I was not sure what to expect when I entered the office of anime, models, dolls, tanks, and starships that belonged to Professor Darren Ashmore of Akita International University. But as I was to find out: never a judge a book by its cover. With his nearly two decades of Japan studies throughout all of Japan, with his specialties in anthropology, pop culture, and folk art revival, I knew could finally get to some questions on everyone’s minds.
We all have our own reasons for coming or staying in Japan. Whether that be anime or manga as seems to be the stereotype, or a more traditional perspective on temple, shrine, or history appreciation, there is no one ‘correct’ way to experience Japan. In fact, through Professor Ashmore’s infamous ‘Manga Mania’ class, students end up learning not just about popular manga or its history, but how that manga is a reflection of history, politics, religion, and culture. Great, so what it culture?
What is culture?
Professor Ashmore has a knack for getting his students and others think beyond the obvious. I wasn’t falling for his tricks of saying that culture is everything, what we make it to be, or what society believes. This was an interview and I wanted answers!
Culture is a mix of traditions and customs, he explained. After a quick glance up the skirt of one of his anime maid figurines, I asked him to elaborate. Customs have a practical use and a fairly evident purpose. Traditions on the other hand once had a practical use and purpose, but today that no longer applies—yet the ritual continues.
Often these customs and rituals blend, allowing for multiple interpretations of meaning. I could recall a mix of custom and tradition in many of my own daily life rituals in Japan. Perhaps the most well-known cultural characteristic of Japan is removing your shoes before entering a house (shrine, temple, tea room, tatami room, etc.). Traditional thought dictates that the outside is unclean and inside is pure; this is an almost spiritual way of thinking. The more practical way of thinking and practice, however, is to keep mud and dirt outside where is belongs.
How about an example?
Giving credit to his current stomping grounds of Akita in Northern Tohoku, Professor Ashmore said there is no better example than culture, both as a tradition and as a custom, than is illustrated by the Namahage. Every December 31st the gods dressed as demons of Oga Peninsula and other less advertised locales of Japan descend from the mountains to terrorize families and their children. Banging on the doors and windows they burst through the front door yelling for the children to be judged. The Namahage, with their large knives and buckets, have been rumored to skin children that are lazy or don’t listen to their parents. Thankfully, some kind words and offerings of food and saké to the Namahage from parents is enough to convince them to leave. Of course this is on the assumption the children promise to behave themselves.
For anyone that has been to Tohoku, you will know the winters are extremely harsh with snow well into March and April each year. And let’s not forget the wildlife, particularly bears that roam the forests. A major purpose of the Namahage ritual is to have children behave. Wandering off in the winter and getting lost in a snowstorm or attacked by an animal could mean death. Yet today, urbanization, snow plows, warmer clothes, heaters, and hand warmers, make going outside far less dangerous. Still the tradition is held onto for tourism and bringing the community together, and for the few firm believers that think we should hold on to tradition for tradition’s sake.
We can easily see pop culture clashing with traditional culture, but the modern man or woman needs to really understand both views to see Japan as it is today.
Is Japan’s culture disappearing?
With hints of what was to come, I asked my final question: Is Japan’s culture disappearing? “Yes, to put it bluntly,” was my response. And the reasons can be the introduction of technology, the reducing population, the lack of interest or perceived importance, or the lack of practicality tradition has today. Continuing with his Namahage example, Professor Ashmore expanded on the idea of the Yamahage, a small town’s variant on the Namahage tradition. With the youth leaving for the bigger cities, there was a lack of people willing to become the demons of the night since several years ago. A witty grandmother came up with the idea of using local international university students to fill the role because demons have conventionally been viewed as outsiders. The village elders agreed to set up the culture exchange and today, year after year, we see non-Japanese maintaining Japanese culture through scaring Japanese children. For the record, we don’t masks to do that.
We can easily see pop culture clashing with traditional culture, but the modern man or woman needs to really understand both views to see Japan as it is today. Japan is connected with the past in many ways, even if those ways are becoming fewer. Sometimes a tradition becomes a custom, or vice versa. Other times the only way to preserve culture is to modify it with the changing situation and times. The alternative is to let a tradition disappear. When we try to hold onto a tradition that has no relevance today without lenience to change, there can only be failure. And we lose part of culture with every lost tradition. But you can’t force tradition—it must be accepted by society to live on. To wrap up the interview, the ever genki Professor Ashmore left me with one thing to ponder, a customized Star Wars quote no less:
“The more you tighten your grip, the more traditions will slip through your fingers.”
One of Ashmore’s students, Marcus Boeckman, relives culture in his own way through performing kabuki for a class project.
AIU students suit up for a night of terror during a Yamahage event in Akita.
When not scaring children, some Namahage can be found ‘enticing’ visitors to enjoy a local pub.
Christmas in Japan with fast-food chicken. Culture is changing. For the better or worse is your decision.