I’ve read a bunch of Manga. I’ve read a bunch of Japanese literature (translated), seen many movies and anime and listened to music. Let me be absolutely clear: I do not know Japanese culture. What I know is, honestly, the angled reflection off a mirror.
When you watch American TV, you know it isn’t reality. Same for our books and movies. It presents a mirror we design to hold up to ourselves to reflect one piece back at us to show us something, to tell us a story. It is never the whole. It isn’t supposed to be! Remember, this is stuff created mostly by us to show us ourselves. It uses shorthand that is, itself, based in our culture.
So to go back to where I started – what I know of Japanese culture is the reflections I get from what they were telling themselves. And, after time, I can interpret those things and make some guesses, some of which may be educated even. But at the core there are motivations I don’t understand. Motivations that, when the gaps appear, I fill in with my own best guesses. And then I go from there. Mistake compounds on mistake and if I’m not careful I’ll end up thinking I know something real instead of a very cool shadow puppet that works at least some of the time.
Of course, add in that most people are at the core people and you get a whole new level of fun. Because the basic human urges tend to be the same. It’s how they’re layered that trips you up. So sometimes you get it right. Except you don’t know why, or are wrong about why, or are right about why and…
While I’m writing this, my friend Acha just said to me: Shadow. Cave wall. Dude.
That’s it exactly.
This also, please note, applies to different cultural subgroups in your own area. The further away they are, background experience-wise, the less you will natively understand them. I know California culture better than I know Georgia culture, say. There are experiences I am not privy to. That’s without even breaking down specifically into race or gender – which only increases the difference in experience. I can make guesses. I can absorb and look. But I do not know, in my bones, those experiences. And I never will.
Which is a huge problem for me. Since, you know, I’m a writer. I don’t want to write just me all the time. I, in fact, write more main characters who aren’t me than I do who are anything like me. But there’s one bit I haven’t included above yet.
Ask. Make an effort to learn and talk to people. Be open to the fact you probably don’t know anything. Find advisors and friends and listen to them, even when the reality they are painting for you isn’t pretty. Be careful and respectful and do your best. And when you make mistakes, own them and do better next time.
Refusing to learn, accepting that you don’t know these other cultures but only your own and deciding you never need to, is lazy and stupid. Even if you’re just learning to know your fellow humans better, it’s worth it. No, you can’t and shouldn’t try to learned every culture as best you can. There are limits. But at least reach outside of your box and see what’s there.
Remember: We’re all human. We all have a lot in common. We also have a lot that’s dissimilar. And we all view each other through distorted reflections until and unless we ask.