Tag Archives: Japan

Culture and Tradition

In my Japanese Martial Arts, Aikido class there was an incident that reminded me of another incident from a few years ago in Japan. I was staying in Japan for 3 months and became friends with a man who played the drum in an ancient play form called Noh. If Japanese Kabuki Theater is similar to Shakespearean theater then go back a couple centuries and you will find Noh. Noh theater is very minimalistic with few props or staging, but lots of intense drama. I went to a Noh play to see my friend and it was a great experience. Though I couldn’t understand the words, I could understand a lot of the drama, there were spirits coming and going, and some kind of message about life and death.

After the show at my friend’s home he showed me his drum and offered to let my try it. He showed me how to hold the sticks and I tapped a bit. Then he corrected my hand posture and I tried again. I still wasn’t holding the sticks quite right. My wrists were not at quite the perfect angle. My wrists needed to be at a very odd angle making them hard to rotate. We kept forcing the wrists until it was uncomfortable, then I gave up. I was just a foreigner and so was excused. At this point I became totally repulsed at what I perceived as a Japanese obsession with perfectionism and tradition. I perceived Japanese resistance to the concept of modifying the hand position technique for the sake of higher goal of simply playing the drum effectively. My friend had learned this ancient art form from his father who had been a drummer before him. He had learned the technique, including the perfect wrist angulation from his father, and would pass it on to his child as had been done for a very long time. In Japan and much of Asia, honoring and preserving tradition is a basic part of culture.

In my Aikido class my teacher is including everything Japanese; language, bowing, his uniform. This is the way that Aikido is taught everywhere. It is always taught as a Japanese art form along with Japanese traditions. On the first day of class, we were doing forward roll exercises. From a crouched position with one arm leading we would tuck our head and roll. I watched my teacher (sensei) carefully and noticed his fingers were extended very straight, rigidly. I could envision myself jamming my fingers backwards so I chose to curl my fingers into a fist as I led with that arm into my roll. Darn, he caught me! Out of the entire class he spotted my curled fingers, that damn wrist thing again! He attempted to correct me but I told him that I was doing it intentionally for the safety of my fingers, so he let it go with a growl. I perceived that my teacher has been spending way too much time training with the Japanese. Hey, what can I say, I’m just an American.

When we Americans cut loose from our British rulers and their culture, we were glad to unshackle ourselves from their stuffy British manners and obsessions. We started a new world with new traditions, almost a new language, new ways of fighting, and a very new experimental form of government. We were willing to cut loose from all heritage and tradition and look at each aspect of life afresh, using what worked and discarding the rest. This is my American heritage, my new ethic, my new tradition.

But modern Americans also seem to be lost in a moral and ethical whirlpool, heading down the drain, in many social aspects. Americans seem to be fighting over every arena of life, not being sure what we value, except the right to choose for ourselves; self-rule. So I wonder if our American anti-tradition is really so beneficial to us? Many Asian cultures seem to have moorings that keep them stable. This is typical of Japanese society, their reverence for the past and respect for tradition is primary guiding force for society. Aikido is typical of the Japanese culture in many ways. The strength of Aikido as an effective martial art is preserving time tested techniques.

The strength in American anti-tradition seems to be that we are free to be innovative, to try anything if it works. Sometimes it is called “Yankee ingenuity”. With this approach we broke the bonds of traditional warfare and beat the British. We have led the world in technology-well actually much of our technology was developed by Asians in America. We have broken music traditions and came up with all kinds of rocky rolly stuff. In martial arts we have broken every tradition and developed MMA, Mixed Martial Arts. This is where all tradition is lost and the game is won by those who devise some new way of smashing an opponent. This is possibly the weakness of traditional Aikido; that it is stuck in tradition and resists innovation.

But in spite of all this amazing American flare, I still wonder if we aren’t desperately lost morally and ethically? I begin to understand the religious Americans who say, America was founded upon Christian principles and that we need to get back to those. They see those values as transcending tradition so it is more than empty tradition for them. The Japanese and many ancient cultures also struggle with a changing new world, but also insist on keeping moored to tradition, to their ancestors, and to ancient values. To the Japanese I would ask, “are you sure that your heritage is enough to keep you stable in this modern world storm; is your heritage transmitting principles of enduring truth, or merely outward forms of tradition?” To the Americans I ask, are you sure you can guide yourself without the wisdom of the past?

Japan workers; shokunin

When I travel I am always interested in the working people. In Japan the word is shokunin.

Above a busy street in Kobe I found this very quite shop.




Ticket checker on train.










This ferry worker has the gulls trained to eat of his hand!








The Japanese version of a Salvation Army Bell Ringer in Kyoto at Christmas.






On a bike ride I came across this friendly lady. No she is not threatening me with her tool! If you tour Japan I suggest getting away from the big cities and you will find the country people very happy to meet visitors.

Finding help in Japan

When you are really in need of help in Japan, ask an elderly lady. If she cannot help you herself she will find someone who can!

I resorted to this method more than once but one time in particular I remember very well. My Japanese is just good enough to get me in trouble. I can ask for directions but I don’t understand the answer. I was going from Nagoya out to Ise, a remote area with a national shrine and other tourist attractions. At the Nagoya station I was not sure I got the right instructions for the right train. I had in my mind the direction we might go but we seemed to be heading past. The train was crowded with commuters and people seem to deliberately ignore strange Americans. It was getting dark and starting to rain I was feeling disoriented. I could not get anyone to exchange a friendly glance to open a conversation. I spotted an old lady “obasan” or to be sweet “oba chan” chan being like miss young lady. I approached her several rows away, pointing at my map saying wa doko deska- where is it? In half a New York minute she had a group of helpers around translating and assuring me my stop was coming soon.

When I got to my stop it was raining like crazy. I was planning to walk about a mile to a temple/hostel. I was soaking wet real quick and spotting a cafe I dropped in. As I pulled of my pack and wet jacket the folks at the bar all turned around and stared like a seen out of an old cowboy movie. I sat down and ordered and they all resumed. I asked the waitress about my destination and again she summoned help. I ended up sitting for a long time with those folks and the temple sent a driver for me. I have found the most incredibly friendly people in Japan mostly by getting away from Tokyo and the big cities.

Obasan or Obachan-happy lady




friendly teens also



Me with Shinkansen

Change is coming to Japan

Change is inevitable for this island country, which has a history of isolation, of taking just what it wants from the outside world. But this time it cannot avoid the change that is coming. For many centuries foreigners were rarely allowed into Japan. The Japanese were very independent and unique even among other Asian countries. They opened their doors to trade for a while with the west and the Jesuit missionaries came along. The missionaries actually had great success until the ruling Japanese nobles started to feel a loss of control, like change too rapidly. So they exterminated the Christians. Literally thousands lost their lives. The doors to trade were again closed until 1800’s when the Americans and British “persuaded” them to re-open. Today it would be very difficult for the Japanese to return to isolation.  Their economy is tied to the rest of the world. Today, “no man is an island”, especially Japan. However Japanese opinion seems torn between wanting out of their shell of isolation embracing a brave new world, and trying to return to the good old days where people were under the control of social expectations.

But if I were Japanese looking at the changes so rapidly happening in my country I would close the doors as fast as possible to western influence. The young people once so courteous are becoming rebellious, arrogant, brats, (welcome to the US). Western music, movies and sports, are everywhere. They are attracted to our western freedom, but what they are catching is our insanity.

In traditional Japanese society individuals find life direction more on a closed system without interference from God. Their values are based on allegiance to their society, work and family. It is a system that has worked for them for centuries. The idea of the individual asserting his individuality has been looked down upon, the needs of the society were traditionally more important. In Japan they have a saying regarding individuality, “The nail that sticks up must be hit down.” Sometimes I think they have a self imposed wall like communism around them, and I’m standing outside the wall with a note tied to a rock that says “you’re free!” Should I throw the rock in? Is it what they are looking for? Is my so-called “freedom” any better than theirs?

Many of us in the west do not appreciate the freedom and self-respect that was given to us as a Bible heritage. Where ever the Bible has a strong influence, it has taught that mans first allegiance is to God, and second to people. That is why we only bow to God, if we bow at all, and we greet people as equals. This has some great benefits; we are all equal before one higher being, we are free to be all that God has created us to be, no man can stand in judgment of me if God has accepted me. You can see how this principal has permeated our thinking. However on the negative side of this freedom coin is that if God is taken out of the picture, or distorted, then I become a slave to my self-imposed ideas. Instead of respecting God first and loving my neighbor as my equal, I just serve myself.  The true freedom the Creator designed us for is this; knowing our place before God, we respect our neighbor as our self.  I believe that the Japanese heart is hungry for some of this godly freedom, without the western insanity.

In some previous generations it was profitable and popular to package western technology and culture along with the gospel. People in developing countries could see the lack in their society and were anxious to advance. But the great danger of packaging our culture along with God’s message is that it is a perversion of the truth. It becomes “our” gospel, rather than God’s truth. There is inevitably a negative reaction to a cultural gospel, in spite of some success, because the remainder of the people recognizes the cultural ties and rejects the foreign culture. Many, many people in Japan will not consider a foreign religion because they consider it a betrayal of family heritage. And they really cannot be blamed for this. It is true that Jesus calls us all to go beyond our family heritage into his heritage, but it also true that Jesus is not American more than Japanese. And coming into Christ’s heritage does not mean switching from Japanese to American. We must be very clear on what we present– that it is the truth.

On my trip to Japan I was honored to visit a junior high school with our pastor. In an art display there was a picture, an etching of superb quality. It was of a person all bound up like with ropes, a very dark image, with the English caption “TO REACH OUT FOR ETERNITY”.  I saw that “God has put eternity into the heart”, (Ecclesiastes 3:11), of one Japanese young person, and that there is a true spiritual need there. I was able to meet this young artist and she gave me the etching to bring home.

East/west culture icons