Overview: Let's Meet Japan

East and Southeast Asia: Japan (Bon Odori Dancing)

This week's class takes us to Japan, a country that deceives. On one hand Japan feels so close, so familiar, that American may easily assume we know much more about it than we actually do. So much of Japanese culture has entered the world's psyche--who among us hasn't ever sung karaoke, eaten sushi, watched anime, done a karate chop or pranced around the living room our flabby belly hanging out, bouncing into our unsuspecting cousin Rosco like a sumo wrestler? On the other hand,, what of these elements of Japanese art and culture do non-Japanese really appreciate, let alone fully understand? Just because we use Japanese DVD players, drive Japanese cars and have mastered Dance Dance Revolution, does that mean we truly know Japan?  

Japanese empires have existed for at least two thousand years, which is when they first appear in histories written by the Chinese. (The Japanese have long refered to their nation as "Nippon," which means "sun-origin," or, "Land of the Rising Sun.") From its beginning Japan remained relatively isolated from the rest of Asia. Yes, Chinese Zen Buddhism and other elements of Chinese culture spread to Japan, but for almost two whole millennia, first through a series of dynastic empires and then throughout a long feudal era during which a class of warriors known as samurai dominated the nation, waging war at the behest of emperors or wealthy land owners (1185-1868), Japan stayed more or less out of the global fray. With so little interaction beyond its borders, Japan became remarkably homogeneous; even today almost 99% of Japan's permanent residents are ethnically Japanese.    

The era of Japanese isolation started to come to a close with the 1854 arrival of U.S. Naval Commodore Matthew Perry who was determined to "open" the nation to the outside world. Japan's newfound connection with the West helped spur the 1868 Meiji Restoration, during which imperial rule returned, and inspired the subsequent Meiji period during which Japan industrialized and militarized. Within two generations the once-isolated Empire of Japan had spread beyond its island borders to conquer Taiwan and Korea and had waged wars against both China and Russia. When Emperor Yoshihito passed away in 1926 his son, Hirohito, assumed the throne. Emperor Hirohito  expanded Japanese influence as a global power by invading Manchuria, a region in northeast China, in 1931, signing a pact in 1936 with Hitler's Germany to work together in case of an attack on either by the Soviet Union, invading other parts of China in 1937, occupying French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1940 and then, on December 7, 1941, by attacking the United States at the Pearl Harbor naval base.

The Japanese military fought fervently throughout World War II to support Hirohito, who many Japanese, especially believers in the Shinto religion, believed was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu and therefore divine. After four years of vicious battle Japan fell to the Allied forces. (The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in an estimated 200,000 casualties, played a substantial, though forever-controversial role, in Hirohito's decision to surrender.)

After the War ended the United States occupied Japan and decided, on the whole, not to punish but to rebuild. Japan's modernization and eventual rise to become the world's second largest economy after the U.S. is truly extraordinary. In 1945 much of Japan lay in ruins. In 1947 Japan adopted a liberal democratic constitution which included a provision that allows Japan to field an army, but only for the purpose of defense. After the Allied occupation ended in 1952 Japan's economy took off like a shot, modernizing rapidly (featuring electronics and auto companies such as Sony and Toyta) and didn't stop expanding until it faced a deep recession in mid-'90, an era known in Japan as "the Lost Decade." Japan eventually found itself, and today its economy--the world's third largest now, after the U.S. and China--is relatively stable despite the after-effects of "the Great Recession" of 2008-2009. Politically, though the roayal family still receives respect, real power in Japan lies in the hands of the Prime Minister and other members of the nation's parliament.   

Got it? Good. 

This week in class:

-- We sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello in Japanese: "Konnichi wa!"

-- “I'm Shy” is a song inspired by the vivid dreams of the Temiar people of the eastern Malaysian region of Borneo. (More.

-- “Kappa Boogie Woogie” is a post World War II Japanese  dancehall song, a “boogie woogie” of the kind that came with American soldiers to  the islands. (More.)  

-- “Life is Like a Garden” is an Indonesian “Dandgut” hit inspired, as are many dangdut songs, by a Bollywood classic. (More.)  


While Japanese is by far the dominant language spoken in Japan -- 99% of Japanese speak it -- as the nation becomes increasingly open to outside influence, other languages, like Korean and English, are becoming more common. On the other hand, some previously healthy local languages, less useful than Japanese, Korean or English in the modern global marketplace, struggle to remain viable. According to The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, even Okinawan, with a million remaining speakers, is in peril. Before Okinawan disappears make sure to learn these proverbs: -- "Machushi garu ufu iyoo tuyuru:: One who waits patiently will catch a big fish. 

-- "Yaasa ru maasaru": Food is delicious when one is hungry. And, most appropriately, 

-- "Nmarijima nu kutuba wasshii nee kuni n wasshiin": Forgetting your native tongue means forgetting your native country.   If you want to write Japanese you'll have to learn several scripts: Chinese characters (kanji) and two "syllabic scripts" based on Chinese characters -- hiragana and katakana. What's the difference? According to About.com's overview of Japanese writing: -- Kanji represents blocks of meaning (nouns, stems of adjectives and verbs) 

-- Hiragana expresses the grammatical relationship between them 

-- Katakana is used for foreign names, the names of foreign places and words of foreign origin.   Still confused? This may or may not help. (More info: should you write Japanese vertically or horizontally? | See what your name looks like in Japanese phonetic characters called katatana)   Rōmaj, the traditional way of translating Japanese into the Latin alphabet is becoming more and more prevalent, especially as Japan integrates into an increasingly English-speaking world. In class we stick with Rōmaji and say hello and goodbye in Japanese. 



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