Bebe Taian: January 2012

January 30, 2012

Mannered Mondays: Higengo Komyunikeishon

Higengo Komyunikeishon (Nonverbal Communication)

This post is typed verbatim from Keys to the Japanese Heart + Soul, an excerpt from Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia with authors' notes at the bottom.

In the highly homogenous society of Japan, consciously learned and unconsciously absorbed etiquette and gestures account for a significant portion of the communication between individuals. Functioning as nonverbal cues, they set the context for verbal communication. Across a broad range of human relationships, beginning with that implied by the shared culture of Japan and extending to that of members of a profession, workplace, or family, essential information for the interpretation of a conversation is supplied by the silences and ellipses that link individual utterances.

Inculcation of silence as a means of communication begins with the relationship of mother and child. Japanese mothers place great importance on nonverbal communication with their children and foster the virtue of sunao*1 (uprightness; compliance). In the larger social framework, complex and interacting behavioural patterns such as the concepts of on*2 (favour; indebtedness) and giri*3 (obligation to act according to the principles of society in relation to other persons) condition communication between individuals. The social convention of avoiding of confrontation, manifested in the radical bifurcation of public and personal opinion, encourages silence or even concurrence in opinions contrary to one's true feelings. Silence concerning a matter may even convey concern about it, and apparently blithe remarks, deep feeling. Silences during a conversation are often felt to be a pleasant interval during which a shared atmosphere is savoured.

In Japan, the bow (ojigi), serves the same purpose as a handshake, but it can also, depending on its depth, signify a hierarchy between two or more persons. The smile, besides displaying pleasure, is also used to hide feelings of antagonism or deep unhappiness. Eye contact during a conversation is much less frequent than in Western countries, and if excessive, may be construed as threatening.

*1, sunao (defined according to pg. 109, Keys to the Japanese Heart + Soul.)
*2, on (pg. 65, "")
*3, giri (pg. 89, "")

Previously: Honne to Tatemae
Next: On, A Sense of Indebtedness

January 23, 2012

Mannered Mondays: Honne to Tatemae

Honne to tatemae, the inner thoughts and outer face. Knowing the difference is crucial in Japan.

Because of the vertical society structure, certain behaviours are expected of one depending on your rank in life. This is true no matter where you are; the difference is the extent to which these ideas are carried out. 'Tatemae' described how you are appropriately expected to think, feel, and act, according to your surroundings, whether it be your job, a chance meeting with an old classmate or neighbour, or even in a car accident. In French terms, a facade. 'Honne' is what you actually think, feel, or want to do. Clearly, these things do not always match up.

While the divide may be great, it is a cultural necessity to make an attempt at exquisite manners, regardless of what is happening, to ensure a social 'smoothness' on an island with such an enormously dense population and few natural resources. Co-operation and forming tight alliances is of utmost importance in this kind of place.

However, this presents some challenges to the individual. A person must be taught early to not completely sacrifice oneself to the whims of a group (see the Abilene paradox), and to follow their ambitions- while simultaneously interacting with the group in the socially prescribed manner. Or think of it this way: a guest has come to stay with you. You find more and more that this guest is offensive, and yet, social etiquette requires you to offer hospitality. Word gets around fast, and you know that simply throwing this person out will reflect badly on you. You don't want them to stay, so instead of telling them it's impossible, you offer excessive hospitality in the hopes that they will see how much trouble it is for you to play host to them, and therefore, they will leave.

This can make it impossible to know what someone else is thinking, what their motives are. Perhaps this is made an easier task when you know more about the other person: who they are affiliated with, what they stand to gain or lose by doing any one thing, how much to trust the person, etc.

Today, there is much debate as to whether or not concepts of honne and tatemae are uniquely Japanese. The terms are tied to the concept of nihonjinron, the idea that the Japanese are a completely distinct people with ideas completely foreign and incomprehensible to outsiders, coming from hundreds of years of social isolation, the enforcement of completely foreign (and in some cases, repulsive and/or destructive) ideas from Western outsiders, followed by decades of war under an Emperor who believed that he was a god on Earth. At best, nihonjinron represents cultural pride in their truly unique contributions to society at large. At worst, it manifests as a form of outright racism towards anyone not born Japanese from Japanese parents and grandparents and so forth who were born and grew up in Japan.

On one side, honne and tatemae are perhaps not seen in such extreme degrees in other countries; perhaps then, they deserve to be classified as culturally unique concepts. However, as previously stated, we too have our actions vs. inner thoughts- the difference is the lengths that we will go to in order to express our true desires and intentions. In that case, the idea of thinking one thing and doing another is not entirely foreign, and indeed, once given a basic understanding of the framework of how Japanese society developed and functioned over hundreds of years, perhaps one could easily see why there is so much pressure on a person to outwardly conform.

Previously: Nihonjinron (Discussions of the Japanese)
Next: Higengo Komyunikeishon (Nonverbal Communication)

Happy Year of the Dragon!

So, I've been here 24 years. Technically, according to the old Chinese system (which once counted the 10 months in the womb to be the first year), 25 years. I was born when rabbits become dragons. I guess I fit the bill. A love for the finer things, generally a peacemaker, but business oriented and cutthroat if someone impinges on my free will or desires.

I have the perfect new obi. A hot pink, black, and metallic gold dragon Nagoya obi. I had the hardest time figuring out what to wear with it because pink is not my usual colour. I only just remembered that I have a black summer kimono which I think is technically not mofuku, due to the thin silver threads in some sections. Even so, with the right collar and some tall boots, I think it would work. As short as it is on me, I can probably tie it so that it is knee-length, and wear the Nagoya obi in a variation of the otaiko. I'm so excited about this one!

Today marks the Year of the Dragon. Once, this was the beginning of the year in Japan (technically, depending on how the calender fell, there would be two New Years- the turning of the date on the lunar cycle, and the solar new year, Setsubun).

This day is also the first day of 'Mutsuki'. Mutsuki means 'month of affection', a meaning close to 'being in harmony' or 'being on friendly terms'. It is a day when friends go to visit each other, when family gets together, etc. Today, I think Mutsuki is now considered to be aligned with January 1st, but traditionally, this is the day. The name 'mutsuki' is still understood, but is no longer used except for in greeting cards and such. New Years' Day as it is celebrated today was introduced in 1948, although the Gregorian calender has been adopted in Japan since the late 1800s, during the Meiji era.

This month is the end beginning of bamboo changing to the plum blossoms of February. Think deep greens and white, becoming royal purples, reds, and white. For older women, perhaps more muted colours, such as pinks and dusty purples. Clothing is lined throughout the season, and tabi are generally worn. Break out your favourite seasonal kimono!

Happy New Year (again), everyone!

January 16, 2012

Mannered Mondays: Nihonjinron

Nihonjinron literally means "discussions of things Japanese", referring to ideas, practices, or other miscellanea which is unique to the Japanese people. Because of Japan's long history of isolation from other cultures, the Japanese people developed idiosyncrasies and habits which are very different from the rest of the world. Nihonjinron is an attempt to codify what it is to be Japanese.

For example, all languages have polite and informal protocols- the difference between talking to the President and talking to a friend who's known you for ten years; yet, the Japanese have so many levels and distinctions within keigo (polite language) that subtle hierarchical levels cannot be easily interpreted or learned by outsiders. Not knowing or practicing this could lead to someone's unfortunate death; to bow slightly too high when addressing someone of rank, to use the wrong form of 'please', whatever the infraction may be once meant that a samurai (the feudal police system) could behead a citizen with impunity for being so inconsiderate and rude. So sensitive to these seemingly little things inherent to their system of showing politeness were the "old Japanese" of a bygone era, a foreigner would have been comparatively obscene, even when genuinely attempting to follow proper cultural demands. Of course, it's a different world today! The standards have been very relaxed in recent years. However, remnants of these habits remain. Japanese language is definitely unique to Japan, despite borrowed influences from China, Portugal, and America/the West.

There are hundreds of categories similar to that one under the heading of 'nihonjinron'. Even though the category of literature dates back centuries, the genre really took off with the defeat of Japan at the time of the atomic bombings in the mid-1940s. With a country in ruins socially and economically, it was important to rebuild a national identity. Itemizing and detailing theories of how Japan was unique (and somehow better) than the rest of the world was one way to cope.

At its best, nihonjinron is an exploration of what precisely Japanese cultural identity is about; what makes them special, different from anyone else in the world. Indeed, a worthy venture. A person from Saudi is not the same as a person from Afghanistan, or from Oman, or from Iran. All are individually unique, despite being bound together with some common ties. In much the same way, Japan has common influences from many countries which they had contact with (even if that contact was relatively limited), and yet, they are completely distinct from anywhere and anyone else. A positive affirmation of nationality and accomplishment, if you will.

At its worst, some theories of nihonjinron are outright delusional and racist, often based on pseudo-scientific tripe- such as the notion that Japanese think with different parts of their brains than everyone else does, or that they have special senses that no other people possess. Having special seasons or climates that do not appear anywhere else, or being unable to grasp the basics of how Japanese language works because it is just so radically, completely different from anything else heard on Earth. Yet, there are thousands, probably millions of fluent speakers of Japanese who were not born in Japan to two Japanese parents, who also had two Japanese parents each. The dark side of nihonjinron is a form of nationalism taken to rigid, xenophobic extremes.

Good or bad, to be aware of nihonjinron theories is to be able to decode some part of what you hear and see in the culture. Then you can decide for yourself what to challenge or reject, and what to accept as generally true.

My opinion is that Japan is like any other country, despite the alien differences we may have between us. People are alike world over, as Rod Serling would say. You've got your social problems, your great technological advances, your unique places to visit. You've got your sensible people, your paranoid people, your nationalist people, and people that embrace another human being for the faulty, fallible characters that we are. Nihonjinron, any of it, is useful for gaining one type of insight into a foreign place if taken with a kilo of salt. That's all.

Previously: The Vertical Society and Manners
Next: Honne to Tatemae

January 9, 2012

Seijin no Hi: Coming of Age Day

Wheee! It's that time of the year again: Coming of Age Day, otherwise known as 'Seijin no Hi', where everyone who turned 20 in the past year is declared officially an adult. I talked about this last year as well, and I'm happy to see the new colours and motifs for this year! Even the guys dressed up in formalwear! It looks like pale aqua tones, black, red, shades of pink, and royal blues are 'in' now, for those who can still afford them. Financial times are hard on everyone this year, especially those who were hardest-hit by the disaster last year. It may take decades for Japan to fully recover, economically.

This year, according to Japanese news sources, it's a toned-down event in remembrance of the March 11th earthquakes of last year. Many lost friends and relatives who would have been able to join in the festivities today. Many others who usually ventured to major shrines have since been relocated to other parts of Japan. Even so, it was a day of celebration for those who are newly beginning their lives as full members of society!

Here is one blog from a woman named Mano Erina, translated into English. If you'd like to see plenty of photos of celebration events in Yokohama, I suggest you check out this page. Want a sneak preview?

Seijin no Hi, Yokohama - (c) Alfie Goodrich, 2012

Mannered Mondays: The Vertical Society and Manners

Even in today's democratic Japanese society, hierarchical roles and values still exist. There are specific roles for each person, weighed according to things such as age, gender, nation of origin, job, job rank, the school one graduated from, and so on and so on. Across the entirety of Japanese history, language, motions, and other symbols such as the clothing one wore or the furniture in one's own home was structured around one's rank in life. It was difficult, if not impossible, to move up in rank; however, one could find it remarkably easy to move down. This was to preserve the social structure and to give vanity to one's superiors.

This idea may be very foreign to Western thought. We are taught to think as individuals, that all aspects are just as important as others (for example, the manager is no more important than the work of ten people under him- without those workers, there is no reason to have a manager). In America, we choose our presidents, and always have. The point of choosing our leaders was rooted in the power struggles of the masses in the countries we came from: countries who had one ruler, a dictator or monarch, and whose word was law. We wanted to avoid that, so we made a ruling that we had to choose people to represent us, who could be recalled, and who would be unable to take over the country without consent (created the very monarch we desperately wanted to get away from).

In Japan, society developed very differently. The first Japanese rulers were both leadership figures and religious figures; they played the role of both politician and priest. According to Shinto mythology, the gods Izanagi and Izanami created Japan out of the swirling waters, and fell in love with their creation so much that they descended onto the island and made a life for themselves. When Izanami died, Izanagi descended into the Underworld to bring her back. Failing to do so, Izanagi created the lesser gods from his body. Those offspring created humans. The Emperor is/was thought to be a divine ruler, descended from Amaterasu-sama herself! The Japanese people, of course, all being further descendents of the gods. According to Shinto practices, everything has a spirit, and everything should be treated with appropriate respect. In order to do so, proper ceremony must be observed at all times.

This became even more of an extreme idea (compared to our standards) during the 1100s-1800s, with the rise of the shogunate and the samurai police. They ascribed to Zen Buddhism, in itself a peaceful religion, but one which required profound self-discipline and mental fortitude to adhere to. This, paired with the rigors of training, and the ideals surrounding bushido (the way of the warrior), proper hierarchical protocol became more greatly in demand than ever before. New rules were set down to prevent any 'class mixing', or to prevent a 'lower' class from overtaking a 'higher' class. Laws detailing even the types of fabric each caste could wear, including the patterns that were allowed, became prominent. The culture as a whole became hyperaware of the social demands of etiquette. To do anything else could easily mean losing your life.

This heightened awareness of protocol became so extreme by outsider standards that to miss any part of that protocol is a grievous error by their standards. This, of course, is becoming relaxed today. Knowing how to greet a teacher vs. how to greet a close friend of ten years is still observed, but obviously, no one today will be beheaded because they used the wrong term for 'Hello' when regarding one's superiors, as was once done. Even more allowance is made for foreigners on brief trips; the assumption is that you are an inconvenience now, but you are also a guest; proper allowances must be made. However, do not rely on this attitude all the time, especially if staying more than a few days. Make effort to learn some basics. People will certainly notice!

Previously: Introduction to Mannered Mondays
Next: Nihonjinron (Discussions of the Japanese)

January 7, 2012

Jinjitsu, or Nanakusa no Sekku

Kuniyoshi - "Jinjitsu", from
'Onna gori goshiki no hana kago'
Nanakusa no Sekku, "Feast of the Seven Herbs", is also known as Jinjitsu- "Human Day".

It is a Japanese holiday that once took place on the 7th day of the 1st Lunar Month, which this year would be on Jan. 30th. However, because of foreign influence on Japan, it was moved to the solar calendar date during the Meiji era, much the same way New Years' Day was moved.

Nanakusa no Sekku is one of five seasonal holidays called 'gosekku'.

It is said that during the first seven days of the first month, new important beings were created, one for each day. The first day, the Gods made the rooster, followed by the dog, the sheep, the boar, the ox (or bull), the horse, and finally, humans. To celebrate the completion of this cycle, a feast is thrown every year. On the day of the individual creations, it is taboo to kill or harm that creature. So, no roosters will be slaughtered on the first day, and likewise, no punishments are given to criminals on the seventh day. This custom comes from a Chinese holiday called 'Renri'.

On this day, Nanakusa-gayu is eaten. Just Hungry has a great recipe for this! Supposedly, eating nanakusa-gayu is medicinal in nature, and can also bring good health, protection from illnesses, and keep away evil spirits. Prayers for these things may be said on this day while eating it. The seven herbs used in the soup are usually seri, nazuna, gogyō, hakobe, hotokenza, suzuna, and suzushiro, but other combinations are used in different regions.

January 6, 2012

Kinyoubi Kimono Challenge

So, it's the new thing. Everyone's doing it, right? :P Strawberry Kimono, Kira-Kira, plenty of others. It's the Kimono Challenge list! 13 questions to get you thinking about your 'kimono evolution'. So, why not? I'll try to do this once a month. ^_^ First Friday of every month, okay?

1. How did you discover and get into kimono?

This doll. 

It's a vintage (probably late 1950's-1960s) Fuji Musume ningyo from Japan. Originally, it had a gorgeous black lacquered case, and probably a wooden sign signifying who made it, but the case has been dismantled and is being stored after one of the original panes of ultra-fragile glass broke during a move. The hair of the doll is extremely brittle and is clearly fraying. Even dusting it could break the horse hair strands (I believe they are horse hair; maybe they are early synthetics?) The 'kimono' fabric is synthetic and silk, I believe. She carries a long strand of paper fuji. Actually, there is a hat to go with the straps in her hair, but I have to find the pin to keep it on. 

Still, I think it's beautiful.
My aunt owned it after my paternal grandfather came back from military duty in Occupied/post-war Japan and brought it over. These sorts of dolls were made for mass-consumption, in varying degrees of skill and artistry. Some are very refined and lifelike; some are like 3-D ukiyo-e paintings; some were cheaply put together and some were very expensive and ornate. Considering the state of this one, I'm not sure how much it would be worth, but as I'm not selling it I guess it doesn't matter until I go to buy renters' insurance, right?
I wanted to be pretty like that when I was older. I liked the outfit, and wanted something like that. Initially, that's why I bought a shiromuku at 13 or so. I wanted something bright to dress like the doll for Halloween or something, but at the time, few sellers were on Ebay, and Ichiroya was prohibitively expensive. Not much information on wearing kimono properly was available on the internet, and although there was plenty in books, I could never afford them. Thus, why I'm a big fan of writing about the things I gather from books! 
Today, I'm a kimonoholic. I try to wear one at least once a month, but before, when it was cooler, I'd wear them almost every few days. Now, even 70F is too hot for me. I can't imagine wrapping up in silks in this Florida weather! Even so, I try to wear them when I can. Now I just have to get photos when I do...

Next: Your dearest kimono item(s).

January 2, 2012

Mannered Mondays: Introduction

I'm working on making a commitment to writing a column every week called 'Mannered Mondays'. Every Monday, I post something about Japanese etiquette or psychology. Actually, not every post will necessarily be on etiquette in the sense of "this is how you hold your chopsticks", "this is where you put your shoes"; it will also be defined in the sense of social etiquette: "this is how you say 'good morning' to this person vs. that person", "this is what 'amae' means in Japanese culture".

I will also be compiling a list of resources that this information was taken from. Each post will be listed here in a series of edits as new posts are made. Many of these posts will be from books such as "Keys to the Japanese Heart + Soul", and "Etiquette - Guide to Japan" (2008 ed.; mine is 2001 ed.), which may not be easily accessible to all readers. "Keys to the Japanese Heart + Soul" was originally published in the series "Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia", and was later condensed into a bilingual book regarding only cultural phrases and sentiments later on by Kodansha Bilingual Books. Kodansha is a major publisher in Japan, especially of educational materials. Other sources include vintage books such as "Japanese Manners + Ethics in Business" (1981), "A Pocket Guide to Japanese Language + Culture" (published sometime in the 1960s, still very useful considering the upbringings of the aging population of Japan), and many others in my collection. As you can imagine, I still have many, many more books on culture in my Wish List. Because these books are luxuries to me, I feel it is important to provide any knowledge gleaned from them for free so that someone else may have the same fortuitous benefits that I do. It is only right to share what I can.

Posts on this subject will be in no particular order. Anything that seems interesting or important to me that week will likely take precedence. I cannot say that I will be 100% correct on every post, but I will do my best to provide good research on each subject. Needless to say, comments and corrections are welcome! If there is any particular subject you'd like me to cover, let me know and I'll be happy to look it up, read all about it, condense the info, and write a post on it.

Next week, the first official post: The Vertical Society

January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Actually, New Years' Day (Shougatsu) in Japan has only been celebrated on Jan. 1st of the Gregorian calendar since the Meiji era. Five years after the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese adapted the Western calendar, probably in order to smooth relations with outsider countries (ahem, Americans). Previous to that time, they used the Lunar calendar. This year the Lunar New Year falls on Jan. 23rd, but since people no longer celebrate it on this day in Japan, January 1st it is!

Shougatsu is the day after celebrating the corporate festival that is the Christmas holiday + post-holiday cleaning where people rush around making shrine visits and trying to get their New Years' cards and omiyage to the right places and people on time. Post offices even guarantee the arrival of these items on Jan. 1st, if you send them out in a certain time frame and label them 'nengajou'. Friends, family members, and work places or helpful people are all the usual recipients of these sorts of gifts. Most people buy the postcards pre-printed with that years' zodiac animal, a New Years' message of traditional sayings or haiku celebrating firsts of the year, or can get them printed at home or at department stores with favourite designs, but some choose to buy blank ones and write/draw them by hand for each person. It's very important to continue good social relations and pay off any remaining debts before the new year begins in order to have a fresh start!

There is an exception to the sending of New Years' Cards: when there has been a death in the family, a household member will send out a postcard called 'mochyuu hagaki' to inform friends and relatives of the death. This also signals them to not send New Years' cards, as it is considered disrespectful to the person who died.

Special foods called 'osechi' are eaten on this day, too! Mostly, the traditional foods are sour, salty, or dried. Remember that refrigerators are only a recent invention, and with all of the preparations to be made for perhaps the biggest holiday of the year, there was little time or energy left over for cooking- and no restaurant would be open that day, either! Konbu (seasoned seaweed), kamaboko (a kind of fish cake), and ozouni (zoni, a soup made with mochi and dried vegetables and fish), along with special bean dishes are eaten during this season.

Some people make shrine visits on the night of Dec. 31st (so that they can be there as the year turns) or on Jan. 1st. Most people no longer wear kimono that day, but everyone dresses their best! The first shrine visit of the year, regardless of a persons' religions or lack thereof, is a traditionally important visit called 'Hatsumoude'. Buddhist temples will ring special bells 108 times on Midnight of Dec. 31st to symbolize the 108 sins of humanity, and the 108 worldly desires of man. Ringing these bells is said to wash away sins of the previous year, and to give way to a new beginning.

This year is the year of the Dragon! I can't wait to wear my dragon obi to celebrate! <3