Making Sense of Culture

The previous few posts have focused on the importance of mindful preparation for cultural transition. Today we jump ahead and explore one aspect of what it is like to actually be in the new culture: making sense of what is happening around you.

If the video above doesn’t work, click on this link to watch a YouTube video “Welcome to Tokyo” by the Japanese pop group World Order.


As you watch it, what are your reactions? Without distracting yourself from the viewing, make a mental note of the thoughts and feelings that bubble to the surface. If you’re like me, you may want to watch it multiple times! Yet, no matter how many times I see it, something is missing: I have no idea what they are saying. I do not speak Japanese.

Making connections

However, this lack in language does not prevent me from using my other senses and abilities. I can hear the music, I can see the dancing, I can marvel at the choreography and clever formations, and I can experience curiosity about the different cityscapes that provide the backdrop throughout the song. I can notice the fashion and behavior of the non-performers on the street. Best of all, I can simply enjoy myself as the video flashes by.

Yet while observing a cultural event leaves me feeling intrigued, it is also a bit empty. To help me to better interact with the music video, I must engage my cultural skills. Digging a bit deeper, I can draw on the patchwork quilt of knowledge I already have about Japan. For example, I had previously heard that Tokyo is one of the biggest cities on the planet, and one of the most highly modernized ones at that. There is certainly evidence of this fact in the video! I also know that, although it seems paradoxical, history and tradition remain important to Japanese society. While I cannot name the buildings and statues that are featured, I imagine that they may be references to important events or significant areas in the city and country’s development. Particularly at the end, when the group is sitting on their knees, I suspect a tie-in to the earlier feudal era. Approaching it from another angle, I can observe how the singers are dressed in conservative business attire, and can make a connection between their “costumes” and the articles I have read about Japan’s business culture and company men.

I can also refer to previous experiences, such as visiting a Japanese garden in Portland, Oregon, where I learned about the different way in which Japanese tend to perceive and use space. My professor Muneo Yoshikawa had talked about the importance of leaving space open as well as filling it, noting that emptiness was as valid a quality as fullness. Using this insight, I can explore the way in which the group moves about their space. Meshed in a tight formation, World Order hardly takes up any of the surrounding space at all, but maximizes their own little invisible glass box. That is, they densely occupy the space they’ve claimed, but they leave –  through their movements, the behavior of the crowd, and the filming style – an empty ring around them.

Speaking of group behavior, one element of this video which is hard to overlook is the importance of behaving as a group. Striking though the dance moves may be, it is really the fact that they are done together, completely in synch, which makes them pop. Yet it is not the subordination of the individual to the group as much as Americans might perceive. Consider that it is through the group that the individual makes something beautiful and impactful. Without the individual, there is no group, and vice versa. And, there is room for individual expression, although not as much as we in the US might desire. For example, they are all wearing their own color neckties!

Further, I notice that I instinctively want to zoom in. I want to see the expressions on each person’s face! But for the band, and maybe for the Japanese audience for whom this is intended, this may be beside the point. Just as the individual can best be understood in relation to the group, perhaps the group is also best understood in the context of their landscape. This musing allows me to make a connection with my Korean husband, who almost always takes landscape photos. Is it because he is Asian? I can’t say it is a one-to-one causation; that would be too simplistic. Yet, the emphasis on the whole, with the sum of the parts in small detail, seems to be his preference as well as the style of this video.

Now that I’ve had these observations, I start to get on a roll. I see how clean the city appears. Did you notice much trash on the ground? Graffiti? Is that because it was left out intentionally, given the nod to the Olympics at the end? Or is it because – as I am guessing, based on my research – that Tokyo is truly a tidy urban environment? And, while I am thinking about the environment, I start to appreciate the way in which the crowd moves around the singers. With the exception of the guy in shorts who crosses right in front of the band at what I think might be a temple or shrine, most of the crowd stands back, out of the way. Nobody is waving at the camera or making silly faces like they would in the US (have you ever seen the madness of humanity outside the Today Show? Or pedestrians who pop into newscasters’ segments on the street? None of that here in Tokyo, where it is even more crowded!) By contrast, many of them even look away, so as to blend in to the background and not interfere. What does this mean about how people share space together? What astounds me is the way in which the crowd is able to participate in the performance without detracting from it, to share in the larger group experience without making it all about themselves as individuals.

Creating meaning

But despite having observed these details and attempting to connect them to what I already know about Japan and Asia, something nags at me: I still don’t entirely know what the video was about. The English at the end references the 2020 Olympics and asks, “Are we OK?” Huh? So this is an Olympics video? I guess I could see that referenced in the few martial arts moves sprinkled in the choreography, but that’s a bit of a stretch. And what does the cryptic “Are we OK?” mean? Did they really mean to say “are we ready?” At this point, I realize that without additional information – a cultural informant, language lessons, more time spent in Japan – I have maximized my ability to make meaning out of this cultural encounter. The same will happen to everyone who is bold enough to experience a different culture, because you do not know what you don’t know until you encounter something new that stretches you past the point of your existing knowledge.

Living in a new culture will bring many opportunities to engage with cultural moments on various levels. Just like this video, you can simply watch it and move on, appreciating it for what it is without plumbing the depths of its meaning. Such an approach is safe and easy, as it does not ask you to expand your mind or reveal gaps in your knowledge. Yet, it is ultimately unlikely to be satisfying, as it leaves you on the periphery, outside the essence of the event.

The next step is to try to make connections, as I illustrated. This is a powerful tool as it makes the cultural moment meaningful for you personally, by building on the foundation of knowledge and experience you already have. Because it is formed by your own self, it will resonate and stick more than reading a book about the culture, and it is engaging and fun. Like me, you may discover that you know more about the culture than you think you do, which reinforces a positive cycle of learning more.

Learning and growing

Yet, there is also a danger in relying too much on your own observations, random bits of information you’ve acquired, and immediate reactions. For one thing, they might be based on stereotypes or outdated information – or could just be completely off-base. For another, they might not really help you get to the heart of what the video (or speech, or office interaction, or public behavior) really means. This leaves you closer than the person who didn’t bother to contemplate the culture at all, but still standing in the doorway looking in, making conjectures but not authentic, accurate connections to the people or culture. If you do not take the next step and consult experts, either through books or through trainers, you also run the risk of getting caught in your own echo chamber – seeing only what you already expect to see, and filtering out the rest.

Ultimately, success in your adopted culture depends on escaping from your own thoughts and understanding the new place for what it really is, not what you think it is or expect it to be. I came across this video thanks to a colleague who has expertise on Japanese culture. I’m going to reach out to see if I can learn more. How about you?

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