It is getting close to the end of the year and the dramas and variety shows that normally dominate the Japanese airwaves have ceded their time to television specials. Last week it was the Japan-wide standup comedy competition known as the K1 Grand Prix. Tonight it is the “FNS Music Festival” and, at the moment, some of our “favorite” J-Pop idols are wearing ridiculous costumes and singing rather poor renditions of the themes to various anime cartoons. Once, I’d have called the whole thing bizarre but today it seems so “normal.”
It has taken me years of hard work to achieve this feat of cultural fluency and I’ve found the process of achieving it quite similar to the process of learning the Japanese language itself. I know what you are thinking but, while language and culture are closely tied to one another, my experience has been that the study of one does not naturally lead to an understanding of the other. Words, they say, will only get a person so far.
To go above and beyond, it helps to know when and how to apply your words and that, my friends, requires the extra work of cultural study. I sometimes think that Americans are unclear on the concept of culture. We recognize, of course, that culture is a thing, but have difficulty ascribing it to ourselves. We know that other countries have it, as do recent immigrants and ethnic minorities, but the vast majority of us cannot, beyond listing our history or detailing our specific place in the political spectrum, describe what it is that makes us uniquely American. If pressed on the issue, many people will simply list off our ancestors’ countries of origin and explain who we are through our affiliation to that place.
This idea of “cultural affiliation” fascinates me. Because we lack a real understanding of our own culture, we are free to put on the cloak of virtually any culture that strikes our fancy. Given my last name, for example, I grew up asserting to everyone that would listen that I was a German. Later, I realized that I am also 50% Irish but, since Braveheart had just hit the theaters, I blew that off and decided that I was actually Scottish. At some point, I reasoned, my ancestors had migrated to Ireland from Scotland so I was fine going against the “known facts” to choose something I liked better. A couple of years later, Dances With Wolves came out and, wouldn’t you know it, like a lot of people whose family history involves Oklahoma, there is an old family legend that we may have some American Indian ancestry as well!
It’s a great trick that I think many of us will recognize. Thanks to our muddled lineage, we can be whatever our imaginations want us to be. There are a few rules, of course. For example, you shouldn’t try become another race. If you are a person of color you aren’t allowed to pretend to be anything other than what you are. People of Asian descent are forever Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Filipino or whatever without regard for the fact that, like virtually every other American who is more than a generation removed from their “homeland,” they would wander around as clueless as anyone else who was suddenly picked up and plunked down in their “country of origin.” African Americans must be from, ultimately from Africa, although they may have come to America by way of any number of other countries while Caucasians, meanwhile, should stick to Europe lest they risk drawing the ire of both other races and their own.
The tendency to shift our cultural affiliation within the aforementioned rules is, I think, a uniquely American quality. Unlike those our forefathers left behind , many of whom still reside in the very houses of their ancestors today, we are a people in search of ourselves. The melting pot has stripped away our innate “otherness” and left only a few tenuous connections to the past – the shade of our skin, the shape of an eye, or that family recipe that has been so carefully passed down through the generations. Our forefathers came from everywhere and while we strive for that connection, the truth is that we are from nowhere. Which is to say that we are from here, and that we are together, today. All of us together in this one boat. We should look inward with at least as much interest as we look outward. It would, I think, help us understand who we really are a nation of artists, engineers and builders and that our greatest project is ourselves.