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Are the Japanese basically the same as Americans?
Okay, it is a rhetorical question, since we know the answer is both "yes" and "no". But this favorite topic of conversation about "us" and "them" (no matter who the "us" and "them" happen to be) brings out fundamental differences about how people understand culture and humanity:
1. "It's a small world after all".Sure, there are cultural differences, but we're all human beings, with the same fundamental needs and feelings (universalism).
2. It's a global culture out there.Today the basic features of modern urban life in wealthy countries are similar around the world. Increasingly, both the US and Japan are part of a global culture--we work for international corporations, we buy products sold to countries around the world, we watch the same media, study the same subjects in school, do the same things in our leisure time (globalization).
3. The paths of industrialization and modernization lead to similar results everywhere:The insitutional and social changes that Japan blames on Western influence is really just the consequences of industrialization (modernization, convergence theory).
4. Japan has westernized.Japan used to be vastly different from the West, but the economic and political power of the West have made western cultural influence pervasive and unavoidable, despite Japanese people's ongoing concern about keeping their own traditions and perspectives. Everyone has to learn English. Everyone sees American TV and films. (westernization)
5. The Japanese are unique.As a homogeneous island people, Japanese culture is more cohesive and developed than other peoples'. They share a language, a history, racial similarity, and cultural patterns that makes it difficult for foreigners to understand or be part of the society, or for Japanese to feel comfortable outside their country (essentialism, relativism, Nihonjinron).
Personally, I vote for thinking in terms of hybrids and contradictions. In some ways, Japan is and will continue to be, distinctive in its culture and its social structure. In other ways, Japan and the US look like each other in terms of attitudes, practices, daily life, the organization of politics and economy.
In yet other situations, Japanese and Americans (and others) are creating new cultural and social forms, cutting and pasting pieces to suit their own local contexts, but also exporting and importing those new hybrids to each other. Is a California Roll an American adaptation of a Japanese cultural practice? Or is it a new kind of sushi, that Japanese in their eagerness for novelty and gourmet foods consider "real" Japanese food? And when the Germans eat one, will they think they are eating an American food or a Japanese one?
The contradictions come in when we realize that in large societies, different groups of people will have different beliefs and behaviors. Even one person will act culturally one way in setting X and another in setting Y. We are capable of behaving in contradictory ways, which only adds to the confusion and creativity of the hybridization, globalization, and domestication processes.
In any case, the differences, similarities, contradictions, and intermixings are fertile ground for anyone who continues to participate in US and Japan intersections.