As we’ve discussed, the elements of culture say important things about who we are, just as we tend to express things about ourselves through these elements of culture. Seemingly meaningless activities, such as eating, playing, and getting from point A to point B, often say a great deal about the culture that we live in.
Eating is not just about nourishment, but is also a social activity. This is true everywhere, but like everywhere, Japan has its own unique customs and rituals surrounding eating and drinking, either with friends or family.
Each morning and evening, I eat with my host family. My host family is somewhat old-fashioned, so the mother brings food to father and I, and then eats after we are finished. However, even if she doesn’t eat with us, it’s important that we show her how much we appreciate her cooking. How do we do this? Well, in Japan no one eats a meal of any kind with out first saying “itadakimasu” – this literally means “I humbly receive.” And once a meal is concluded, we say “gochisousamadeshita” – literally, “it was a feast.”
Can you guys think of any rituals that you have at the dinner or breakfast table?
Tonight, I went out for dinner with friends. The same rituals are still observed, even though the cook isn’t around to hear us say “itadakimasu.” So why say these things if no one is there to appreciate them? Well, the answer is a little bit complicated.
Researchers have identified two different kinds of cultures – low context cultures and high context cultures. America is a low context culture, and Japan is a high context culture. Allow me to use an example to explain:
Imagine that you are standing alone in a completely empty room, and as your mother enters, you say “I didn’t do it.” Because the room is empty except for you, there is no context other than your words. Therefore, discussion must occur before everyone can understand the situation. Your mother must then ask “what didn’t you do?”
Now imagine that you are standing in the same empty room, except that now there is a broken lamp. When your mother enters the room this time, and you say “I didn’t do it,” your mother understands immediately what you claim not to have done. The lamp provides a context for your words, and instead of asking “what didn’t you do,” she can simply tell you that you’re grounded.
In a low context culture, like America, we have to talk more to understand things. In Japan, however, the high context culture means that there are more things that everyone understands without talking about them at all. For instance, when you are about to eat, you say “itadakimasu” – everyone knows this, everyone does it, and everyone understands just what it means. It’s just being polite, and if you don’t remember to do it, people will think you’re very rude.
Can you guys think of a few things that help make America a low context culture? Can you think of any benefits of having to talk to each other more? What about any downsides of having to talk to each other more?
But back to my lovely night out with friends – we went out to an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is a delicious savory pancake-like food, which you cook at your table on a hot grill. You first order the ingredients – we had a few different pancakes, some with octopus, others with shrimp, one with salmon roe, and one with kimchi – and then cook them into a pancake at your table. After they are finished grilling, you add bonito (fish flakes), sauce, and mayonaise, and then serve. I’ve had plenty of delicious okonomiyaki in my life (Shigezo, in downtown Portland, has good okonomiyaki) but I’ve never had anything quite as delicious as this.
This kind of restaurant is fairly traditional; we sit on small pillows on the floor, cross-legged, cook our own food, and eat with chopsticks. However, these old-fashioned restaurants are just as popular with young people as they are with the older generation. And while I’ve gone out for many meals with friends in America, and had great bonding experiences, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. The conversation is friendly and fun, and we all make jokes throughout the night, but something about making this food ourselves, together, makes it an even more special and unique than similar meals I’ve eaten in America.
Eating isn’t the only cultural ritual that I’ve witnessed lately. In Japan, as we’ve discussed, trains are a very important part of daily life.
Particularly in Tokyo, where literally tens of millions of people take trains to get where they are going each and every day. So, I was not so surprised when I went to the train station the other day and witnessed a special event that the train company was putting on for children.
Children and their parents waited in line to ride small train, while other kids played with toys and watched videos – all about trains.
These children, even now, probably spend a good portion of their day on trains, and in the future they’ll spend as much as an hour or more each day commuting to and from school, work, and other activities. So, it makes sense that both their parents and the train companies would want to get them used to the idea of trains as an enjoyable part of daily life.
Can you think of anything that you have learned or been taught to deal with from an early age? A lot of culture involves learning to appreciate, tolerate, or celebrate the things that are important to us now, or that have been important to us in the past. In Japan, trains are an important part of the past, present, and future.
In a way, parents taking their children for a ride on this small train is just a fun way to spend a Sunday as a family. On the other hand, we can also say that these kinds of activities are contributing to Japan’s role as a high context culture. These children are learning the context of a train commute early in life. They are learning the rules of being a commuter, and even something as simple as a conductor waving at them conveys to them an important message: On the train, I’m the person in charge; I’m here to help you, and to make sure the train runs on time, and since I’m your friend, help me out by doing your part to keep the trains running on time. This contributes, in some small way, to the context of what it means to be a commuter in Tokyo.
It’s important to note that a high context culture is not better or worse than a low context culture; they are just different. In Japan, certain things are understood by everyone, without anyone having to say a word. In America, there is more talk, discussion, and planning about what is happening at any given moment. Can you think of some examples?
Now, spend the next couple of days paying close attention to the things that you do on a daily basis; eating, commuting, going to school, etc. Ask yourself questions about what these things mean, why you do them, and how doing them helps make you a part of your community.