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Review of Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations

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The culture of a country is very ephemeral.  It seems next to impossible to lock it down and write about it on paper.  The best a lot of people like I can do is write about our experiences and observances in a hope to convey what it is like to live and work here.

There are definitely a lot of things that you can ‘feel’ about a different culture.  No one in their right mind would think people in Japan act anything like people in the States and vice versa.  There are clear differences between the two, but I, for one, have a hard time nailing down any kind of clear overview of what is going on.

Culture seems to be so invisible sometimes that when I challenge my students to come with ideas for what to tell foreigners about Japanese culture, they have a hard time coming up with ideas.  And the views they sometimes hold of Americans is very different from the day to day realty.

The Author – Roger Davies

That’s why it is interesting to read a book from Roger Davies.  He seems to put into words some ideas that are so difficult to write about.  His book The Japanese Mind (US) is a must read for anyone wanting to understand Japanese culture.  It shines light on a lot of difficult topics that are difficult to understand otherwise.

He has lived and worked in Japan for the last 20+ years teaching linguistics and business management courses at universities here.  That experience and understanding of the culture really shines through in what he writes, too.  You can tell that this is a guy that knows Japan and hasn’t just ‘studied’ it like a few other Japanese ‘experts’ have.

IMHO

Roger’s new book, Japanese Culture: The Religious and Philosophical Foundations (US), goes further with Japanese culture by covering the religious influences that have changed Japanese culture.  Japan is home to a variety of religions, the two biggest ones are Buddhism and Shintoism.  But not a lot of people in Japan would identify themselves as being religious or really truly believing in one or the other.  Despite this, everyone seems to still follow the customs and traditions of both.

In my personal experience, as a family, we visited a shrine when my daughter was over a month old (omiyamairi), and visited Heian Jingu for shichi-go-san (7-5-3) the celebration where 3 year olds, 5 year old boys, and 7 year olds visit a shrine for a special ceremony.  It’s not a very religious experience, more like a ceremony that people go through.

So, religion has an influence on Japanese culture, but the relationship of that influence is a lot more complex than it might be in other countries.  It is very subtle, but it is there.

And I like to read about the religions of the world.  But I’ll be honest with you.  Academic reading, and reading about religions makes me sleepy, no matter how well-written and researched.  It is one of the primary reasons I never went for my Masters.  I just can’t face the thought of reading through anything academic.

Fortunately, this book is a nice short read of about 130 pages, with another 20 pages or so of appendices full of some handy extra information.  130 pages may seem a bit too short to cover all the influences of religion on Japan.  And it is.  This book is not meant to be an authoritative tome of information.  It’s meant to start the conversation about those influences.

Every chapter finishes off with 2 to 3 pages of discussion questions for you to ponder over.  They are well-constructed enough to encourage you to continue your research and keep learning about the topic instead of pretending that this book is all you really need.  I really like this aspect of the book because it makes you think and interact with it instead of simply attempting to shove all this content down your throat.

Conclusion

Overall, I felt like a learned a lot from this book despite living here for over 12 years.  There were a lot of moments of understanding for me.  I don’t think it will clear up everything for you, but it will take you a few steps closer in your understanding of Japanese culture.

This is definitely a book you need to pick up if you want to learn more about Japanese culture and would like more of an understanding of what influenced it.  Even as an experienced ‘veteran’ of Japan, I felt like I learned a lot of things I didn’t know.  I wish I had read a book like this before making the move to Japan for the first time.  It would have cleared up a few things, and laid a good framework for me to see and understand Japan.

 

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