Culture Day, Part 1


Yesterday all the JETs in the prefecture were invited to Aomori City to participate in Culture Day:  an educational event organized by our prefectural advisors designed to inform us about the culture of Japan.  Julie and I learned about the tsugaru shamisen, taiko drumming, karate, shogi, cooking, wooden horse painting, and how to make a decorative goldfish.

In this post I will talk about the forums I attended (shamisen, taiko, karate, and shogi) with an emphasis on the shamisen.  Julie is actually in Tokyo right now and will post her own entry on the forums she attended, and probably a few thoughts and photos from the trip she embarked on today, when she returns.

A Brief History of the Human Race

Tsugaru shamisen

Tsugaru shamisen

Julie and I attended the first session together, a 70 minute presentation on the history of tsugaru shamisen.  The shamisen is a three-stringed banjo-like instrument that is plucked with a pick (bachi) that resembles an ice scraper.  The tsugaru style is distinguished by a few characteristics, including a more percussive style of strumming.

After playing two songs, the performers put down their instruments and the man on the right began speaking in English.

“Hello!  My name is _________.  You can call me __________.  I don’t know English, but I like English.  I hate Nihongo (Japanese).”

The last sentence genuinely surprised the audience and we responded with laughter.  He then went on to explain that Japanese is a hierarchical language.  For instance there are many forms of “I” depending on where you find yourself.  English on the other hand, he said, is very friendly.  There is only “you” and “I.”  Therefore, he concluded that when we teach our students English we also teach them the friendliness of our culture, whether we are aware of it or not.  His insight gave me a completely new perspective of my job.

The man then walked over to a nearby table, grabbed a dry erase marker and said, through a translator this time, “It is written that we will learn about the history of tsugaru shamisen, but…”

He then proceeded to sketch a map of Africa on the dry erase board and informed us that we would instead learn about the history of humans.  It turns out this guy’s other passion is archaeology.  Over the course of the next hour he brilliantly weaved together indigenous cultures, war, peace, snakes, religion, rope, music, art, archaeology, and mythology in a way only a seasoned college professor could do.  It was as if when he planned the presentation he said to himself, “if it’s culture they want, it’s culture they’ll get.”

I took notes on the lecture.  Here’s a summary.  Please take it with a grain of salt as I have not taken the time to verify it with other sources.  If this happens to be your area of expertise, please correct my understanding by leaving a brief comment on this post.

If the entire history of our species is represented by 7 meters of length, then according to his calculations, a length of 3 centimeters represents the duration of time we have been at war with each other.  He demonstrated this with a volunteer and an actual tape measure.  The man said we are wildly off track, but he remains optimistic that we can get back on the road to peace.

What caused us to fall so far?  Snakes!  It turns out we can gain insight by exploring the role of snakes in ancient cultures.  The man said that snakes used to be revered in just about every ancient culture.  In Japan this is made evident in the pottery of the Jomon culture.  The Jomon era is the earliest in Japan’s pre-history and the string-style pottery that the people created is famous.  Apparently their inspiration for the pottery came from the way snakes reproduce.  The man insinuated that it is a symbol of a time when we lived in peace with our environment — a time when we didn’t hate snakes.

The oceanic currents off the Eastern coasts of China and Korea drift towards Japan which meant eventually new people settled into the region.  Thus we enter the Yayoi period.  The man said that the new inhabitants, mostly people from modern day Korea, brought with them rice, iron, war, and a hatred of snakes.  His teacher, a man ten years his senior, proved they brought war by discovering motes, people buried with weapons, and a dramatic increase in the size of arrowheads dated during this period.

“The Yayoi and Jomon have two different faces and two different cultures,” he said.  Whereas the Jomon people had large circular eyes, the Yayoi were more narrow.  The Jomon settled in the North and South and the Yayoi landed in the space inbetween.  He said if you look at eyes of some of the people in these regions today you can see evidence of this.

He went on to talk about the music of the two cultures and how they differed.  Basically Jomon art was more robust.  He also said that Japan’s first name, Asaka, means “great fantastic place.”

He concluded the lecture by reiterating that our world is in trouble.  As evidence he sighted continued war, global warming, and habitat destruction.  Yet he is optimistic.

“Remember,” he said, “the most important thing is snakes!”

We clapped.  It was a great, informative, and entertaining lecture that made me realize just how ignorant I am when it comes to the history of Japan.  I have decided I need to do something about this and plan on reading more than just the occasional interesting article on Wikipedia.  If you have any book recommendations, let me know.

After lunch I attended sessions on shogi (Japanese chess), taiko (traditional drumming), and karate.  Taiko was my favorite of the three.  I hope to have a longer post dedicated to it in the near future that will involve a popular arcade game.  Shogi was interesting, but I still prefer Go.  I spent most of my time in the karate session reminiscing about my two years in taekwondo when I was in elementary school.

Before I sign off, here is a brief video of one of the shamisen performances.  It’s our first attempt at embedding video on the blog.  Enjoy!


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