Clash of the cultures stereotypes

I read an article at 1up called “Clash of the Cultures” that talked about the differences between American and Japanese games and directly correlated those differences with the differences in American and Japanese culture, mind-set, history, etc. My feelings on this article are mixed. I think the explanations of the differences between Japanese and American games, and the examples provided to explain those differences, are excellent. However, the analysis/explanation of those differences via an explanation of Japanese and American culture border somewhere between overly simplistic and idiodic. Granted, alot of the ‘analysis’ is being quoted by various American and Japanese game developers, who can hardly be considered to be sociologists, anthropologists, or Japan studies scholars, but that doesn’t change the idiocy of the statements.

Here are some of the more obvious ones:

Americans are very big on personal freedom, which give a greater sense of individuality. Americans all have their own political or religious beliefs, and defend them vigorously. Americans love their cars, because it affords us opportunities for independence that public transportation can’t afford. Americans love commercial competition, because it feeds capitalism and innovation. America is a country that fought for its independence primarily to grant these kind of freedoms, a nation famous for its frontier mentality.

Ah, how many times I’ve heard this schtick? One of the major reasons why large-scale public transportation died back in the 50’s was that it couldn’t compete with personal automobile economically. Cars got faster and cheaper, the interstate system was built, and America is so huge that the infrastucture for a railway system capable of handling America’s travel needs was prohibitively expensive. Before that Americans rode the train for interstate travel just as much as they did in Europe or Japan. Japanese and European rail systems remain competitive more because of the smaller size and higher population density than because of some American independance streak. And commercial competition? Japanese love that as much as we do. And now that Japan’s economy is back on the upturn we can expect more competition from there in the future.

It’s easy to see why the Japanese might enjoy a farming game — the nation has a strong agrarian tradition. But Harvest Moon involves the same concepts of nurturing and caring that made the Tamagotchi so popular. Likewise, this could be one reason for the national obsession with role playing games where gamers put in hours of hard work to level up their characters. Rather than reaping a bountiful harvest as their reward, however, a gamer would have a max level fighter who can deal 9999 damage in a single hit.

“Culturally speaking, Japanese culture is firmly rooted in wet-rice agriculture and its status as an island nation,” says Inafune. “Japanese want to be able to plan, they want to have guidance, they want to have focus. To put it simply, Japanese people feel uncomfortable with the unknown and not understanding the future. RPGs illustrate this well — it is your turn to attack, it is the enemy’s turn to attack. You pick a magic spell and you have a predictable result. You progress through the game with clearly defined goals. Japanese enjoy having these clearly-defined goals, and it progresses all the way through to the actual game implementation. Japanese people don’t like just being dropped into a sandbox with no guidance. If you tell a Japanese person they are free to go anywhere, often times they will choose to go nowhere.

“Westerners, on the other hand, seem to be excited by the unknown. For instance, as a hunting and trapping society, an American may go deer hunting and encounter a bear. Japanese would be scared by this encounter, whereas the American will probably shoot the bear and go back excited that he got a bear instead of a deer. The unknown encounter becomes even better than the known. I feel this is the key difference.”

It annoys me when I read a book by some westerner that has lived in Japan for several years and writes a book that simplifies everything the Japanese think and do down to two things: they are farmers and they were isolated on an island. I hate to point out the fact that every single civilization in the world started out as farmers. I fail to see where Japan is unique in this aspect. And the isolation? If that were so unique, wouldn’t England , Madagascar , and Cuba have similar histories? I know that guys like Reischauer certainly know a lot more than I do about Japan and the Japanese, but the gross over-simplification really bugs me.

And Inafune reducing Americans to a hunting and trapping society? Did he see Jeremiah Johnson and this episode of Kids in the Hall in order to become an expert on U.S. culture? {sigh}

“Japan has several thousand years of cultural and artistic tradition while America is less than 300 years old. Even the Japanese writing system is based on pictographs and visual imagery, which is not the case with English script,” says John Opplinger, who runs a daily column dealing with Japanese culture at the store / new site Animenation.

The distinction can be seen in action in each nations’ 19th-century military uniforms, before Japan’s westernization. Japanese samurai wore extravagant helmets with equally extravagant armor, and their soldiers wore a similar garb. The police guard of the era, known as the Shinsengumi, wore bright blue kimonos with a distinct white pattern. Compare these to Federal and Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War, who wore comparatively plain uniforms.

America’s artistic tradition is directly descended from the Roman/Greek tradition, which is – I dare say – at least as old as Japan’s. And it has been well over a thousand years since the kanji had any direct relevance to a pictographic system.

Japan’s 19-th century military uniforms were extravagant because they were living in an equivalent 14-th century feudal society. And if you want to see extravagant uniforms, look no further than the Swiss Guard of the Vatican, reputably designed by Michelangelo himself. That is extravagant.

Yes, the Shinsengumi certainly had bright colorful uniforms (they were also originally more of a vigilante group than a commisioned police force, though they were later legitimized), and they also ultimately lost. (Although the Ikedaya Incident was tactical genius on thier part) They were defeated by the Choshu and Satsuma factions, who had weapons and uniforms similar to the Federal and Confederate soldiers in the American Civil War. So much for bright, colorful uniforms. The Redcoats found out about that about a century earlier, too.

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1 Response to Clash of the cultures stereotypes

  1. Porteiro says:

    I’m not saying that there’s anything to that article’s interpretation of Japan’s culture regarding it being an island nation, but I think your rebuttal of it is flawed. In comparison to Cuba and Madgasgar, Japan has a centuries-long history of being relatively “advanced” both socially and politically.

    England has been a powerful state and relatively “advanced” since the middle ages, but it was never isolated as an island in the way Japan is. Small fishing boats could easily, and routinely did, sail between England and France.

    To sum up, I don’t think you can convincingly say “your island theory is bunk because it didn’t happen in England, Cuba, or Madagasgar”, because of the significant differences between those islands and Japan.

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