Reading the title felt like some sort of miscommunication, didn’t it? Yet oddly enough, there may have remained a slight hint of understanding. You see symbols of another language you do not understand, yet somehow you know that it is that language just by seeing it – perhaps simply because of how unique it looks.
Japanese culture is like that. For us who have been influenced so much more by occidental, American culture, we know Japan generally only by its culture, food, and language – mostly only by what we see. It’s not easy to describe Japan as with any other culture, but perhaps what describes it best is its culture of respect and order. Respect and order are the two essential elements that embody almost all aspects of Japanese life – from the way they talk, to how they work. Not to say that Filipino culture is devoid of respect and order, but Japanese culture emphasizes these enough to make it seem so.
Early October, I was fortunate enough to visit the Japan Foundation library at Makati City. When I entered the unassuming library, no bigger than our own library’s lobby, I could not help but notice and smile at my first sight of the neatly arranged manga or Japanese comics – some translated to English and others in pure Nihongo – in the low bookshelves. Exploring further inside, I saw more Japanese-related books on art, language, food, and history, to name a few.
After a short but tough browsing, I picked up a manga title and sat down to read. I felt a little disoriented as I turned the book and began reading starting at the back, top-down, right to left, flipping pages right to left, and thought to myself how this funny feeling never gets old even for a person who has a small manga collection like myself.
I admit that despite being a (relatively modest) Japan fanboy myself, that disorienting, oddly different yet uniquely fascinating feeling still strikes me whenever I encounter anything Japanese. After all, how often does one read completely backwards? It makes me laugh a bit inside whenever I remember how it took courage to endure stares from everybody when I wielded a samurai sword-resembling umbrella around the school, and resist swinging it around in public. People wielding swords in public were never a regular sight anyways.
Yet, despite that quirkiness and unconventionality of the various aspects of Japanese culture and the ensuing cultural gap, the fact that our own mostly western-derived culture embraces traces of east-cultured Japan cannot be easily ignored. Filipino culture is a complicated but colorful blend of cultures, but how exactly is our culture shaped by a culture so unlike ours?
It is impossible to describe Japanese popular culture without mentioning the word animé, or for the uninitiated, Japanese “cartoons.” Many Filipino childhoods have been made so much more colorful with late after-school animé. At some point early in our lives, we aspired to become Pokémon trainers, shoot ray guns, and collect the seven Dragon Balls. What’s interesting, however, is that animé are similar, yet so different from western cartoons and animations we know. In fact, calling animé “cartoons” in-your-face of any animé fan is a quick and easy way to get smacked in the face. The most obvious dividing line between animé and western cartoons is the originl, but it’s also often easy enough to distinguish them by art style alone; at one glance, it’s easy to distinguish between Dragon Ball and Justice League which is which.
Animé is not something that may be considered a core part of Filipino culture, but it is definitely present and influential. Many morning bus commuters today more often than not, are treated to Doraemon, Knock Out, and One Piece during the trip. Cosplay conventions and events of all kinds, where 2-D characters spring to life, are frequent colorful spectacles to behold. On another note from my experience, the first airing of Slam Dunk caused a surge in the number of aspiring young basketball players in our school, along with would-be-Rukawas and Sendohs of varying degrees of success. And who would forget the classic Voltes V, arguably the first animé to premier in the country, and its iconic music theme? The show even featured renames of the characters specifically for the Philippines, which is why you know Steve as Steve and not as Ken’ichi, for obvious reasons.
Culture fascinates not only the eye, but also the ear. It’s easy to ignore how Japanese culture pervades even Filipino music. The popular notion that “Filipinos are skilled singers” may not have surfaced had it not been for the Japanese influence of one of the most common forms of barkada entertainment – karaoke, which literally means “empty orchestra,” though what exactly feels empty or orchestra-like in singing in public for a short moment of stardom with the risk of public humiliation is beyond my understanding. The exact origin of its popularity cannot be easily traced since it spread by popular culture, but the fact that it is called as such in its root Japanese term worldwide is a safe affirmation of its Japanese origin.
But what happens when the “Japanese language of music” itself is actually infused into Filipino music? A few months ago, a friend showed me a music video of a Japanese visual kei band named Uchuu Sentai Noiz, in which they made a cover of the song Narda by the Filipino band Kamikazee. That’s right; a Japanese band performed a Filipino song, in Filipino lyrics, with a Japanese music style. The resulting blend is something that must be seen and heard to be believed. Of course, the band’s flashy visual kei music style represents only a small, small part of the entirety of Japanese music, but it is still distinctly Japanese.
And of course, one thing that will never go unnoticed when talking about culture is cuisine. Japanese cuisine is popular enough in the Philippines for many Japanese fast food and dining restaurants to operate profitably, though their numbers are not as many as their western counterparts. These establishments serve the usual variety of sushi, maki, tempura, soba, and donburi, but as expected of Filipino culture, menus are modified to suit Filipino tastes and wallets. There is so much variety in “Filipino-themed Japanese” cuisine that it is difficult to find and taste the real deal, (compare Zaide’s and Animo Food Haus’ gyuudon) but on the bright side, at least the taste of Japan is not difficult to experience.
As you can see, there is a little bit of Japan in our very own Philippine culture. No amount of words or text could accurately detail a culture, let alone something as interesting of a blend as Japan and Philippines’, despite the prevalence of the western influences. In the end, it is actually that culture gap, which makes those little Japanese bits in our Filipino lives interesting. It is a culture gap meant to be seen, heard, felt, and tasted to be believed. After all, extraordinary moments make extraordinary lives.