As I mentioned in my previous piece (published on Nov 29th), it is unreasonable to expect all Japanese to be aware of all aspects of Japanese culture. One reason behind this lack of awareness lies in the system of postwar education. Due to the Second World War Japan chose to abandon so much that could remind us of both wartime and prewar days and in today's information technology driven society, influenced to such a great extent by attractive and exciting forms of Western culture, your average Japanese has absorbed so much so blindly that they have become detached from their own background and culture.
Of course, it is not a scenario confined only to Japanese shores as all around the world that deemed inefficient from the viewpoint of Western society and culture continues to fall foul of those chasing high-growth and enhanced levels of production.
In addition, and of particular regret, many Japanese have recently started to see their history and culture as something of a burden on the road to increasing globalization. Such attitudes will, over time leave Japanese without a sense of the 'Japanese spirit' of old and such concepts of 'kindness' as it is fostered in Japan is being lost at the cost of weakening the very foundations of the country.
'Kokka-no-Hinkaku' (The Dignity of the State) by Masahiko Fujiwara hit bookstores last year and in the months since has proven to be a best-seller.
Fujiwara is a mathematician by trade and has behind him a great deal of experience living overseas.|
In his book, he focuses on the Japanese language system of education and the need to teach emotions as being more important for Japanese than education in foreign languages when considering what goes into producing internationally minded individuals; basing it on his own experiences and belief that "even if a person is proficient in a given language, if he / she is not rooted as a human being, he / she will never become a benefit to global society."
Evidence of this chain of thought lies in the large number of Japanese embarrassed when unable to answer questions on Japan asked by non-Japanese while studying or working overseas or even in Japan - not a problem that comes about as the result of a lack of foreign language ability that would help explain, but rather because they do not know their own nation well enough to respond confidently.
The most crucial problem facing Japan today, however, is not Japanese ignorance and indifference toward their own country - it is the spreading and establishment of misinformation on Japan to be found overseas. Indeed, if non-Japanese readers of this column ask Japanese friends and co-workers questions about Japan, I would personally doubt some of the answers you may receive. A case in point: small cases named 'inro' were never used as 'inkan' (small sticks used to press upon paper a personal seal when conducting business) cases or as a form of identification but were rather fashionable pill cases hung from the waistband of well to do men during the Edo and Meiji eras. This is the most crucial problem.
With the passing decades, the Japanese have mislaid, forgotten even the concept of 'shame' while at the same time being content to spend more time and effort on 'keeping up appearances' and the rote repetition of stereotype answers to questions by foreign nationals.
Such attitudes and responses by Japanese can and do leave non-Japanese confused. If Japanese do not know about a particular aspect of their own nation they should simply say "I don't know." The courage to do so is the first step on the path to being properly recognized as a human being - the humble acceptance that not knowing gives them the chance to study such a void.
The weak and cowardly attitudes of the Japanese unable to respond with confidence when asked about their own nation is the reason many foreign residents and visitors misunderstand Japan.
Our new Prime Minister's personal policy slogan is 'Beautiful Country' but what is the definition of 'a country'? It does not mean a domain, an organization or even a system. 'Country' means each person's feeling toward the history and culture of his / her place of origin - in other words; the sense of being a member of a given locale in one's own mind. The word 'beautiful' therefore depicts perfectly the mindset of the Japanese.
Japanese people have long coexisted with nature, as well as possessing a healthy fear and respect for it. It is in this same way Japanese respect others - with compassion and feeling. Such an outlook on life is sometimes criticized as being fuzzy and unclear but the real Japanese are far from ambiguous and far from fuzzy. If anything, such an outlook, part and parcel of Japanese DNA that aims to coexist without conflict, would serve the world well at the start of the chaotic 21st century.
This is the second of three pieces Mr. Kurihara will contribute to the International Herald Tribune. Look for the next article by the same writer on January 5th. (to be decided)