American and Foreign Culture
The world we live in can be considered as being a complex system of values and traditions, of customs, and national identities. The differences that lie at the basis of each of the world’s civilizations and cultures is what gives our society its sense of individuality but at the same time can be the reason of unpardonable mistakes which can offend the other’s sense of nationality and of traditional values. From this perspective, it is important to always be aware of the cultural differences and at the same time, of the similarities that parts and keeps us together. We tend to have different perceptions of ideas, of notions and concepts, of beliefs, even of colors and rituals. It is precisely such rifts that give our world a sense of diversity and makes cultural interaction an exciting and at the same time risky affair. Despite the possible difficulties we may come across when we come in contact with a different culture, the experience can prove to be worthy of the struggle and rewarding in terms of the personal experience one is likely to share with the others.
The American culture can be viewed as being practically international due to the widespread of the American symbols, of the impact and influence the American way of life has on the world. It represents for most societies the comparison point for prosperity and well being. However, despite the fact that most of the times the economic aspect tends to dominate the discussions on the way in which the American culture is perceived, there are other symbols as well which in fact define the core nature of the American traditions, customs, and in the end culture. However, these cannot be seen in their broadest expression but through a thorough comparison with another culture. The Japanese cultural environment in this sense is one of the most eloquent examples one can use to underline both the real identity of the American culture, as well as the diversity of the cultural environment of our global civilization.It has often been said that the era we live in is that of the informational revolution, in many views seen as the force that drives forward the century of information. In this environment, those who present the idea of the atomization of the national cultures and their integration in a global culture argue that the consumerist approach of our lives today has determined the fading away of our traditions and morals our ancestors valued.
However, a comparison between the American culture and the Japanese one may show a different point of view, one which tries to underline the differences that still exist and will continue to exist between the world’s major cultural spaces.First and foremost, the cultural perception on the world is important for establishing the way in which each country and cultural spaces see their place in the world. In this sense, it can be stated from the very beginning that the American people see themselves as being the promoters of democracy, of the individual values, of human rights and of the sense of being exceptional (Kissinger, 1995). Indeed, throughout the centuries this view was most of the times promoted through political means, especially if one takes into account the political work of US presidents Wilson or the political discourse of former President Reagan who engaged the US in a fight against the righteousness in the world represented at that time by the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the presidential perspective on politics also points out the actual view of the American people on their place in the world and on the importance of their values to the world. In this sense, the fact that the United States was often labeled as being a country of immigrants, gave the American people as a whole the sense of being the ultimate defenders of the individual, of the human being, to whom the Bill of Rights and the Constitution of the United States have guaranteed the respect of their individual and indivisible nature as humans. From this point of view, it can be said that the American people and the culture it created are based on this belief of being the promoters of justice and human equality.
Therefore, their actions in the world are the precise exemplification of this belief.By comparison, the Japanese perception of the world is strongly related to the way in which the Japanese perceive themselves. Due to their troubled history in their part of the world, their culture has developed somewhat isolated from the main stream of civilization and, up to the end of the Second World War their political tradition was based on the imperial structure. The importance the people gave to their status of empire even prevented the political leaders from Japan to sign the capitulation of Japan in the Second World War. This comes to point out the essential role the idea of empire played in the collective conscience of the people (Kissinger, 1995). Today, “Japan is a modern, thriving democracy, yet it retained a long and esteemed imperial tradition” (Japan 101, n.d.
). Therefore, in order to understand the Japanese culture, one must deeply take into account their consideration of the Japanese people as being unique and of noble descent.From the perspective these two cultures have on the world, and taking into account their totally different historical backgrounds, there are differences in their cultural perceptions that eventually lead to the conclusion on the diversity of nations around the world, and the importance knowing these differences has for establishing positive cultural contacts.Reducing the the American culture and the Japanese one to its mere individuals, it is rather interesting to see the differences. While the label of American can be attributed to a two generation Italian immigrant or a Puerto Rican, for the Japanese, “to be a Japanese is to be born of Japanese parents, to look Japanese, to speak the Japanese language, and to act Japanese- the full set” (Condon, 1983). Therefore, the national identity represents indeed an issue for the Japanese individual. Moreover, this attitude of the pureness of the race is visible even in their behavior as they are sometimes even confused by the fact that it is possible for ordinary US citizens to mistake them for Americans in an American city.
Therefore, they have a sense of superiority which makes them immune to the influence of others.In this sense, one will be surprised by the different views an American and a Japanese person have on personal interaction. The American tourist or even the regular New Yorker finds it very easily to interact with people around him and it can be said that the personal space between people in America is much more reduced. On the other hand, the Japanese are rather reluctant to interact with foreigners in particular. It is not necessarily the matter of being a stranger in their country, but the fact that you are not Japanese.In terms of the space they live in, Americans and the Japanese may seem to share the same environmental space at a first glance. In this sense, “to most short-term Western visitors of Japan, Japanese cities, and most especially Tokyo, seem profoundly Westernized or, more precisely, Americanized.
Indeed, in many respects Japanese cities are as modern as their counterparts in the United States or anywhere else in the First World and carry most attributes of a highly developed contemporary urban culture. Japan is not only one of the most urbanized countries, but also one of the most advanced consumer societies, with cities offering the same high-quality products, facilities, and services as in New York, Chicago, London, or Paris” (Fehrenbach, 2000, 45). However, despite the fact that their capital is an architectonic wonder, it is combined with ancient temples and worship sites. Therefore, from this point of view it can be said that the landscape of the country is a clear mirror of the Japanese people: a combination of new with old, of modernity with traditions.The family represents an essential part in the structure of the society. The traditional American family is based on promoting values inside the family, such as fairness, honesty, moral integrity (American Family Traditions, 2007). On the other hand, however, the Japanese family is based more on the issue of moral integrity and personal fairness.
This is an important aspect that runs in the family education in Japan. They put such an important accent on the idea of honor, that they are willing, without any remorse, to put an end to their life if they feel they are not integrated in the society or if they feel they did not raise to the standards imposed by that society. Thus, “in the feudal Japan for example, samurais killed themselves fueled by honor reasons. It was known as seppuku or hara-kiri, a method used to punish dishonor by ending their own life. It was thought by the samurai that staying alive represented a dishonor to their family after a humiliating loss in battle” (Velastegui, n.d.).
Therefore, honor in the Japanese society is very important. This is one of the reasons for which the relationships inside the family are considered to be more distant than in other societies, for instance the US. The pressures of the society are seen in the environment of the family where children are expected to be educated, and applied in their studies. Otherwise, they are considered to be a shame for the family.Related to the issue of honor and suicide is the aspect of death. In the American society one can easily see the Christina influence and the adherence to the European beliefs related to the elderly and their role and place in the society. On the one hand death is seen in the American society as a moment of grief and sorrow, where people part and never see each other, “in Japanese culture, the concept of death with dignity focuses on enhancing the relationship with significant others (especially with family members) and is expected to continue even after death, unlike the autonomous decision making in Western cultures.
Deaths in such relationships are self-worthy, majestic and wished for” (Nakagawa, 1995). Therefore, death is not seen as a tragic event, more as a step in a wider process of the existence of the human being.Related to the elderly, here too there is a sense of influence of the cultural backgrounds of the civilizations. In this sense, the European culture, the descendents of the American one, has a greater respect for the elders, because they consider old age as being the final step of the life. By contrast the Japanese think of old age as just a step in one’s existence. Moreover, there is the issue of not being considered vulnerable. From this perspective, old age may be considered vulnerability and the Japanese will not accept any help as they see they might show any sign of suffering.
Aside from issues that relate to cultural aspects, there are practical notions that keep to the idea of the physical contact between people. Firstly, the way people eat. Americans generally eat lunches or dinners in restaurants, while the Japanese tend to eat out in the evening in particular. While the Americans eat a variety of foods, from what is today consider being junk food or fast food, the Japanese eat rice and traditional Japanese meals in particular. However, there are habits concerning dinners in a Japanese family. Thus, “It is customary in Japan for hosts to insist on their guests’ taking more. It is a Japanese custom to finish all the food on the dinner table.
Japanese usually have beautiful manners only when foreigners are watching”. (Asia Recipe.com,n.d.) Also, the habit of dining out also points out the relationship between males and females in the society. In this sense, “Japanese diner-outs are almost exclusively male” (Asia Recipe.com, n.
d). This distinction is one of the reasons for which Japanese family had the tendency to break apart. However, at the moment there is the trend of increasing the shared responsibility in the family. Thus, both men and women work, both try to cater for the needs of the children. However, this situation is seen particularly in young couples, and less in traditional mature marriages.The colors are also essential to point out the identity of each of these two cultures. The American culture considers black as a sign of sorrow, and white as a sign of purity and is traditionally worn at weddings.
Yellow usually stands for optimism, while red signifies passion and love. By comparison, in the Japanese culture, “red and white are good luck colors” (Japanese Traditional and Ceremonial Colors, 2001). They are used for festive occasions such as births and weddings. However, black is also the traditional color wore to funerals.Finally, there are certain elements which constitute the specificities of the cultural framework of a nation. In this sense, for instance, gestures have a particular meaning. For the Americans, “thumbs up” means that everything is all right; a wave of the hand suggests “hello”.
For the Japanese, only the young generation tends to recognize them as being universally accepted. The sitting on the tetami is essential for the way in which a westerner behaves in Japan. A similar sign to waving is “the Japanese beckon (…) a waving motion with the palm down and the hand flapping up and down at the wrist. Westerners may confuse this with a wave and not realize they are being beckoned.
Although this gesture (temaneki) is used by both men and women and all age groups, it is considered rude to beckon a superior this way” (Abe, n.d.). This view also indicates the fact that seniority is an essential issue in the Japanese society and work place. Thus, while in America we may find superiors who are younger than subalterns, in Japan, such things never occur. Although the criteria of performance are important, seniority is more important.Overall, it can be said that taking into account this parallel, the two cultures are by far one of the most different of all.
However, precisely their difference shows the diversity of our world and the endless possibilities for discoveries.
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