Monthly Archives: October 2012

It’s a party, and the whole world’s invited

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I love traditional festivals. No matter what the culture, even if they’re staged, traditional style festivals just seem to get under the skin. They make everything exciting – and they help to break down the boundaries between people.

Growing up in Australia, I didn’t get to experience this type of festival often, which is probably why they hold such a particular thrill for me. The closest I ever got as a child was the odd Chinese New Year event and the occasional display of Aboriginal culture. Unfortunately, to the average Aussie a festival seems to be something like Big Day Out – a day spent sweating and drinking with mates as the sun slowly burns the outline of the bits you missed with the zinc into your skin, with maybe a rock band or two for entertainment. A sense of community exists only in the minds of the rowdiest people. I suppose the lack is not really surprising, in a nation with a history only about 300 or so years old.

So living in Japan can be very exciting for me. Especially through the warmer months, there seems to be a festival everywhere you turn. Go for a stroll, and you’ll stumble upon the local young folk rhythmically hefting a local shrine’s festival float (o-mikoshi), as the older citizens shout, cheer, swig beer, dance, and play highly catchy traditional music in a semi-organised, semi-impromptu parade through the town. It’s very much a family event.

But it’s not only the community-run festivals that excite, and break down the boundaries between people.

I recently had the opportunity to witness a staged ‘festival’ organised by the management of a local airport. Strictly choreographed and organised down to the letter, and performed by professional dancers, the traditional aspects of the performance nonetheless managed to create a similar effect to genuine community festivals.

After the organised performance was finished, the barriers were moved. The performers continued dancing, the music continued playing – and in the middle of a crowded airport, passers-by joined in. And it wasn’t just Japanese people, either. In a true display of just how strong is the power of a festival to break down the boundaries between people, a foreign traveller, a Muslim woman in a headscarf, was dancing right along with and among everyone else. Never mind that this wasn’t her culture, she probably couldn’t fully communicate with any of the other dancers, and she wasn’t 100% confident with the moves of the dance – she was still a fully participating member of the celebration.

People want to interact, and want to feel like they’re an accepted part of their surroundings. They just often aren’t sure how to achieve this. The excitement and possibility of involvement of a traditional style festival doesn’t really bring people together per se – it just facilitates what people already want to do. Even in an airport, a place which to most people is nothing but a stop on the way to somewhere else, a festival that wasn’t even completely authentic had the power to create a community spirit in a room full of strangers. Gender, occupation, nationality – the power of the festival cancelled out all differences, and created a single shared commonality: pure excitement and a desire to celebrate. And even if each person was privately celebrating a different thing, just the act of celebrating gave them a togetherness that would probably have been impossible without the medium of a festival.

And to me, this is the whole point of a festival. It’s the reason that every society around the world has festivals, and honestly it’s a quality that most modern-age festivals lack. New festivals these days aren’t designed to draw a community. They’re designed to entertain a group of individuals. There’s very little room for interaction, and little attempt is made to provide any incentive towards becoming a single united group.

The relatively recent mass migration to the cities has caused people to become so used to living among strangers, with no sense of community, that they no longer make any attempt to facilitate the sense of belonging that everyone craves. We’re no longer just ignoring others; we’re ignoring our own need to belong with others. In many places, the traditional festivals of a time in which community was a much larger part of life will continue to fill the gap as much as they can. But in the meantime, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if we could devise some way to create the same sense of excitement and community in a completely modern setting.

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Festivals are not just entertainment, but are necessary for the well-being of both our communities and our selves. In what ways have you felt moved by a festival – or even a community spirit in any setting? And is modern society really losing the ability to facilitate communities? Feel free to leave any thoughts, or any stories you want to share, in the comments section below.

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Complex individuality

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With all the outside influences which impact on our personalities from the moment we have a consciousness, let alone a sense of self, it can be difficult to know what we really want, and even harder to know what it is we actually need. There are often times when our socialised behaviours clash with our natural instincts. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should ignore any impulse that is the result of socialisation, and just do everything according to natural urges. Socialisation exists as a mode to aid the process of interacting with others. It’s a necessary social tool, hence the name. However, socialisation more often than not works by placing a person within certain categories and then teaching them that people within those categories must behave a certain way, even if people in other categories are expected to act differently. In other words, due to socialisation, people rarely identify themselves as [person//individual], but are more likely to identify themselves much more complexly; for instance: [person//age//nationality//gender//education//etc.//individual].

Such a complex method of self-identification naturally leads to complications in self-expression. Because people do not think of themselves solely as either an individual or as part of a united group, they often become confused about who they are, what they want and need out of life, and what actions, out of all the options, it is actually ok for them to do.

Of course, while it is nearly impossible for a person to completely reject all classifications and identify solely as an individual, nearly all of us pick and choose, and occasionally adapt and change the categories we use to create our own identities and to guide the behaviour with which we interact with others.

Mr. Weirdo has an identity just as complex as might be expected for a person in their mid twenties. In fact, it is possibly even more complex – study abroad has widened his horizons a little more than if he had stayed immersed in his native culture his entire life. Indeed, it was through study abroad that he was exposed to a society in which hugs were completely acceptable, and he now thinks hugs are great. But, although he admires this behaviour he has discovered within a separate identity group, and wants to incorporate it within his own behaviour, categories which had previously been rooted in his own identity limit his success in incorporating this new characteristic whole-heartedly.

The two main categories which cause Mr. Weirdo problems as he tries to adapt to this new behaviour are: [Japanese//Male]. Now, Mr. Weirdo is not trying to reject these categories from his identity. He merely wants to incorporate a new piece, and is finding it difficult to make the new piece fit while leaving the existing pieces intact. But, while he has been socialised to feel that Japanese are not comfortable with casual physical contact, and that masculinity means to avoid displays of emotion and ‘touchy-feely stuff’, it might be impossible to incorporate hug-culture entirely into his identity. So Mr. Weirdo is forced to compromise. He limits his new hug behaviour to situations in which he feels it might be acceptable enough to get away with it – hugging only with people who already participate in hug-culture, and avoiding the touchy-feely emotional stuff by making it clear to himself – although maybe not quite so clear to others as he would hope – that this behaviour is a ‘hug’, not, however long it might last, or how intimate it might be, a girly ‘cuddle’.

Outwardly, Mr. Weirdo is proud to hold hug-culture within his identity, but subconsciously he is conflicted. Although he might say “Japanese people don’t hug enough”, like he wants to encourage them to hug more, he is noticeably reluctant to take the bilingual ‘Free Hugs’ sign I made him out of the closet and actually air it in the public spaces of Japan.

As we learn new things about other people, we also learn new things about ourselves. By becoming exposed to new ideas, we have a chance to incorporate them into our own identities. But the more difficult struggle is to change those categories which are already a part of our identity. Although behaviours and categories may have been incorporated into ourselves from before an age when we learned how to pick and chose, most of us never feel the desire to give up a category once we have successfully incorporated it into our identities.

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The struggle to balance our complexities of identity is one common to everyone. Feel free to use the comments below to share your perspective on your own struggle with identity.

Sexist Japan

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When thinking of some of the world’s most modern societies, most people tend to expect a certain amount of technological and social advancement. While there can be no doubt that Japan is right up there with the best on the technology front, as a society it remains somewhat lacking in anything along the lines of gender equality.

The other day, I met a Japanese friend (Miss Kitty, in case I ever need to refer to her in a later post) to discuss the possibility of my participation in her extremely ambitious plans for her startup business. About halfway through this meeting, I was honestly shocked to hear the details of what she had decided would be a reasonable fee for her customers to pay. But what shocked me wasn’t the actual amount of money she required, but the fact that she had calculated her fee differently for men and women.

Last month, I stumbled upon a sign announcing the existence of a ‘Gender Equality Promotion Center’ in the vicinity of a train station some distance out of central Tokyo. While I have yet to check it out, just knowing that it is there gave me some hope that Japan was at last starting to make real progress towards equality. Of course, Miss Kitty’s plans were a real kick in the face for my pretty dreams. Not only does she expect men to pay double that of women – but she also intends to offer a 1/3 discount to every woman who brings along a man. That is to say, a 1/3 discount for each man a woman can convince to accompany her; there would conceivably be some women who would receive Miss Kitty’s services for free. Crazy, right?

The truly shocking part of Miss Kitty’s plan is that it is genuinely conceivable. Even these days, it is very common in Japan to see entertainment-related services charging more for men. This is limited not only to places like clubs, where the thinking is obviously “men want to meet women, so we’ll attract all the women and the men will flock to pay more”, but is also a policy encouraged by the local cinemas, all of which host a ‘ladies day’ once a week allowing women to see films at almost half price. Although some few cinemas are recently beginning to incorporate a similar ‘mens day’, these fee-related policies are continuing evidence that Japan, as a society, is reluctant to let go of two central ideas which promote gender inequality. These ideas are namely: That a gender wage gap is completely normal and acceptable, and; That men should naturally provide the financial support that women require.

All of which leads directly to another problem. “If you get married and start a family, do you think you might still be able to participate in this business?” asks Miss Kitty, quite seriously. Japan has one of the highest rates of university education in the world, for women as well as men. But it is still more conceivable than not that a Japanese woman will quit working and become a fulltime housewife as soon as she has children. This is not to say that Japanese women are not interested in a career, and do not have goals they wish to pursue outside of the family. Rather, Japanese society as a whole has failed to provide any decent support for working mothers. The childcare system is exclusive and expensive (as another friend trying to get into the workforce after giving birth complained extensively), prospective employers are unwilling to hire a woman who does not have a guarantee of finding childcare for her baby, and anyway, even if a new mother had a job, trying to divide parenting and career responsibilities with the father just seems ridiculous when you take into consideration how much more his employers likely pay him for his time.

And so, all my pretty dreams of an egalitarian Japan are all gone to dust, and seem unlikely to be resurrected anytime soon. Of course, I certainly hope that something soon will precipitate real change, and trigger a genuine step towards gender equality. But with the country still run on such a conservative basis, we’ll have a real fight on our hands to make anyone with power even see that the situation is broken, let alone that it needs fixing.