Two years ago—fresh out of college and before I started living abroad—I would have scoffed at this paragraph. I would have thought, why would any educated person assume that one author could embody or reflect an entire culture? When I started traveling, those arrogant, accusatory questions I’d silently (or, if the mood struck, vocally) pointed at others turned to face me: I caught myself making assumptions based on things I’d read or heard about in the news, even after years of training myself to do otherwise. Alas, arm-chair open-mindedness isn’t the same thing as experience-tested open-mindedness; and I had to work really hard to keep a fresh perspective.
This article is fantastic—not just because it’s about Murakami, whose work I’m kind of obsessed with—but for the author’s choice to preface what he learned with what he didn’t know. He also offers great insights into how and why Murakami differs from most Japanese novelists. Highly recommended.
The Japanese language acquires much of its beauty and strength from indirectness—or what English-speakers call vagueness, obscurity, or implied meaning. Subjects are often left unmentioned in Japanese sentences, and onomatopoeia, with vernacular sounds suggesting meaning, is a virtue often difficult if not impossible to replicate in English.
Alternatively, English is often lauded for its specificity. Henry James advised novelists to find the figure in the carpet, implying that details and accuracy were tantamount to literary expression.
‘I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,’ Stigler says. ‘It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.’ In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle…
Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it’s possible to point to counterexamples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.
Jim Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, describes the differences between Eastern and Western approaches to elementary education in an interview with NPR.
Rather than arguing that the Eastern education system is better, or vice versa, NPR suggests that both systems can learn from each other.