Comparative Culture


When I was working at a language school in England I often had Japanese students in my class, along with students from Germany, Korea, Italy, Brazil, and so on. One of the favourite topics in those mixed nationality classes was comparing and contrasting the countries and cultures students came from. Students would ask each other about their country - the politics, religion, history and so on.

Students from Christian countries were very interested in the religious beliefs and practices of students from Islamic countries. The Islamic students gave the class a lot of information about their religion. Students from Russia were asked many questions about Communism and, again, the Russian students gave clear and detailed answers. Brazilian students knew a lot about the causes of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest...

So it went on, from country to country, until it came to Japan. Sometimes there were Japanese students who were able to talk about their own country, but many of them could not. I remember three Japanese students, when asked about religion, said 'We are Buddhists'.

'What do Buddhists believe?' asked a German girl, and the Japanese students had no idea; the question had to be answered by a student from Thailand.

Politics and history were the same: 'Where did the Japanese people originally come from?' 'Why did Japan join in the second world war?' 'What are the policies of the present Japanese government?' To all these questions the students answered, 'We don't know.'

It wasn't always as bad as that. Sometimes there were Japanese students who could talk about Japan, and there were a few questions that most Japanese students could answer, such as: 'Where did the Japanese writing system come from?' 'What is the origin of the custom of floating cranes down the river on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima?' 'Why did Japan become a closed country (sakoku)?'

There were also many interesting customs that students could talk about, such as New Year celebrations, omikoshi, or lighting fires for the ancestors at o-bon. There were famous stories, such as what three shoguns would do if the hototogisu wouldn't sing. And there were details of everyday life, such as the way of having a bath, that were interesting to other students.

On the whole, though, many of my Japanese students were shocked at how little they knew about their country compared with students from other countries. Often, when they were leaving, and I asked them what they were going to do when they got back to Japan, they would say, 'I came here to learn about other countries. Now I'm going home to learn about Japan!'

Perhaps that is the best place to start studying comparative culture; if you don't know your own culture you can't very well compare it with other cultures! At the same time, it is often by learning about other cultures that we realise the gaps in our knowledge about our own culture. One way to start is to study one other country you are interested in and, when you learn something about that country, ask yourself how that compares with, or differs from, Japan. If you don't know the answer, research and find out!

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