Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Pharyngulated myself

I'll admit it, I sent PZ an e-mail with a link to my Christmas in Japan blog entry. I thought he would get a kick out of the juxtaposition of the US's "War on Christmas" meme (thanks to FoxNews) against the non-religious pseudo-Western Christmas in Japan. Although he didn't write more than just a few words, he did post the video and a hat-tip link to my blog... and my Sitemeter ticker shot through the roof.
Just so everyone understands this - I got more traffit in one day than I normally do in one month!

However, this entry isn't about that, but about me looking at the commentary that came through on PZ's blog about this video as well as the metacommentary (the comments on the comments). These fell into three broad categories:
  1. "Wow that's a wierd/cool/neat/interesting video!"
  2. "I'm in Japan! This is exactly what it is like here!"
  3. Comments about whether this (or Japan in general) is weird/bigoted/sexist/etc.
    • from a stereotype reference-point
    • against a stereotype reference-point
In the first category, we have comment #33:
The Japanese have a gleeful fascination with American traditions. It was thus even before World War II, and got even more so after. Given the opportunity, they will celebrate life unlike most any other people in the world. We would do well to emulate them.
or #70 (which - like some others - is also a commentary about Japan)
Cute video, but we all might want to think twice before dismissing certain ethnic groups as "weird," even jokingly. It's also probably not very wise to form our opinion of entire cultures based around the creepy porn we downlo... err, that one of our friends saw once.
or #87, which carries some traditional (although slightly back-handed, imho) leaf-turning New Year's sentiments:
Yah know, 63 years ago, we hated these peoples guts, and with good reason. Now we're all singing together. My new year wish is that it doesn't take 63 years until we're singing something equally silly and fun with the people of the middle east - and beyond.
I can only send out this message of hope to the world and try to live it every day.
or #98, which is a straight-up commentary on the video:
More holiday stormtrooper, please.
In the second category, we have commentary #5:
yep, this is what my christmas is like this year. i've already seen a gigantic christmas tree with a full-scale light-up crucifix on top. from the description my japanese friends gave me, japanese christmas is almost exactly like a more extravagant version of valentines day.
on the other hand, new year is generally more significant, and more like the family-orientated western christmas.
or commentary #65 which describes the fleeting quality of Japanese Christmases:
There's two great things about christmas here in Japan: it's pure essence of schlocky commercialism, undiluted by any religious meaning to ruin the fun; and the morning of the 26th there is no trace of the holiday whatsoever.
Really - you walk down Shinsaibashi shopping street on the night of the 25th and there's big, gaudy christmas decorations everywhere, christmas-themed shop windows, christmas music, christmas billboards and commercials. The next morning it's all gone, replaced by the symbols and music (and commercials) of traditional New Year celebration. From bossanova versions of "RUdolf the red-nosed reindeer" to Koto music - it's enough to get cultural whiplash unless you're careful.
Commentary in this category led to some "Pharyngulites" trying to figure out whether they should have a meet-up in Japan, like comment #24. (Oooh, I like it when I act as a social catalyst! Who knew that I might be able to be one for a group of people I never met?)
So, how many Pharungulites are in Japan? I take it [#14] is, so that makes at least two of us. We should organise a meetup.
and in response:
I'd be interested. We would need a neutral site to share contact information / organize. Something like I can't imagine there are too many of us but maybe if we reach critical mass we can have semi-regular events. I'm in Tokyo, btw. Nerima to further narrow that down geographically.
Debito is a pretty interesting character and his site is a good general resource for foreigners living in Japan. A somewhat depressing (at times infuriating) site, but highly recommended.
and another:
One more here, but in Sendai.
I will, however, be in Tokyo in Early April and late May, also in Nagoya and Osaka in March.
Of course, it is possible to shoot down to Tokyo almost any weekend - it's not so far.
If someone is organizing...
There were several other responses, ranging from, "That would be awesome!" to "I would love to, but I can't, because the cost of travel/my income/etc. would not allow me to do so..." However, if some of these people do get together, then a Pharynguloid Christmas-in-Japan party was done, thanks to little ole me!

In the third category, we have commentary from #1:
^Picture is very relevant to the topic under discussion.
Japan is ... weird.
Not always in a bad way, they have some good food, music, movies, etc... But they're very frequently very weird.
or commentary #2 - an immediate response to the accusation of "wierdness"
Who do you mean by "they", [#1]? People like me?!
which requried a response post in the commentary #4 position:
[#2], if you had a hand in the making of some of the music film television and such that I've watched(and frequently enjoyed) from Japan, then yes, you :P
I'll hasten to add that I don't think that weird is a bad thing, it just means something unusual. People with genius level IQ are weird. People who are over 200 cm tall are weird. And the people who make certain manga? REALLY weird.
See? "Hey, it's weird!" "If that's weird, you are calling me weird! Are you calling me weird?" "Not unless you are weird, but I consider lots of things as weird!"

Some of the responses questioning Japanese weirdness vis-a-vis American weirdness were in Japanese (written by Americans):
loose translation -- I also live in Kobe. I have spoken intermediate Japanese [sic] for 15 years. By the way, do you think Japanese are weird? In America, Whoopie Goldberg's "The View" is a big hit! Don't you think that [show's] weird?
There were also comments about whether Japan was a racist country:
More "naive" than "racist" in many cases - foreigners are exotic (and by extension, dangerous (and this is a prejudice not without some justification, their murder rate is two orders of magnitude lower than the US)).
I can't speak for accuracy of the source (it seems fairly recent) but according to this site Japan's murder rate per capita is an order of a magnitude lower than the U.S.
I would wager that the low murder rate has nothing to do with Japan's largely homogeneous society but more to do with the lack of firearms.
Th average Japanese person, much like the average American, is not an over racist or card carrying member of the KKK / Japanese ultra-right equivalent. I wouldn't characterize Japanese people as extremely racist, but there is a fair amount of institutionalized racism and xenophobia in Japan.
Don't take my word for it:
Japan has a nation has a less than stellar record in this arena.
Japan would be a great place if it weren't for the racism and sexism.
What takes the cake in terms of comment length and depth (and personal agreement) is #108:
Re the comment: "And that the Japanese, who seem to be effortlessly combining bits and pieces of shintoism and buddhism, would add a little western x-mas kitsch to the mix - that too would seem [weird]."
That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. We have people in Japan taking native traditions from Shinto - a pretty mundane and harmless religion, as those things go - and later adopting some traditions of Buddhism, a religion that famously fits very comfortably with other faiths. Then in modern days, residents of Japan see all that nifty stuff about Santa and Xmas trees and presents, and decide to join in on the fun - just the easy secular bits, not the difficult religious stuff. The kind of Xmas that I, an atheist, gleefully enjoy myself.
Sounds simple enough to me. Yet I'm constantly told that this this is "strange" and "weird" and even, according to some, "boggling to the Western mind".
Meanwhile, what about religious traditions in "the West"? Well, let's look at Christmas itself:
The holiest day of Christianity celebrates the birth of a Jew who added new teachings to traditional Jewish ones. The holiday actually originated in pre-Christian pagan winter solstice celebrations, borrowed its date from an ancient Roman sun-worship festival, picked up Germanic and Scandinavian pagan elements like trees, wreaths, and "Yuletide", and is jam-packed with things like Santa and reindeer and presents and blowout sales that have no connection to Christ/God whatsoever. (Trivia: This year, Christmas falls on a day named in English after the Norse god of thunder.)
This "Western" mish-mash is arbitrarily labeled as _not_ weird. Why? The best reason I can come up with: Because it's much more fun to say that the foreigners are doing weird, inscrutable things.
Or take another comment, "Japan is rather conformist and collectivist". Well, nothing wrong with that as a casual opinion, but is it factual? What are the definitions, and how do we measure? Is the rest of the world _not_ conformist and collectivist? How about the amazing groupthink regarding religion in the US, which makes Christian identity a practical requirement for public office? Is that not conformist? If not, why?
And so on. I've been inspired by "rationalist" sites like Pharyngula to blog about "cultural comparison" ( ). Like faith and superstition, it's a field just packed with irrational thinking: confirmation bias, correlation/causation confusion, received knowledge, and so on.
Granted, these "cultural difference" claims are mostly quite harmless, and pretty trivial compared to the havoc wreaked on the world by religion's sloppy thinking. But as an exercise in critical thinking, if nothing else, I find it interesting to look at "cultural comparison" through a skeptical lens.

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