Wakonyōsai (和魂洋才, the soul of a Japanese and the talents of a Westerner)” was a phrase once used to describe the ideal of the modern, enlightened Japanese. This perfect person supposedly combined the knowledge, logic and open-mindedness of the West with the principled restraint, sense of honor and stoicism of the Japanese samurai. The concept went out with the surrender in World War II, and in its place emerged the embracing of all things Western. But wakonyōsai has made an inconspicuous comeback in recent years.

The arasā (アラサー, around 30) generation, unencumbered by the seiyōsūhai (西洋崇拝, worship of the West) that plagued their parents and grandparents — have recognized the value of Japanese culture and aesthetics while at the same time being firmly entrenched in the Western lifestyle they’ve known since birth.

“Nihonjin wa kakkoii yo (Japanese people are cool),” says my wakonyōsai friend Jinpachi, who has traversed the world with little more than a sanshin (三線, Okinawan banjo-like instrument) strapped to his back and his passport stashed in a pocket of his cargo pants. In praise of himself and his fellow shinsedai (新世代, new generation) Japanese, he always says: “Oretachi wa Nihonjin ni mo gaijin ni mo narete jiyūjizai (俺たちは日本人にも外人にもなれて自由自在, We’re free to be both Japanese and gaijin [foreign]).”

For a long time, this sort of freedom was strictly off limits. As recently as 20 years ago, the Japanese in Japan were expected to adhere to a behavioral rule book — invisible but solidly concrete and almost impossible to defy. The taboos ranged from the mundane (arukigui, 歩き食い, eating on the street) to conversational topics (income, educational background and family information).

Atarisawarinai (あたりさわりない, inoffensiveness) was the national standard. There was a pecking order to every sort of relationship, and talking to someone older — even a year older — meant one had to talk in keigo (敬語, a polite and reverential way of speaking).

As for women, the rules doubled for those in toshibu (都市部, cities) and quadrupled in the inaka (田舎, countryside). Being a woman in the inaka meant having to watch one’s step 24/7 — the closely knit community of shinseki (親戚, relatives) and elders refused to leave her alone. If she were not married by age 28, she was labeled ikiokure (いき遅れ, too late for marriage). If she did become a yome (嫁, a wife tied to her husband, his parents and their house), then she had better breed soon after (generally within three years), for a childless woman was called umazume (石女, stone woman) and was often forced to divorce. For such a person to go back and forth between Japanese and gaijin values and expect people to accept him or her for it was arienai (あり得ない, unthinkable)!

Now, of course, the winds of kajyuaru (カジュアル, casual) blow in the remotest areas of our island nation. What had been arienai two decades ago is atarimae (当たり前, matter of course) as the barriers of language and behavior are demolished in the name of kokusaika (国際化, internationalization) and the latest favorite social phrase, gurōbaru na shiten (グローバルな視点, a global viewpoint).”

Japanese have realized that to cut it in the global community, one must think and act accordingly, though with less emphasis on conversational skills than on behavior and state of mind. Consequently, they’ve become friendlier, more open to new ideas, flexible and logical. On the other hand, they’re far less polite, reverent or restrained. It’s said that there’s no such thing anymore as a jyunsuina Nihonjin (純粋な日本人, pure Japanese) and that, to varying degrees, we’ve become gaijin blends — but with knowledge and appreciation for Japanese culture: Nihontsū (日本通, Japanophiles) in our own country.

The first Japanese to make the shift to gaijin mode was probably 16th-century warlord Oda Nobunaga, who consorted with Jesuit missionaries, declared war on Buddhist monks and built the nation’s first iron battleship and a legendary castle that impressed the pope in Rome. He had the sharp, logical intellect of the Westerner and was one of the very first Japanese to understand that the earth was round. Understandably, Oda abhorred conventions and tradition, and he declared that the Japanese were plagued with their own boring insistence on being Japanese. But, at the core, he was a samurai, and he committed seppuku (切腹, ritual suicide by slitting the stomach) at the age of 49 after being betrayed by a trusted underling. He never left Japan.

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