked all sorts of questions from kids in the class to get acquainted to which the transfer student who has lived all of her life in strict training to be a martial artists in the remote mountains can't answer, defeating her earnest hopes of finally living life as a "normal" girl.

She can't tell them which school she transferred from because she's always been home schooled in solitary study. She can't tell them what her parents do or where she lives because she's been raised in a shadowy underworld in the mountains. She can't tell them her interests because it would seem strange to explain that she hasn't been allowed to have any because her entire life has been devoted to being trained to be a martial artist successor to her family's school of martial arts techniques for her entire life whether she likes it or not. She doesn't have a favorite sweet because she's never been allowed to eat them. She doesn't have a favorite TV show because they didn't have a TV and doesn't have any kind of popular music that she listens to because she hasn't been allowed to have a radio or music players.

From there is departs into plot specific directions, but as someone who has a nephew who has been entirely home schooled, and two nieces who have been almost entirely home schooled (one of whom has also had sustained very disciplined violin training), and having raised my own children when they were younger with limited access to sweets and very little television, it strikes a cord.

* There are little aspects of Japanese culture that are also fascinating. 

For example, light hearted "harem" anime are a fairly established genre in manga and anime, which will almost certainly never go "mainstream" in American culture because it crosses lines that Puritan influenced American's sensibilities aren't comfortable crossing, either on grounds that is is immoral (e.g. playfully and in jest sexualizing characters in their early teens) or anti-feminist.

Similarly, characters who are forced to carry on a family business or legacy or occupation or to marry someone to whom they were engaged by their parents as children or in connection with a business deal, are a cliche trope in Japanese fiction and while the characters sometimes fight against it and more often submit in their own fashion, it doesn't come across as outrageous and shocking and absolutely unacceptable in the same way that it does when American fiction puts an American character in a situation like that (which it does far less often). Attitudes about the social acceptability of imposing major life decisions on young adults, and about the socially acceptable and honorable ways to respond to those kinds of impositions is very different.

Note, to be clear, I am not making the inference that the way things are depicted in Japanese popular fiction are the way that they actually are in Japan, any more than one could assume that U.S. popular fiction depicts the way that things really are in the U.S. 

Instead, I am suggesting that one can look at each of them in a meta way to illustrate ways that certain key values and attitude differ, at least in degree. 

A lot of comedy, both in Japan and the U.S., is funny because the characters do things that cross boundaries of social acceptability and proper conduct in small and big ways. You learn about a culture from comedy not by assuming that people in real life will act like the fictional characters, but by learning that acting the way a character does when laugh tracks are triggered would be something that in real life would be considered terribly awkward and embarrassing. 

Similarly, when an issue that would be very sensitive in U.S. culture that would trigger strong emotions, perhaps embarrassment, perhaps fury, perhaps pride at having succeeded in some respect in living up to social pressures is just no a big deal or has no real emotional valence in Japanese fiction, its fair to infer the line of acceptability or emotional trigger point that a situation would involve in U.S. life isn't located in the same place in Japanese culture.

Another theme that runs across all kinds of Japanese fiction very heavily, is a very strong Japanese conviction that almost no one, even a villain, is truly irredeemable, while it is quite common place, and even routine to the point of almost being a default assumption in U.S. fiction, that some people are just plain evil, irredeemably. Japanese fiction certainly has villains, people who do bad things, and bad people, but it has far fewer people who are inherently evil though and through and are incapable of being persuaded otherwise in any way.

There are also some prosaic details about life in Japan that can fairly be assumed to somewhat reflect actual Japanese life after seeing it repeated as basically background material over and over again while consuming lots of Japanese fiction and a smattering of non-fictional accounts of Japanese life.

* Japanese high schools publicly display everyone's academic performance and class rank, something that federal educational privacy laws in the U.S. largely prohibit.

* The curriculum in Japanese high schools typically includes fairly advanced math, some science instruction, pretty intensive and detailed Japanese history, classic Japanese literature, English, and PE. On average, high school is more academically intense and rigorous in Japan than in the U.S., although the reverse is true to some extent at the higher educational level in Japan.

* Extra-curricular after school clubs are an important part of high school life in Japan and students with initiative can usually form their own clubs.

* Flower arranging and tea ceremonies are hobbies with a real following among both high schoolers and adults.

* Manga and anime are quite widely consumed by young adults and even older audiences.

* Japanese school children carry out a lot of the cleaning tasks on a rotating chore basis within each homeroom class that would usually be done by professional janitors in U.S. schools.

* Japanese high school typically have an annual cultural festival in which each class has to put on democratically agreed to event or presentation such as a play, dance performance or pop up theme restaurant.

* Japanese people travel within major cities and between cities via train to a much greater extent than U.S. people do, and buses are used in rural Japan far more than they are in the rural U.S.

* Natural outdoor geothermal hot spring bath resorts are a fairly popular field trip/getaway vacation in Japan.

* Canned drinks from vending machines that aren't soda are quite common in Japan.

* Most elementary and secondary school students where school uniforms to school, often with summer and winter versions, and with the uniform for girls usually including a blouse and skirt. the designs distinguish one school from another.

* The structure of student government in Japan from class representatives up to a school wide set of student government officers seems to be quite similar from school to school in structure and responsibilities. Enforcing minor discipline on fellow students and organizing school wide festivals are a couple of the things it handles.

* At the beginning of the school year there is usually a big assembly, for incoming students at least, at which it is customary for the academically best incoming student to give a speech.

* Good academic performance is viewed more positively and is more salient in how one is viewed in Japanese schools than in U.S. schools.

* Japanese high schools usually arrange one or more sessions with what we would call a guidance counsellor in the U.S. where each student personally discussed after graduation plans for further schooling or work or career paths based upon a sheet submitted to the guidance counsellor in advance of the meeting. Guidances counsellors aren't particular pushy in these sessions but will prod a student a little to see if the plan is really realistic or appropriate and will offer some insights to the student on what the student has to do in order to continue on that path.

* Most Japanese elementary and secondary students walk, bike or take a train (or a mix of the above) to school. Taking a dedicated school bus to school, as opposed to on a school activity, is quite uncommon.

* Japanese school students have cell phones at least as often as American students do and use them in fairly similar ways.

* Japanese school student usually remove their shoes and leave them in a shoe cubby near the entrance and change into slippers when indoors. Someone's shoe cubby is also a convenient place to leave someone an anonymous or not so anonymous note.

* Japanese homeroom classes in elementary school and high school typically have a two character code with the first being a number identifying the year of the student at the school (e.g. second year students), and the next identifying which academic track the class is in ranked from highest at the beginning to lowest at the end. The fact that classes are tracked isn't hidden from students.

* Late in high school, college bound kids tend to spend long hours in cram school preparing for high stakes, content heavy, college entrance exams that everybody in the country takes at more or less the same time.

* While Japanese high schools sometimes have formal dances, there aren't as many school sponsored dances as there would be in a U.S. high school, the format is a bit more flexible, and the dances aren't closely tied to the athletic calendar for major sports.

* Cheer leading is not as much of an institution in Japan as it is in the U.S.

* Elementary and secondary school students in Japan don't play football or lacrosse with any frequency, but do play basketball and soccer. Competitive track and field, swimming, archery and kendo are fairly common individual sports in Japanese schools.

* Japanese schools almost always have a nurses office staffed with a nurse and are quite lax about allowing students to go there for woes that would typically not be sufficient to allow a U.S. student to go to a nurses office.

* While Japan has nudity taboos, they aren't quite as strong as in the U.S. in terms of media presentations of nudity.

* Japanese people utilize hospital care much more frequently than Americans do and it doesn't cost a lot to the user at the time, if it costs anything.

* Japan has some prestigious private schools at the elementary and secondary level. But, elementary and at least some secondary education are pretty much universal, although not everyone pursues higher education and some people pursue trade schools rather than working or higher education.

* While there are some single sex schools in Japan, they aren't common, and in mixed sex schools in Japan boys and girls interact with each other pretty much as freely as they would in a U.S. high school (except, often, for PE).

* The kinds of foods that people have for various meals at home and eating out, respectively, seem to be not terribly different from what people actually eat. For example, hot pot is often seen as a celebratory group food, rice balls are often one of the first things someone learning to cook learns to make, omurice is something of a comfort food, and bento boxes are pretty common for lunch (often with childish designs for younger children). Lots of Japanese food is some combination of rice and fish or some other sea sourced food (e.g. nori, octopus, etc.). Watermelons are considered something of a summer celebratory/prosperity food. People in hard economic straights and students living on their own often give up chicken and beef. Lamb is rare in Japanese food and leavened Western style bread is fairly rare in Japan although that is changing. Japanese portion sizes tend to be small by American standards although this is changing somewhat over time.

* Not many Japanese people strive for sobriety. Drinking various kinds of alcohol is a normal part of life.

* Lots of people in Japan use sleeping mats rather than full fledge beds with mattresses and box springs.

* Bleaching or dying one's hair is a pretty common form of teen and young adult low key rebellion against conformity in Japan, as are piercings, but even individuals who visibly are defiant or different in this way in Japan are far more polite and respect social norms and expectations more than a person with a comparable appearance in the U.S. or Western Europe.

* Japanese people consider themselves superior to Koreans and distrust white people and black people as well as foreigners in general. All non-Japanese people are considered to be elevated crime risks.

* Japanese people in current and recent generations are much taller than Japanese people were in my parent's generation and are now within more or less the same range of heights as Americans and Europeans, although with fewer really high extremes.

* Smoking is more common and more acceptable for middle class and above people in Japan than in the U.S.

* The Japanese drive on the left side of the road.

* People in the Southern islands of the Japanese archipelago, like Okinawa, have a distinct Japanese accent who roughly corresponds to a "hick" or "country" accent in American English, and come across to people from one of Japan's big cities as country rubes to some extent. 

* Divorce is fairly rare in Japan and carries more of a stigma, but does not tend to involve a protracted and involved legal fight. Children in a Japanese divorce are typically assigned entirely to one parent or the other with  the other parent having no parental rights at all and typically almost no contact. Siblings are sometimes split between parties and completely separated from each other. Alimony doesn't really exist after the divorce process is over, but there are sometimes fairly modest child support payments. Japanese women who are unhappy in their marriages face strong peer, family and community social expectations pressure to suck it up and continue in the marriage in all but the most dire circumstances.

* Unmarried childless women in the workforce are treated fairly comparably to men, and there are a significant number of women (mostly unmarried and childless, but not entirely) in important managerial and professional positions in the work force. A more stereotypical career path for an upper middle class Japanese woman is to attend college, get a job as an "office lady" at a big firm which involves a mix of administrative/clerical and hospitality responsibilities while living either with parents or in an apartment (often with roommates), then dating and marrying, quitting the job and having kids and raising them for many years.

* Japanese full time jobs often involve substantial expectations of after work socializing with work colleagues.

* Most places in Japan have rather elaborate trash collection rules with different kinds of recycling and trash require to be sorted and placed in the appropriate receptacles at the right places at the right times.

* There isn't a lot of litter in most places in Japan by U.S. standards.

* Politeness and using the proper honorifics when talking with someone in Japan is a big deal. 

* There are a number of festivals that are a big deal in Japan including a cherry blossom festival, festivals specific to a particular local area, and activities in and around Golden Week. At night, a typical festival has long rows of stalls with games, trinkets, live fish, and street food on offer. Often women and not infrequently men as well, will wear traditional kimono style Japanese dress to a festival. Festivals frequently end with evening fireworks. Another activity during many festivals, especially around the Asian New Year, is to go to a shrine, and while there to offer prayers and hopes, and perhaps to have one's fortunes told.

* Access to guns in Japan is very had to get unless you are in the military or are in law enforcement.

* Residual organized crime Yakuza are still a thing that exists in Japan.

* The Japanese monarchy, which is largely symbolic, is widely popular and there is not much agitation to replace it with a pure Republic. 

* Christianity is known but uncommon and considered a bit odd although Christians are often seen as rather earnest. Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Zoroastrians (a.k.a. Parsis) are exceedingly rare to the point of basically being absent. Japanese life isn't particularly religious and includes a mishmash of Shinto (which has elements similar to Chinese folk religion and ancestor worship and animism), Buddhism, a touch of Taoism, and a heavy dose of Confucian personal and daily life values. Lots of people live fairly secular lives. Religious institutions aren't very monolithic or centralized.

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