Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner


Japan's Battle with Transnationalism

By John Overington


            For the sake of this discussion, Japan  is one of the best places on the globe to begin our conversation detailing the comparison of local cultures and its emerging global philosophy. A country that has seen such immense financial success in the last fifty years under the protection of the western world, Japan has the unique opportunity to showcase the old world culture of the past and the new global economically driven society that is coming into place today.  Having the opportunity to walk the streets and interact with the conflicting cultures of the Japanese society, all of the Semester at Sea students were exposed to a clash of cultures whether they were aware of it or not.  The differences are immense and are seen in every part of a Japanese citizen’s life.  Differing emotions and actions toward clothing, markets/advertising, and cemeteries are just some of the ways that I personally saw the old and new faces of Japan.

            One of the most obvious sights seen by those who visit Japan is the clothing worn by the citizens.  On the street during the day time, a visitor will see a huge range of clothing from the most chic fashions straight out of Milan, to the most traditional dress worn by peasants from ages ago.  The women who walked the streets of Kobe wearing fashions current in Paris and New York exemplify the case that Theodore C. Bestor discusses in his article “Supply-Side Sushi.”  Although the main topic of his article concerns the transnational bluefish and tuna markets in Japan, Dr. Bestor also describes urban areas as vehicles for massive cultural diffusion among many other things.  Dr. Bestor describes transnational forces that take hold in urban areas as eroding distinctions between cultures and societies.  He describes cities as "engines of change in the midst of distinctive and separate societies/cultures."

            I sat down in a bar late in the evening for a nightcap, and the woman who served me was wearing a very traditional kimono outfit.  This outfit was in sharp contrast to the western black leather bomber jacket worn by the street performer outside her bar.  The waitress was upholding the old tradition of serving in proper attire, while the man with the guitar outside was embracing other world cultures, all within ten feet of one another.

            Markets and advertising in general might be the most powerful way that the clash of vernacular and transnationalism can be seen in Japan.  The Japanese many times used modern techniques in conjunction with local culture to sell products.  One example is a neon sign that I saw that as for a restaurant.  It was completely neon, but it was in a pagoda shape and in the traditional red color. This sign typifies the use of completely modern tools with an old flare that encompasses the interaction of vernacular and new urbanism.  The shops in the most general sense also feed into our comparison.  Huge department stores, many stories tall, sold within them very traditional products like herbal medicines and old world trinkets from years ago.

            It is important to touch on the subject of cemetaries for the fantastic implications it has here.  The act of burial, seen by almost all cultures as very important, has been changed to account for the continued growth that had occurred in Japan as a result of transnational urbanism and its effects.  Because so many people are living in Japan today, as a result of advances in health and economics that are a consequence of globalization, real estate to bury dead family memebrs is becoming scarce.  To save space, the tradition of burying people had to be changed to burying them standing up.  This obvious change in one of the most ancient of all rituals is a fantastic example of the growing clash and hybridization of vernacular and transnational.

To bring this report back to speed with Dr. Bestor’s article, it is important to articulate that these differences of vernacular and transnational coexist in this unique space that is urban Japan.  Dr. Bestor describes this unique situation as “interactions of cultural meanings, economic processes, and social structural forms along multiple dimensions, in diverse juxtapositions of local places, in accelerating time to accomplish an organization of diversity of globalization…, but through urban means.”  My experiences in Japan have reitereated the thoughts of Dr. Bestor, and have perfectly illustrated the thesis that transnational and vernacular are in a fierce competition in Japan.

Return to course home page Send me your comments: