What is national character, and how does it differ from custom, manners and fashion? People talk about “the Japanese” as if referring to a nationality with an immutable quality that has existed and will continue to exist throughout the ages; and yet, Japan and the Japanese of the past are so different from what we see here now. Or are they?
In the summer of 1980, I spent a couple of days with a senior editor at a large Japanese publishing house that was bringing out my novel, “The Death of Urashima Taro.” We were going over the manuscript by day and discussing Japanese literature and life by night.
“How do you think Japan will change in the 1980s and after?” I asked him.
“Oh, I’m sure there will be lots of changes,” he said. “But however much Japan changes, one thing will remain the same forever.”
“Forever is a long time,” I observed. “What is that thing?”
“We’re not like you. We don’t show affection in public. You will never see Japanese people kissing in front of other people. Never.”
It’s absolutely true that displays of affection, particularly physical ones, are not in the Japanese grain. The Japanese are not a tactile people. But it is also true that no nation of people clings to every ethnic trait forever. National stereotypes remain long after their basis in fact has vanished. You never know when the Japanese might become at least as touchy-feely as the “reserved” British.
What about my editor’s faith in public Japanese discretion?
Well, in the mid-’90s, long after my discussion with the editor, I lived in a house in a northern suburb of Kyoto, on the bank of the Kamo River. I sometimes walked along the bank at night. On the embankment, where it was rather dark, there was invariably a row of parked cars.
On one of my first walks, I was given a fright. The cars were rocking back and forth and I thought, “Oh no! This is the big one.” I rushed home to see if the earthquake had done any damage to our rented home.
Of course, it wasn’t an earthquake at all; it was couples inside making the cars shake and rattle, if not roll. The earth may not have been moving for everyone that night, but it was moving for quite a few other people beside the Kamo River.
A daggers-drawn stare
Some months later, on a daytime stroll along the river, passing by crowds of picnickers, I noticed a young couple. He was lying on his back on a picnic blanket and she was kneeling beside him, fondling him intimately from the outside of his pants. No one was paying much attention to them — and I didn’t realize that I myself had become transfixed by this “un-Japanese” behavior.
The young woman suddenly threw me a daggers-drawn stare, and I shook my head, blurting out (in Japanese), “No, I’m, uh, just studying Japanese culture.”
I have said some stupid things in my life, but that may have taken the cake.
The list of what might be called traditions, customs, manners and fashion that have undergone extreme change in the past 150 years in Japan could render any discussion of national character mute.
The cherry blossom tree stands at the metaphorical center of Japanese aesthetic thinking: its beauty is sublime and evanescent. But in the early Meiji Era, spanning roughly the last three decades of the 19th century, when the country was going through a period of rejecting traditional values, most of the cherry blossom trees in Japan were cut down for furniture or firewood.
Similarly, until the end of World War II the kimono had been a steadfast symbol of Japanese life. After the war, people bartered their precious kimono for black-market rice, charcoal, cigarettes, etc.; and its place of importance in Japanese culture and fashion today is minimal.
In the 1960s I never once saw a Japanese person eating while walking or riding in a subway car. At that time, to do so was considered the height of impropriety. Now it is not a rare sight at all. Equally, at that time people almost never held hands in public; mothers wouldn’t be caught dead wearing sunglasses when picking up their children from school; men denigrated their wives in public, thinking it quite the done thing.
All of this social behavior adds up to national traits, giving a people definition of themselves and to others. Is this a surface phenomenon? Are these the sorts of things that fluctuate with time in any country, quite apart from the profound qualities that go to characterize a nation?
Japanese has a wonderful word for the deep-seated nature of people. It is fudo. The fu is the same kanji as kaze (wind), and the do is tsuchi (earth); and fudo most commonly means “climate.” This word goes way back to the “Manyoshu,” the eighth-century anthology of poetry. It ties the traits of a people, in this case the Japanese people, to the elements of nature. There is the expression fudo ni nareru; the closest English equivalent is probably “to become acclimatized [to a place].” In other words, the climate of a country can refer not only to the weather and elements, but also to the spiritual and practical conventions of its people.
Ethical and economic reconstruction
And this, perhaps, is where the discussion of rocking cars, holding hands and eating on the subway breaks down. My editor was wrong in two ways. For one thing, the Japanese now do show emotions in public much more than they used to. For another, there is hardly a custom or tradition that is truly immutable. Everything in a culture is up for grabs, and future generations grab whatever they need to cope with the situations confronting them.
But national character, or at least the core of it, persists. And it is this persistence that carries a nation through hardship, such as the postwar period of ethical and economic reconstruction here.
Japan is presently at sea — far out to sea. Young people have few role models within Japan to guide them; the welfare of old people is being abandoned by the government. The country looks to Americans for leadership and ends up standing alongside them, up to the neck in the quicksands of Iraq. The country looks to Asia and finds little but bitter hostility and mistrust.
So what is it in the Japanese character that can serve to help Japanese people through this muddle both at home and beyond?
I think, perhaps, one answer lies in the word “civility.” The Japanese social contract is not really based on legalities, as it is in the West. Rather, it is ensconced in the silent code of ethical civility that virtually all Japanese people share: that it is wrong to cause trouble (in the sense of meiwaku, meaning “annoyance”) to others; that it is right to act properly, non-aggressively and decently, at least in public.
It is this, more than anything, that governs public behavior. If Japanese people start doing something they haven’t done before, like holding hands in public (even old couples), or cease to do something once thought acceptable, like a husband acting in a condescending manner toward his wife in public, then this is because the rules of civility have changed.
But the civility itself remains rock solid. In this, Japan may not be unique. But there are not many countries whose people act civilly and unaggressively toward each other as a matter of natural course, as part of the elemental climate of the nation.
If this ever changes, then the core of the Japanese national character will have shattered — leaving nothing of the fudo but, literally, wind and earth.
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