Culture Shock in the New Old Japan (1952-1963)

Culture Shock in the New Old Japan (1952-1963)

Written by Vern Rossman, former missionary in Japan who recently died

Written by Vern Rossman, former missionary in Japan who recently died

Culture Shock in the New Old Japan (1952-1963)

With a warbler for
a soul, it sleeps peacefully,
this mountain willow

The seventeen syllable haiku is consummate Japanese aesthetics and the 17th Century Basho was a master. It is like a snapshot in words, expressing a sudden satori (enlightenment). Haiku are difficult to translate. They often juxtapose a picture from nature and a feeling, or two complementary figures from nature. Translators are tempted to insert words, like verbs, that aren’t there, as:

The weeping wind
shakes the roof tiles
and my lonely heart answers

Instead of:
The weeping wind,
trembling roof tiles —
my lonely heart

Okay, that’s mine, not Basho’s and not seventeen syllables. Haiku, in their essence, are universal. A lot of the poetry of the West has its elements: a distant train whistle at night … surges of sadness; a soaring eagle … slashes of joy; a funeral procession … intimations of mortality.

Betrayal from an Unexpected Source

One of my early confrontations with the alien life of ordinary Japanese took place during my first months in language school. The school arranged to take us to a Japanese onsen resort as part of our education. There were huge steaming baths like swimming pools, which we were told had been segregated during our visit to accommodate our peculiar western modesty. In the dressing room I met a friend coming out. “Is it clear?” I said. “Oh yes,” he said, “it’s clear.” A Southern Baptist missionary had lied. I had just gotten stripped when three beautiful young Japanese women came out of the bath area in a state of nature. Now, Japanese women are supposed to be shy, but when confronted by a gaijin (foreigner), I discovered, tradition flows down the drain. They covered their mouths, giggled and stared. I hastily entered the bathing area which was otherwise deserted.

When I confronted my conservative friend he doubled over laughing. A few months later, the boiler at the dorm broke down so we all went to the public bath in the neighborhood. There were two big pools which, due to the American occupation, were segregated. Of course, the woman who took our money was sitting in a booth which looked into both areas and there was a little ancient man in a loincloth who wandered in and out both sides, cleaning and straightening up.

The wife of one of our couples reported that the Japanese women in her side were totally fascinated by her bright red panties and bra, and insisted on examining them.

During our time in the country, there were still schools where woman teachers examined at random several girls’ underwear every day. If they were wearing anything except plain white cotton they were sent home to change.  Nowadays, many wear the most radical underwear their mothers will allow, just like American girls.

Cultural Immersion

It has been truthfully said that we cannot understand our own culture unless we know the language and culture of another. This happened to us with two years of language school and cultural studies followed by doing our work in Japanese.

To be bilingual you have to be raised in the country, especially an alien culture like Japan. It is impossible, without such immersion, to understand the puns and jokes and the evolving teen slang, much less the subtleties of negotiations, where little nuances of language might tell you whether your opponent is pushing you off or actually taking your proposal seriously. The Japanese are also experts at making fun of foreigners without their ever knowing it.

I remember going with my boss and mentor, Mathew Ogawa, a fully bi-cultural man, to a meeting of Japanese Christian ministers. They sat in a circle and debated a change in their procedures. I could understand most of the discussion. One minister after another indicated his approval of the change. At last the meeting ended without a vote. Voting in such a situation is not really a Japanese thing; someone might be offended. On the way home, I said to Mathew, “I guess they decided to do that.”  “Oh, no,” he said, “you noticed that old Rev. Watanabe across from you didn’t say anything. That meant he was against it, so they decided not to do it.”

Watanabe was the sempai (the oldest honored one), so his opinion out-weighed all the others. This illustrates the enduring power of Confucianism in Japan. With my classroom Japanese I couldn’t have understood what was going on.

Language conceals many perils. A missionary who spoke with a Texas accent was preaching while a friend watched from the balcony. The sermon was on the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Soon the friend was covering his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. The Texan’s southern drawl, making a short syllable long, had Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of his aged aunt rather than a donkey. The Japanese were too polite even to smile and would never have even considered telling him the way he was butchering the language.

We rode to our language study on a crowded streetcar. You had to push through to get off on time and it was polite to say, “Oroshite kudasai” (Please let me off.) One of our women got flustered one morning and said instead, “Koroshite kudasai” (Please kill me.) Nobody laughed.

The language barrier works both ways. During the occupation there was a famous door in downtown Tokyo which said “Push” on one side and “Shut Up” on the other. There was also a sign in a window advertising a tailor, “Ladies have fits upstairs.”

Marks of Poverty

I arrived in Japan the fall of 1952, just as the Occupation was coming to an end. Most people were still deep in poverty from the war. I remember teaching English to middle school students in the depths of winter. There was no central heating, only a couple of charcoal hibachi around which the students would huddle during breaks. Faces and hands were bright red, chapped from the cold. They wore layers under their school uniforms, but were never warm. Their lunches were plain rice in a bentobako box with a tiny sour plum or pickle, and if they were from a family which was better off, maybe a bit of broiled fish. I remember in a store seeing an elderly woman buy four ounces of chicken skin to make soup.

The Confucian Society

Japan has, over the course of a half century, become a fairly wealthy country, and that is due, in part, to the communal discipline of Confucianism.

The American occupation following W.W.II impacted the Japanese Confucian and Buddhist society powerfully. The people rolled with the blows and over decades decided, in the Japanese way, how much of democracy to assimilate. By the time I arrived many young people were in full rebellion. The Communist Party was growing, as were the Socialists. The latter actually gained enough power one time to elect a prime minister. Before and since, the country has been in the control of one or more of the factions in the Liberal Democratic Party. That’s an oxymoron since it is neither liberal nor democratic. By that I mean, it keeps its power by patronage, buying votes and vast public works.

The course of the youth rebellion well illustrates the enduring power of Confucianism. Their elders sat back and watched the young people march and organize and celebrate their own Sixties style liberation. As those in control of the corporations and businesses knew, the young people eventually came to them for jobs. Then they were brought to heel. The youths faced enormous pressures also from their families, emotionally powerful because family ties and relationships had been everything. Girls, who had sworn to marry only for love, found themselves facing the alternative of an arranged marriage or withdrawal of family support.

A small percentage of the rebels found niches in society where they could live as they wished, especially in journalism, the arts and entertainment. Women have made progress, though they continue to contend with a much lower glass ceiling.

Confucianism continues powerful in Mainland China and among the Chinese of the rim of Asia. This cohesiveness has fueled the rapid economic advancement of these nations.

During the occupation, the Americans were surprised to see how fast orders were implemented when the Japanese decided to support an edict. When an order on educational reform went down from the Mombusho (Ministry of Education), it was in effect within a week in even the tiniest rural school.  That’s Confucianism.

Confucianism has been called a “web” society, a good analogy. Everyone is tangled in an inescapable web of obligations and responsibilities. These are based on the traditional Confucian relationships of Emperor and people, father and child, lord and serf (boss and employee), teacher and student. The one above has authority over those below. But the responsibility goes both ways. The one above must care for the well-being of those in his charge. Frequently, a business head, forced to lay off workers or close a factory, has resigned in shame or even committed suicide. Today, thanks to global competition and hard times, lay-offs are more common and less emotionally rending.

Women in the Web

Women are tangled more tightly than men. A new wife comes into her husband’s home, traditionally, as a near slave of her mother-in-law, who can be extremely cruel. This is one point where there have been advances made possible by prosperity. Some girls and their families have dug in and demanded a separate dwelling for the young couple or an apartment for the mother in law, and won the concession.

The wife has to buy the traditional gifts and judge with great difficulty on just the right present and amount to spend, for New Years, Christmas, and when asking a favor. Presents go to bosses, supervisors, teachers and others to whom the family owes an obligation. Too expensive a gift places the receiver under a much resented obligation to the giver. Too little a gift is an insult. The wife has to make many ritual visits, taking presents. If a child offends a teacher, the mother must take a gift and go and bow low and ask for forgiveness. You can imagine the pressure this puts on the children.

Green Gables

Now that prosperity enables more foreign travel, Japanese wives nag their husbands until they get to visit one particular place on Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia: the house that inspired Anne of Green Gables. I am unable to tell this story without a catch in my throat, so deeply do I empathize with these housewives. Anne, that irrepressible, creative, quick-tempered, impulsive little redhead, symbolizes perfectly the kind of freedom Japanese women yearn to have and will never, ever, experience.

The Examination Hell

The children face the horror of the “examination hell.” Many a thirteen year old boy has thrown himself under the wheels of a subway train on failing his middle school exams. His failure has not only trashed his own future but his family’s hopes for him.

In Japanese tradition, suicide washes the page of failure or crime clean for the one who dies and the family. The important rewards making suicide attractive have been pointed out by psychiatrists and are especially true in Japan for the boy who has failed his exams. He can in one act (1) end his misery, (2) expunge his record, and (3) savor in advance the revenge he is taking upon the parents who hounded him to this end, picturing his father’s angry regret, his mother’s bitter tears.  Families hire tutors for their pre-school children with the hope they can pass the exams to enter a prestigious kindergarten. If they get in and persevere they may move smoothly through high class schools, passing exam after exam and eventually get into Todai, number one of the country’s five leading universities. From Tokyo University has come most of Japan’s top leaders, both in the corporate world and in government.

The pressure to succeed is unimaginable. It accounts in part for the underlying rage in children which leads to sadistic bullying of outsiders as well as, often, to suicide. Suicide has several real advantages for such children: It punishes the parents who put them in this kind of stress, it atones for failure in accordance with Japanese tradition, and it ends a life of endless boring work and chronic fatigue.

If you can make it out of a top university and into a good job you are ordinarily fixed for life.

Love at First Sight

When foreigners live in a culture like this for years, they go through three stages: (1) Infatuation. Everything seems tantalizingly exotic, beautiful, intriguing. You fall in love with Japan and the Japanese. (2) Disillusionment. You find out that the Japanese are clannish, you can’t get close to anyone. You find out they consider foreigners inferior. You see disgusting customs and feudal relationships. (3) Realism. You finally arrive at a more balanced viewpoint, able to appreciate the strengths and beauty of the people and culture while accepting the weaknesses and ugliness.

The Ancient Culture

Persons wanting to see traditional Japanese culture must go to Kyoto, capital between the Nara Era and the Edo (Tokyo) period. There you can walk the grounds of elegant ancient Buddhist and Shinto temples and feel yourself merging in the deep stillness with the distant past and learning what is meant by the word shibui. The word can’t really be translated. It can refer to the astringent taste of a half-ripe persimmon or to the subtle nuances of a Chinese black and white ink brush painting where mountains or pine trees emerge dimly from an all-encompassing fog.

Yo no aware is another untranslatable term, referring to the poignant and sad emotional experience of an evanescent world. Japanese aesthetics is based on the Chinese, which began cultural invasion in the 8th and 9th centuries. But, as always, the Japanese have taken what they received and re-shaped it in their image.


Japanese gardens are exquisite, carefully maintained. Those of pebbles and rocks, with a small bridge arching over a pool of carp and perhaps a tiny house for the tea ceremony are a beautiful tradition. These are raked every day with classic circular lines erasing every footprint, eliminating every leaf. In Tokyo there are hundreds of exquisite gardens but they hide behind high walls and you will never see them unless invited by the home-owner.

Fortunately the marvelous gardens of Kyoto at temple and palace are open to the public.

The Country Inn

Exhausted, I sought a country inn,
but found
wisteria in bloom

One of the four mystical experiences of my life took place on a fall evening in an old fashioned rural inn. The weathered unpainted wood outside and the brown polished beams and floors within, along with the subtle browns and tans of the walls and tatami flooring speak shibui, that untranslatable word for elegant subdued beauty that retreats from the eye.

You are met in the genkan by a maid in a bright colored kimono, cheerfully intoning, “Yoku irasshaimashita. Ohairi kudasaimase. (You are well come. Please come in.). You remove and leave your shoes in the genkan and don slippers. You follow her to your room. It has tatami, the woven rice straw floor mats, shoji sliding doors and inside windows with translucent, white rice paper panels. There is a tokonoma, the beauty alcove with a calligraphy scroll and flower arrangement. A low square lacquered table, black and red, dominates the room. There is no central heating, so you sit with your feet down in a kotatsu under the table which is heated by a small charcoal fire.

By the table, sits a charcoal fire in a hibachi and on it a tea kettle boils merrily. When you have put on a padded black and brown kimono, a cup of hot ocha, the green tea, is served. Before dinner, you soap and dump little wooden tubs of hot water over yourself until you are clean before easing slowly into the steaming water of the ofuro. The tension begins to disappear.

Later, as you sit and drink bancha, the brown evening tea, with your companions, the thunder of a tumbling mountain stream fills the room. You close your eyes and gradually awareness of immediate surroundings fades away. You are caught up in a blissful oneness with all nature and all reality.

It All Depends on Child-rearing

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict wrote The Crysanthemum and the Sword, which is still a good introduction to Japanese psychology. A key to understanding the Japanese, she said, was to know the difference between a shame culture and a guilt culture. Her work was a major contribution to my master’s thesis at Union Theological Seminary analyzing the peculiarities of Japanese personality and culture which has made it difficult for them to understand and accept Christianity.

Western countries are characterized by guilt; Japan is a shame country.  The difference begins in how children are disciplined. In America children are taught to obey and respect rules, law and order, through threats of punishment. In Japan, relationships are more basic. The mother is the key figure and she controls through making the children ashamed by saying, “You are hurting me through your behavior.”

Implied are the sanctions. In America it is instilling guilt over disobeying while in Japan it involves controlling through shame. And the sanction there is the threat of abandonment.

In Japan the psychological umbilical between mother and child, especially sons, remains intact throughout life, and the prospect of being cut off is terrifying. The husband and father is the symbolic authority figure, but the mother is the loved power center which shapes children to conformity and prepares the girls to duplicate later the maternal role.

One might say that the hell feared by American children is the fire of punishment, while that of the Japanese child is the outer darkness of rejection.

The rage engendered by childhood restrictions in Japan can’t be expressed in violence toward others; it must be turned inward on the self. Violence toward parents is almost unheard of, while suicide is common.

It is puzzling to some why the Japanese military engaged in atrocities during W.W.II. Violence is permitted toward outsiders. There is a lot of really cruel bullying in Japanese schools towards Korean kids and others not Japanese, or even Japanese children who are deformed or otherwise different.  There is a tremendous amount of rage which lurks within the Japanese due to the painful constrictions of the web society and the mother who controls through suffering love but cannot be hated.


Japanese traditionally are married by Shinto and buried by Buddhism. And they often locate a house on the lot according to the what the Taoist priest says. Buddhists in Japan automatically are symbolically chanted into the Great Western Paradise, the heaven of some Mahayana Buddhist sects, which is not unlike the way a lot of Americans of dubious virtue get preached into our heaven.

Actually, the Japanese, like the Chinese, are not very religious; they are practical and materialistic. They observe the forms because their parents did and, what the heck, a little insurance for the afterlife costs very little time or money.

Christmas with the Rag-pickers

Our most memorable Christmas Eve was spent with the rag-pickers community down by a river in Tokyo in 1954. These were the poorest in a poor country. They pulled carts and lugged bags through Tokyo and went through garbage to collect rags, which they washed and sold for use in tasks like wiping machinery.

Along the way they collected scrap wood, metal, discarded furniture and bedding, from which they constructed their hovels and furnished them.

Dee and I, newly married, were escorted by a truly saintly theological student, Taiji Takahashi, who had dedicated his life to helping these people in very practical ways, as well as sharing his faith.

We stood around oil drums with blazing wood fires, men, women and children, fronts burning, backs freezing, as we sang in Japanese, Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, It Came Upon a Midnight clear.

Never before nor since have we felt more close to the stable of Bethlehem.  What a marvelous idea — God coming as a helpless child. Too bad only a few have gotten the real point since Constantine seduced the church into the Imperial Roman bed.