I often hear the saying that "people are cultivated by their environments." Having lived in the US for many years, it was hard for me to understand this notion at all; however, after surviving over a year out here in Tokyo, I have started to see exactly what this statement means. Allow me to explain:
I first noticed a difference when Japanese friends of mine often made comments during euphoric moments "that they would die happy at this very moment with no regrets." I brushed it off initially, but I heard this comment more and more frequently over time. Just from my first impressions, it appeared as if "dying happy" was more gratifying than "living happily." I started to imagine myself saying the same... but as hard as I tried, I just could not put myself in the same frame of mind. Dying in such a way certainly didn't equate to a "happy ending."
I started to think back to all the stories I read or television dramas I watched while being here in Japan. Very few of these traditional folk stories, animated movies, or television dramas had happy endings, with many ending quite tragically! Conversely, a majority of the stories or movies I watched with happier endings ended up being Western-styled movies, especially those produced by Disney or Pixar. This isn't to say that all Japanese media had a sad plot or ending, but a number of them did!
I explained my thoughts to a friend of mine, who happens to be Japanese and married to an American man. She then brought up the whole meaning of "death" in Japan and "Bukkyou," or Buddhist teachings and traditions. She mentioned that people in Japan may look at death as a chance to start over, or be reborn as something new. As excerpted from the web:
"According to Buddhist tradition, reincarnation is a process in which the spirit is continually reborn after death until ultimate enlightenment is reached. When one passes from one stage of life to another, one must be mindful of thoughts and emotions. This also means surrounding oneself with loved ones and encouragement."
This made sense, as it explains why people would make such comments like the ones I mentioned above. However, it made me realize that my own ways were cultivated as a result of a Westernized country, educational system and government based on Christian beliefs: that we are given one life, one chance, and that we need to treasure our existence, rather than throw it away so easily.
I thought about the frequent suicides that take place here in Japan. As I stated in earlier entries, over 30,000 people commit suicide each year by jumping off of buildings or running themselves into a train (mainly due to overwhelming pressure in society or complete failure). To the Western mind, ending one's life is a cowardly and selfish move, since it appears as if one is just running from their problems; however, this is a judgement made by someone such as myself, cultivated in a Western society. I read on further:
"What determines the next life is termed Karma. Karma can be thought of as the tally sheet of good and bad deeds and it follows us throughout our existence. If one lives his or her life without right thought and right action, the consequences may lead to a lesser existence. Unlike Western religion, one is able to shed their bad Karma and move out of the lesser states of existence. To the Buddhist, hell is not a place of eternal suffering, but a temporary place that one can transcend. An important distinction is that life, death, and rebirth are more of a continuum in the Buddhist faith, rather than a soul that has one life and one existence. Ultimately, Buddhist beliefs in death reflect how one leads life in the now. The goal is to seek the good, reject evil, and above all shed ignorance. If one follows this path and continuously keeps truth in mind then one can be reborn into a higher existence. "
Ideally, no one should intervene with the way other people choose to live their lives or alter their belief systems. We all are cultivated by these factors to a great extent, but is there a right or wrong? A good or bad? This post was not meant to say that everyone in Japan follows Bukkyou, nor does it state that everyone in the US has a Christian foundation either. It does, however, illustrate how people are cultivated based on the foundations our societies are built from.