What Does It Take to Be a Japanese?

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Koinobori or “carp steamer” are carp-shaped windsocks chosen to be the symbol of Children’s Day

The purpose of this post is multifold and I encourage you to look at it as if it was an origami model. Well-aware of the fact that Japan and its people are one-of-a-kind in so many ways, I find it virtually impossible to draw a definitive conclusion on why things are the way they are or why people behave the way they do. Regardless if our impressions originate from the mangas we have read, the history movies we have watched, the visits to Japan we have paid, or the Japanese food we have indulged in, we hold the unanimous view that Japanese are unlike any other nationality. What distinguishes them from the rest of the world is their Japanese way of thinking and behaving. Having said that, I invite you to join me on this ambitious journey of finding out how this intricate design, called Japan, was folded and how each fold has contributed towards the final sculpture.

I’ve meant to shed some (rising sun-)light on what the Japanese population gives particular importance to in their lives and what personal characteristics make them distinct from the rest of the world. As foreign teachers of Japanese children, we need to have an understanding of what it means to be a Japanese. Being very wary of what values and character traits Japanese care about the most, we need to emphasize and nurture these characteristics through our teaching as well as embody them as part of our role-modeling or teaching by example.

Understanding of how the Japanese society is sculpted by its culture can be of benefit to those seeking to incorporate elements of the Japanese culture within their teaching practices. The Japanese are renowned for their patience, perseverance, diligence, hard work and good manners which happen to be some of the most important personal qualities all dedicated teachers are trying hard to foster in their students.

The Importance of Nature

The character of the Japanese is greatly moulded by the reverence for nature, which forms the basis of Japan’s “native” belief system. Maintaining harmonious relationship with nature inevitably leads to living in harmony and gentle co-existence with others. Rice planting, tea picking, cherry blossom viewing, moon-viewing, flower arranging, listening to the songs of the insects are only some of all nature-related events that the entire nation regards with respect and takes great pleasure in observing or participating in. Back in the days, the time of early spring (Risshun), when nature begins its cycle, marked the beginning of the new year. Nowadays, with the onset of spring starts the new school year and learning begins to sprout. Compare this scenario with that of the West where schools re-open their doors at the end of summer – time of the year filled with melancholy and nostalgia.

Children’s natural fascination with nature and the Japanese pronounced appreciation of it, makes it easy for teachers to nurture a sense of wonder and awe of the natural world. From the myriad of Japanese songs related to natural phenomena to the planting, observing and documenting of the growth of the plants as they develop, Japanese children are educated through nature.

From an early age, Japanese commune with nature in festivals and rites to express their gratitude for its bounty. One such yearly event is the Yamagata Hanagasa festival with participants from kindergarten students to seniors. Through dancing, singing, and praying together for a fruitful harvest, local people experience a sense of unity while celebrating and appreciating nature. This reverence of nature is what helps hold the community together.

Japanese hold a profound awarenesses and appreciation of the beauty in nature. Throughout the year, the majority of Japanese, whether on their own or as part of a community, divert their attention from the trivial daily matters to the seasonal natural phenomena in an attempt to quiet and soften their hearts. Appreciation of nature brings peace to the heart of the Japanese which we will see later is another important aspect of their lives. Not only that but it also restores and inspires the mind, giving “birth” to creative thoughts and ideas.

Harmony and Peace

Regardless of their personal and professional matters, Japanese consider first and foremost the establishment and maintenance of harmony between the body and the mind and between the individual and society. Japanese are strictly committed to the principle of harmony as the foundation for their society.

They believe that individualism gives rise to envy and competition which in turn  affects inner and outer harmony. When under competition or pressure, it is so easy for us to give in to anger, jealousy, and selfishness. Therefore, mutual concern and cooperation are two of the major culturally-conditioned traits that are praised by the harmony-oriented Japanese. It dates back to the days when people were manually planting rice. The arduous task of replanting one seedling at a time from the nursery beds to the paddies required cooperation. This process came to symbolize mutual aid as the entire household would lend a hand and in some cases other nearby households as well.

Japan’s group socialization is one of the reasons why children cross the roads and travel to and back from school on their own without anything happening to them. In contrast, according to Harold Scrubs, representative of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, when Australians reach a school zone, a lot of people have one thing on their mind and that’s themselves. They do not care about anyone else and that is why Australian children are not safe to cross roads on their own until they are teenagers.

The sophisticated etiquette that governs all inter-personal relationships is another example of a means of establishing and maintaining harmony within the members of society. The qualities of harmony and peace cultivate in the Japanese positive mental attitude and habits towards others and life itself. When faced with an obstacle, Japanese remain calm, positive and hopeful.

The question inevitably arises about whether the pursuit of harmony and peace suppresses individualism and talent.

Way of Doing Things (Shi-kata)

In Japan, things are supposed to be done in a certain way as a means of maintaining harmony in society and the universe. Doing things the right way is equated with morality. From using chopsticks to disposing of garbage, there is “way of reading”, “way of eating”, “way of serving food”, “way of writing”, “way of thinking”, “way of living”, and of course “way of educating children” which I will touch upon in greater detail in one of my subsequent posts. This predetermined way of doing things not only serves as a link between the individual and society but it also ensures the harmonious coexistence of society’s activities with the natural environment. It keeps the individual in sync with the society and the world at large. Nevertheless, some would argue that by following the right way of doing things, Japanese people are robbed of their individuality and choice which leads to constrained thinking and limited creativity.

Patience and Effort

Patience, diligence, dedication, and effort have been the driving force for the sustained prosperity of Japan. These are some of the special traits and talents characteristic of the Japanese individual. The ultimate goal of Japanese education is for the pupil to strive hard, invest tremendous amount of effort, and remain patient in the face of hardship.

You will never get to see a Japanese lose his temper, raise his voice or engage in an argument (at least not in public). Japanese practice the art of speaking by talking and conversing gently and politely with others. They speak with real finesse. When they need to scold a student for their misbehavior, Japanese teachers make a great effort in faking anger and dissatisfaction.

Perfection

The desire for total perfection in their pursuits is what gives Japanese a competitive edge and helps them achieve utmost results. And here is the reason why Japanese are not constrained in terms of expressing their personal thoughts and exercising their creativity. In their strive for perfection, Japanese are expected to think creatively and come up with innovative solutions to problems (as it is evident from all revolutionary discoveries and inventions). Whether perfectionism is driving the nation forward or drowning it is another major concern.

All these cultural elements undoubtedly give rise to a myriad of implications for the education of children, including but not limited to lesson planning and execution. Let us take some time to reflect on these cultural nuances before getting onto the topic of education.

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