J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


The Deaf and The Japanese

The Deaf and The Japanese: And are the Dumb Stupid?
If there is any truth in the assertion that there is something visual rather than verbal, about the way that the Japanese sign, i.e. that Japanese culture leans toward the right hand side of the diagram of Dual Coding Theory, then one might expect them to share some similarities with those deaf that use visual sign systems (ASL and JSL). To investigate this hypothesis I read Oliver Sacks’ “Seeing Voices” an excellent, and even moving, introduction to the world of the deaf, and particularly their ability to communicate using sign language, from the perspective of a neurologist.

First of all, Sacks points out that deaf signers are better at interpreting Chinese characters signed in the air, and it is clear that Japanese people are far better at signing and reading characters in the air (p78) but that maybe the single case in point. Deaf people use Sign (ASL, JSL) which, though visual, has meaning. Japanese use Chinese characters which, though visual, have meaning.

Oliver Sacks points out that there are those that deny even this similarity, since there are those (including Roland Barthes) who deny that the visual can have meaning at all. But even accepting the premise of Sacks’ book, that language can be seen, perhaps the similarity between the deaf and the Japanese starts and ends with a trivial resemblance between Sign and Kanji.

Cutting to the chase, Sacks' book being a book about deaf, rather than a book about the deaf and the Japanese, does little to demonstrate similarities between deaf and Japanese culture. "Seeing Voices" does however, point to some possibilities and perhaps the most tantilising of these lies in Sacks observation that Sign language is not only a language for communicating with others, but also for thinking and for communicating with oneself. He provides clear evidence that the deaf Sign to themselves, and sign in their dreams. I have also noted that Japanese have a tendency to sign to themselves, such as Ichiro's famous baseball bat point, or more particularly the safety oriented pointing checks performed by those working on the Japanese railway system, for example. Sack's goes on assert, as a footnote (26) to page 59, given on page 161 of my version of the book, the use of sign as thought, not only to others but to and about oneself, by application of the Sapir-Whorph hyphotesis, may result in a "hypervisual cognitive style". I believe that this phrase may be appropriate to use about the Japanese as well.

Sacks claims that users of Sign, adept as they are at reading, and making (or is that speaking) visual meaning, often become “visual experts,” adept not just at “a visual language but [having] a special visual sensibility and intelligence as well.” (p84) Alas Sacks does not go into concrete cultural details of deaf visual expertise. Sacks does not mention that the deaf are good at anime, manga, computer games, architecture, manufacturing, visually stunning food preparation, becoming highly attractive idols, or many of the other things at which the Japanese may be argued to excel.

Sacks points out that deaf understanding of facial expressions may be better than that of the hearing. Alas research about Japanese interpretation of gesture is mixed. David Matsumoto points out Japanese inability to read “universal” emotions. Keiko Ishii demonstrates that Japanese can be more sensitive to the degree to which people smile (or at least when smiles disappear).

Most surprisingly, the neurological evidence that Sacks presents seems almost to directly contradict any assertion of similarities between the Japanese and the deaf. Sacks points out that deaf process Sign with their left brain, the same hemisphere that the hearing use to understand speec. He shows that deaf signers pull some seemingly non-linguistic (among hearers) processing, such as the processing of facial expressions, into their left/linguistic brain. Sacks further suggests that the left brain is well adapted to language and argues that there are deficiencies in right brain language. Research on neurological differences between Japanese and Westerners, is still fairly new or controversial, but, it is claimed that Japanese visual signs (Kanji) are processed at least in part by the right brain (E.g. Nakagawa 1993) and that Japanese pull the procession of phonic information (such as the sound of insect noises and music) into their linguistic left brain. If this is the case then, it would suggest that Kanji, processed as they are by the side of the brain not well suited to language, would have a deleterious affect upon Japanese language processing. And even that the Japanese are hyper-phonic, as oppose to hyper visual (like the deaf), since it is sounds that the Japanese process with the ‘linguistically superior,’ left hand side of the brain.

In order to achieve the sort of revolution that Sacks describes, being achieved by the deaf: that they, their visual culture, their Sign is not just a pantomime, but equally meaningful, one would have to go further even that Sacks avows. Sacks demonstrates that the visual and the deaf can be just as good as the oral/hearing, just that they do what they do in a different way. How much more difficult would it be to argue that the right brain is just as good at processing the world, but in a different way? This is not a path that Sacks, a Western neurologist, attempts to follow in this book at least (but see his "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat").

Sacks’ description of the revolution underway in the world of the deaf, of how they are achieving a hard-won cultural autonomy, a reappraisal such that they are now different, rather than diseased was particularly moving. Perhaps I am romanticising Japanese culture too much, but it was in the description of the revolution, or the potential for one, that I found the greatest potential similarity between the deaf and the Japanese. It seems to me that being Japanese is not yet “depathologized” (p120), with commentators and educators in Japan still tending to present the West as being advanced, a model that Japan should still (after all these years) be aiming towards.

Sacks argues that deaf were initially non-receptive to the idea that Sign could be a language, or that it could be analysed, and were self-deprecating with regard to their visual culture (p114-115). I find that mystifying, empty-centred, self-deprecating theories of Japanese culture are still fairly mainstream, at least in academe. Will there one day be a Japanese cultural revolution, such as being experienced by the deaf or will Japan Westernise itself out of existence first? Or is this endeavour itself bogus, the product of another white male mind (my own), since the right brain, or where ever Japanese cultural excellence is situated may have no need of affirmative analysis.

Finally, Sacks makes the point that the deaf are not dumb, both in the sense that they are not stupid and in the sense that they can speak. In other words Sacks saves the deaf from perjorative appraisal, by pointing out that the deaf can in fact speak, in their own language, so they are not dumb -- in any sense but-- but rather different. Sacks writes "..for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, aquire and share information. If we cannot do this....we may be so little able to realise our intellectual capabilities as to appear mentally defective. It was for this reason that the congenitally deaf, or "deaf and dumb" were considered "dumb" (stupid) for thousands of years...p8" This all sounds very brave and stirring, and it is, because Sacks succeeds in releasing the deaf from this derogatory appelation. But what of the "dumb"? People who can not speak, who are aphaisic, who do not have language remain in Sacks' view, unable to realise their intellectual capabilities. According to Sacks the dumb remain dumb; those without speech are intellectually impaired because speech is required for intellectual functioning.

This is a shame, and I believe unfair. in Sack's earlier book "The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" in the essay "The Presidents' Speech" Sacks describes how even aphaisics, who do not have the ability to understand language, where nevertheless able to understand most of what is going on around them, even a presidential speech, perhaps even more than those that can hear and understand the words. What happened to the possibility that the ability to use language is just another one of many human abilities? Is the mastery of language essential to enter "our human estate" (whatever that may be) and culture? Is the use of a media of interpersonal communication for thought ("self-communication" as if it were not-an oxymoron) an essential prerequisite for thinking? Even assuming that that symbols are necessecessary for thought, is it a given that symbols that are good to think with, are also those that are good to communicate with. If the deaf can manage to think and communicate among themselves using sign and to communicate with the hearing using speech, then perhaps it is possible that the Japanese may be thinking in symbols that the are not using for speaking.

It seems that in the West at least, linguistic ability is considered to be a prerequisite, thinking is regarded as being self-communication using the same linguistic symbols that we use to speak to others, and thus those that can not speak are, even by Oliver Sacks, considered to be unable to think effectively. When reappraising a group that hithertoo been considered inferior, advocates posit the existance of another language (this work), a different voice (Gilligan, 1972 on women), their own words (Meltzer, 1987, on American Blacks) which, when we the outgroup understand it, will allow us to understand their excellence. But perhaps the Japanese do not have another language. Perhaps Japanese excellence is not to be found in any language. All the same the Japanese may be affirmative enough as they are. They just don't talk about it. The may not talk the talk, but they do walk the walk and always have.

The above image containts a cropped version of the cover design of Oliver Sacks' book "Seeing Voices" by Chipp Kidd

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Sunday, March 27, 2011


Enma's Mirror and How to Pull People into the Two Dimensional

Enma's Mirror and How to Pull People into the Two Dimensional by timtak
Enma's Mirror and How to Pull People into the Two Dimensional, a photo by timtak on Flickr.

I feel a slight similarity between Enma and Sadako, from Ringu, and other Japanese horrors.

Sadako and her ilk often come out of the two dimensional world of image. Kayako in Juon appears out of mirrors, developing photographs (or a pool of developer), various nasties come out of scrolls (or are trappped in them) and Yotsuyakaidan's horrific woman, Oiwa, is thrown into water strapped to a fusuma or shouji (made two dimensional) but comes back. The Korean film "Mirrors," remade in the US, also has nasties come out of mirrors, in spades.

It seems to me that several of theses monsters pull their victims into the image. The freeze frame as Sanada Hiroyuki's character is killed by Sadako's stare suggests that to me. Perhaps Barutan Seijin's freezing gaze does the same thing. Kayako pulls people into the mirror and developer. Oiwa strapped to two dimensionality and put into water, pulls her lover into the watery (reflecting?) depths.

Enma too in a way pulls people into their mirror, even if/though he does not come out of it. He may come out of the mirror, since Buddhas are mirrors according to some.

Enma is also known for collecting tongues, of children that lie and for hooking those that fail the mirror test up by their tongue.

It seems to me that the "collecting of tongues," relates to the fact that just before Sadako kills (Sanada Hiroyuki's character and others) she seems to telephone them. But the telephone call is of only white noise.

And I wondered whether this telephone call, in Ringu is related to tongue collection. The horror first destroys language, and then sucks us, or us Japanese(d), into the two dimensional. Sadako telephones people with silence. Her phone call marks the end of language. Silencing the, she call her victims into her deathly two dimensional image world.

Sometimes I feel that a Japanese lady I love, does or attempts to do that, to me, with good reason of course. Something vaguely along the lines of "Oh, Excuses, cuses, oooses, booses, bubu, bubu" and then fixes me with her Sadakorical stare that says wordlessly, "see yourself!" Or perhaps as the ghost of Rokujouno-Miyasu-Dokoro says to Aoi, in a Noh play of the tale of Genji. Stamping her foot she says, "Omoishire!" Think and know. Reflect and know.

Lacan says that the self is the intersection between the real, language and image. Or that both linguistic and imaginary representations of self are essential to keep the self game going. Destroy one and the self collapses. Mute the voice or realise the otherness of the image, and one can achieve englightenment, madness, or hell, depending upon how one feels about it.

(The above, thanks to Shiensumisu's comment)

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Dual Coding Theory and Japanese Culture

Dual Coding Theory by timtak
Dual Coding Theory, a photo by timtak on Flickr.

The above diagram (click image to see Japanese translation) is Paivio's Dual Coding Theory, of meaningful images and sounds.

It is interesting that scholars like Unger, Barthes, Saussure and Plato believe that only the sounds can have meaning (I think).

It seems to me that Japanese culture emphasises the right hand side of this diagram, whereas Western culture emphasises the left, to the point of claiming that only logogens exist, and that characters do not really mean anything without being translated or read into phonetic, logogens.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Positive Present

Positive Present by timtak
Positive Present a photo by timtak on Flickr.

This wall hanging is a sort of poem or sooth which explains why Japanese people may not need to set concrete goals. It reads:

If we try our hardest today, then a little happiness will surely, surely be waiting for us tomorrow.

Many Japnaese people prefer to use this philosophy of effort in the present and leaving the future to itself. They anticipate that their future will be happy - a desirable future - due to the way in which they involve themselves the present to create what Naoko Sonoda calls a "Positive Present (mae muki na genzai)."

Due to the influence of Western culture, Japanese are being encouraged to set goals. This has advantages in that it allows for more control, but the excercise of control will enevitably result in some reduction in ability to make the most of the present. Very few Japanese seem to be aware of the downside of importing Western "goal-orientend" styles of management, education, or human behaviour.

This philosophy is not the same as "Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die." It often involves a lot of hard work. This philosophy is perhaps more similar to "keep the ball rolling," recommending an ongoing attempt to keep ones life in motion towards unplanned, yet desirable events.

The theory was partly inspired by the management theory of Misumi Juuji who suggested that managers have two fundamental roles: to set goals and measure and reward goal achievement (performance), to create a positive working environment (maintenance). The above image would motto of the latter, environmentally focused "maintenence" managed workplace.

The wall hanging above was found in the toilet of a Japanese restaurant perhaps to encourage cleanly toilet behaviour.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Complaint Advert: We Are Hansei-ing

Complaint Advert: We Are Hansei-ing by timtak
Complaint Advert: We Are Hansei-ing a photo by timtak on Flickr.

In this Fuji-Xerox advert, the catch-copy is from the words of a complaint from a customer. "Do you even know how we use your copiers?"

The advert goes onto explain how all the employees of Fuji-Xerox continually look into how customers use their copiers, paying *grateful* attention to customers complaints, thoughts and advice.

The copy also reads "we do not stand around holding buckets of water even for one second", which refers to the fact that the staff of Fuji-Zerox do not see complaints, or "being told off" by their customers as a punishment at all, even for one second. This metaphor works because being told to hold buckets of water is a traditional Japanese corporal punishment.

Even if there were a US/UK advert that proclaimed the fact that the company recieved comlaint, which is itself unlikely, then perhaps they would have been standing with books on their heads.

Fuji-Xerox are proud of the fact and advertise the fact that they recieve complaints and see them as a way to critically self-reflect (hansei) and self-improve.

This Japanese (?) philosophy of energetic self-critisism is also found in the cultural psychology of Steven Heine, the manufacturing philosophy of Kaizen, the managment philosophy of Yanai Tadashi (chairman of the First Retailing - Uniqlo - group), the way that Ichiro maintains his game, and the Japanese psychonanalysis called "Naikan."

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Why is the Japanese Minister of Defence Wearing Overalls?

Spot the Japanese Culture by timtak
Spot the Japanese Culture a photo by timtak on Flickr.
Spot the Japanese Culture

In addtion to the subtitles to what the speaker is saying, and in addition to the fact that they both read from a written speech rather than pretend to extemporize, both these leaders (one the minister for defence, the other a prefectural representative) are wearing overalls. Do they think, do we think, does anyone think that they will or should be doing manual labour? No.

All three Japanes cultural phenomena, or non-book-religion, non-logocentric phenomena, attestify to the fact that in Japan visual signs, be they subtitles on what someone is saying, the script that the person is reading, or the clothes that they are wearing, are more important than the phonemes. And this in spite of the fact that there are many Westerners that say only phonemes have meaning.

But to show their solidarity with those that are engaged in manual labour at this time of crisis, Japanese leaders choose to wear overalls.

C.f. the fact that, Japanese sports persons, no mater how much of a novice or not they are will get the right gear. Japanese sports persons some times have all the gear and no idea? What is an "idea" and how does one express it?

My heartfelt sympathy is with the victims of the Japanese earthquake.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Earthquakes in Japanese Religion

Earthquakes in Japanese Religion by timtak
Earthquakes in Japanese Religion a photo by timtak on Flickr.

[Originally posted to my Shinto Blog] Earthquakes - more horrifying than lightening and typhoons - were thought to be caused by the movements of a giant catfish.

While Typhoons and Lightening have patron gods (Fuujin and Raijin respectively) who are respected enough to be appeased, so cataclismic is the history of Japanese earthquake disasters perhaps, that they are not deified, but attributed to the maleficence of a big black fish.

Japanese catfish, or namazu, are or were thought to be, large lazy, bottom-dwelling fish with little culinary value who, for their part feel jealous of the admiration humans have for other fish species. Earthquakes were thought to be caused by the movements, or jealous malisciousness of giant catfish at the bottom of the sea, or beaneath the ground.

These catfish were held in place however by the god Takemikazuchi who is enshrined at two shrines in Ibaraki prefecture, including Kashima Jinguu (Imperial Shrine) in Kamisu City.

The Shinto deity uses an enourmous rock (whose tip can be seen in the shrine grounds - most of the rock is buried), his sword, or a giant gourd to prevent the catfish from moving.

The rock, the most famous means of keeping the catfish in places, is called a Kanameishi or keystone.

However, in moments of lapse, or while on holiday to Izumo in October - which is called the Godless-Month since all Shinto Kami are said to make the trip to Izumo.

In the 6th century book of poems, the Manyoshu (book of ten thousand verses) there is a poem which reads

"The keystone may wobble but it will not become unstuck so long as the Kami of Kashima Shrine is with us."

Reading this poem three times was believed to result in protection from earthquakes by 19th century dwellers in Edo (Tokyo).

The Giant Catfish was depicted in many Ukiyoe. The genre is known as Catfish-pictures but only 300 survive since they were banned by the Edo government.

As well as depicting the subjugation of the giant catfish by the God and the Key stone rock, they all so showed (as in the picture above) house builders taking a different attitude to the catfish. In the above picture the group of construction workers top left do not participate in subjugating the Catfish. In another picture they are shown worshiping or thanking the catfish for the profits that they earned.

After the great Tokyo earthquake of 1855 the catfish is also depicted as being responsible for redistributing wealth from rich to poor, and became regarded as a world repairing deity (Yonaoshi Daimyoujin).

So in the end it is probably true to say that Japanese religion, particularly Shinto, can be trusted to see a positive side to nature, even the most horrific, even in the face of great human loss and tragedy.

The above image is believed to be in the public domain. The above text is my interpretation of internet recsources such as Japanese wikipedia and these two blog posts (in english)
And the source of the above photo (in Japanese)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Holy Mirrors!

Holy Mirrors!
Originally uploaded by timtak
Mirrors have been regarded as sacred at least since the Han Dynasty in China. Many of these mirrors and from the subsequent Wei dynasty have been found in Japan. They bore images of gods and sacred animals particularly the Chinese dragon (1,2) . They were very popular, and possibly later manufactured, in Japan. The bronze mirrors are found in great number in ancient (kofun period) burial mounds in Japan. In the biggest archeological find of 33 mirrors, the mirrors were placed surrounding the coffin such that their reflective surface faced the deceased. The Han mirrors were "magic" in that while they reflected they were also able to project an image usually of the deities and animals on the back and refered to as "light passing mirrors" (透明鑑) (Needham, 1965, p.xlic; Needham & Wang, 1977, pp. 96-97).This magic property is due to the their method of construction. When polishing the reflective face of the mirror, the patter on the back influences the pressure brought to bear on the reflective surface and change the extent to which it is concave. Muraoka also claims that Differences in the (slight) "inequality of curvature" (Ayrton & Perry, 1878, p 139; see also Thompson, 1897, and Needham & Wang, 1977, p96 for a diagram) of the mirror result in the mirror reflecting light bearing the pattern shown on the reverse. More recent research has elucidated the precise mathematical model describing the optics of these mirrors as a laplacian image (Berry, 2006), a type of spatial filter today used for edge detection and to blend two images together. It is not known whether the mirrors popular in ancient Japan were also able to project, but later during the Nara period mirrors were found to concel magic Buddhist images, and during the Edo period, concealed Christians (Kurishitan) concealed images of the cross or of the Holy Mary within their bronze "magic" mirrors. Mirrors in Japan contined to be made of brass, until the arrival of Western glass mirrors, and were "magic" in that they displayed the patter on their reverse when reflecting sunlight or other powerful light source (Thompson, 1897). Ayrton (Ayrton & Perry, 1878; Ayrton & Pollock, 1879) claims that in Japan mirror vendors were unaware of the "light passing" quality, and that there is no mention of this 'magical' quality known to Han Chinese in Japanese texts. Even a Japanese mirror maker was unaware of how to make magic mirrors though had inadvertently made one himself by extensive polishing a mirror with a design on its back (Ayrton & Perry, 1878, p135). Unlike the ancient Korean mirror top right (3), the ancient Han and Japanese mirrors were made to be rotated, displaying images in the four directions of the compas. The reason for the holes in the central "breast" (or nipple) is unclear but it is found to be pierced with a hole (of varying shape depending upon the manufacturer) from which the mirror was suspended by a rope. Bearing in mind that the images on the mirrors required that the mirrors be rotated, the central nodule might also have enabled the mirrors to be spun like a top. I am not sure why someone would want to spin a mirror but my son does (see the toy explained later). I would very much like to see what the reflected "magic" image becomes when spun. The creatures on the reverse will be merged in the reflected image but probably not in a laplacian way - just as concentric circles. If anyone has a magic mirror I would like them to try spinning it to see. Skipping the holy mirrors in shrines, mirror rice cakes, and the mirror held by the Japanese version of Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, King Enma, which holds a record of ones life, and, jumping to the present day... Mirrors are popular in the transformational items used by Japanese superheros. The early 1970's Mirror Man transformed using a Shinto amulet infront of any mirror or reflecting surface. Shinkenja, a group of Super Sentai or Power Rangers, that transforms thanks to their ability to write and then spin Chinese characters in the air, also transforms with the aid of an Inro Maru (4) upon which is affixed a inscribed disk. When the disk is attactched to the mirror the super hero inside the mirror is displayed. Transformation (henshin) by means of a mirror is popular too among Japanese femail super heros notably Himitsu no Akko Chan (Secret Akko), who could change into many things that were displayed in her mirror, sailor moon, and OshareMajo (6). The female super heroes mirrors usually make noises rather than contain inscriptions. The latest greatest Kamen Rider OOO sometimes transforms by means of his Taja-Spina which spins three of his totem-badge "coins" inside a mirror (video). In this ancient tradition we see recurrence of the following themes 1) Mirrors being of great benefit to the bearer enabling him to transform. 2) Mirrors containing hidden deities 3) Mirrors being associated with symbols: iconic marks, and incantations. 4) Mirrors being made to be rotated or spun. Thanks to James Ewing for the Mirror Man (Mira-man) reference and to Tomomi Noguchi for the Ojamajo Doremi reference, and to Taku Shimonuri and my son Ray for getting me interested in Japanese superheros. Addendum One of My students (A Ms. Tanaka, and a book about the cute in Japan) pointed out that the Japanese are into round things, and it seems to me that this Japanese preference for the round may originate in the mirror. Anpanman and Doraemon and many "characters" have round faces The Japanese Flag features a circle representing the sun and the mirror Japanese coats of arms (kamon) Japanese holy mirrors are round "Mirror rice cakes", and many other kinds of rice cake, are round The Sumo ring is round Pictures of the floating world (Ukiyoe) often portray the sitter in a round background Japanese groups always have to end up by standing in a round The Japanese are fond of domes and have many of the biggest The Japanese are fond of seals (inkan), which are round Japanese groups just can't help standing in a round The taiko drum is round The mitsudomoe is round Mount Fuji is round But then there are probably round things in every culture? Bibliography Created using Zotero Ayrton, W. E., & Perry, J. (1878). The Magic Mirror of Japan. Part I. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 28(190-195), 127–148. Ayrton, W. E., & Pollock, W. F. (1879). The mirror of Japan and its magic quality. London: Royal Institution of Great Britain. Needham, J. (1965). Science and Civilisation in China: Physics and physical technology. Mechanical engineering. Cambridge University Press. Needham, J., & Wang, L. (1977). Science and Civilisation in China: Physics and physical technology. I, Physics. Cambridge University Press. Berry, M. V. (2006). Oriental magic mirrors and the Laplacian image. European journal of physics, 27, 109. Retrieved from www.phy.bris.ac.uk/people/Berry_mv/the_papers/berry383.pdf Spatial Filters - Laplacian/Laplacian of Gaussian. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2012, from homepages.inf.ed.ac.uk/rbf/HIPR2/log.htm Thompson, S. P. (1897). Light Visible and Invisible: A Series of Lectures at Royal Institution of Great Britain. Macmillan. Retrieved from www.archive.org/stream/lightvisibleinvi00thomuoft#page/50...

This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.