Quick! Sum up all of what you know about Japan in a single word. It could be an English or Japanese word. Go on, don’t be shy, this isn’t a test or a scam! What do you think?
So, did you come up with ‘kawaii’ (cute)? Or ‘technology’? Maybe ‘traditional’? All good choices, but the problem with all of these is that they ignore significant portions of the Japanese culture that is the complete opposite of that. For ‘kawaii’, there is a significant upswell of characters designed to be NOT cute. ‘Technology’ is true in some places but instantly debunked by anyone trying to pay by plastic here. ‘Traditional’ is a good one, but again that misses out on a great deal of the pop-culture that Japan has put out.
So what word can sum up this vast, wide reaching and complex country? Well, far be it from me to suggest that a single word can define a nation of over 120 million people with an unfathomably deep history – it can’t – but if I were to try, I would suggest ‘Kata’ (方). The ‘how to’. The rules.
In Japan, there is a ‘kata’ for EVERYTHING. Everything from the more obvious stuff such as ‘how to make’ (tsukurikata) for cooking recipes and ‘how to play’ (asobikata) for game rules all the way to really meticulous things such as ‘how to sit’ (suwarikata) and ‘how to write’ (kakikata). The kata pervades every single aspect of Japanese society, giving exhaustive detail on how to live your life correctly and by the rules.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “well that’s all well and good, PJ, but how is that different from my home country? We have a correct and incorrect way of doing things too. Heck, even we have a correct way to sit for good posture!”
True. But herein lies the biggest differences, the reason why I feel ‘kata’ is the keyword of Japan. Of those rules, did you feel compelled to follow them? Every single one of them? Are you sitting correctly as you read this? Do you have quirky nuances to your handwriting that an English teacher would frown at? And yes, that includes a ‘7’ with a strikethrough and writing your uppercase ‘Y’ like a big version of the lowercase ‘y’.
You see, in many other cultures (possibly your own), the rules are there more like a recommendation, guidelines for beginners, or dogmatic jobsworths. If anything, we are encouraged to push, bend and even break the rules.
Not so in Japan. If the rule for western countries is “I don’t care how you do it, just get it done,” then in Japan the rule is “if you can’t do it the right way, then you haven’t done it at all.” The rules are there to be followed, no shortcuts, no bending or breaking. Simple as that. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a kanji thousands of times and they all look print-perfect, if you have been using the wrong stroke order then they are all wrong. Sorry, that’s the rule! Hey, if you’re in Japan, don’t feel like a stiff for following the rules, because that’s not how it’s seen here: instead, you are viewed as an upstanding and reliable citizen.
There are pros and cons to this. I honestly believe that we have the ‘kata’ to thank for Japan’s incredible social cohesion: a punctual train system, attention to detail, safety and cleanliness are examples of this. But on the other hand, the often slavish obedience to ‘kata’ coupled with their ubiquitous presence in daily life makes for a stiff, inflexible and at times oppresive experience. Living with a Japanese partner, I am constantly reminded of all the ‘kata’ I keep forgetting (everything I buy from the supermarket that has at least a 1% chance of leakage should be packed in a secondary plastic bag), as well as being loaded with new ones (that I should pull fabrics before hanging them out to dry to avoid creases). It trips up Japanese people too, who due to being – gasp! – fallible human beings are often paranoid of messing up the kata, and in formal situations they will spend long and exhaustive meetings practicing every minute detail of a business presentation to a bulletproof sheen. Schools will hand over weeks of valuable lesson time to sports day practice, even going so far as to basically do an entire sports day with the students before the actual event in front of parents. If you have ever witnessed one of these events, the reason it looks so slick and orderly is because it’s been done ten times already.
The rules, these kata, is the glue that holds Japanese society together. As outside influence and a new generation of more socially-aware and questioning Japanese youth are coming through, this system is being challenged. How Japan will cope with a diminishing influence of kata in the future will be fascinating, but for now the kata are here to stay.