What is culture? The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:
“The ideas, customs and social behavior of a particular people or society.”
Using this definition we can therefore conclude that culture is not a separate entity, but is ingrained in everything we do. In this way, culture is the life ordinary people live, every single day.
When we think of a nation’s culture we tend to remember the stereotypical things that a nation is known for and we forget the normal, mundane things that make them who or what they are. In fact, a culture is often defined by the things we DON’T think about, rather than the ones that are known to everyone as being quintessential.
For example, what is Australian culture? I asked myself this very question when I was trying to design a cultural class lesson the other night. It seems I came up blank. I guess it’s because I was trying to think of something that everyone from overseas views as traditional Australian culture. The problem with this way of thinking is that as Australians we rarely do this stuff. It’s often designed purely for tourists and it isn’t an accurate representation of who we are as a people or what life is really like in Australia.
Yes, Australia means barbeques (BBQs) and swimming at the beach, but it also means hanging our washing on a Hills Hoist or playing backyard cricket on Christmas Day. Let me just tell you that I had SUCH a difficult time even thinking of those two examples!!!
The best way to experience ‘real’ culture is of course, by living in a country. Rather than just a surface experience of culture, by living amongst the people you will have a much richer and authentic experience. In essence, you will be given the opportunity to become a member of the society.
One thing that I found particularly difficult when writing this piece is the fact that Australia is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. This means that our cultural identity is also a melting pot of traditions: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Greek, Italian… the list goes on. What is ‘Australian’ also needs to include the traditions that people have brought with them when they decided to make Australia their home. In fact, most Australians would agree that this has our made our culture far richer than if we had existed in isolation.
On the other hand, I now live in a country that imposed an isolation edict in 1635 that restricted Japanese ships and people from visiting other countries and in turn, placed severe restrictions on ships visiting for trading purposes. This resulted in a fairly homogenous society, which even today, is still evident. For many critics, homogenous means the opposite of rich, but I disagree.
I believe that both multicultural and homogenous societies have their advantages and disadvantages. Due to Japan’s relative isolation it is lucky enough to have a culture that is almost perfectly preserved and to an anthropologist and archaeologist like me, is sheer heaven! The pain-staking effort to keep traditional ways means that in small villages around Japan and even in pockets of large cities like Tokyo, you are still able to observe what life was like in the distant past.
Rather than criticizing from a far-off point, come to know a culture and its people by physically experiencing them. You will appreciate and learn to understand far more if you participate IN the lifestyle, not on the fringes or peripheries. Only by participating in a culture will you understand its people and you might even discover that it has become a part of you.
Japan, you and your people are forever in my heart. I have found a home.