Thursday, January 19, 2012
Japan and Costa Rica: An Unlikely Parallel
With my first time living abroad being in Japan, it is inevitable that I would attempt to make parallels between my experience there and my life here. Because of this, I initially took these comparisons with a grain of salt, assuming they were forced connections, stemming from the personal in a way that they would interfere with discovering the universal truths that writers so desperately seek. But after living in Costa Rica for some time, I must admit that I have come across many striking similarities between these seemingly disparate nations.
There is a well known social phenomena in Japan described as ¨honne¨ and ¨tatemae¨. I recall explaning the difference between ¨honne¨ (a person´s true feelings) and ¨tatemae¨(behavior one displays in public) to some gringos who had lived here for many years. They replied immediately, ¨sounds exactly like Ticos!¨ When I repeated this to another group of gringos, they responded in the same way. And so on.
This was when I began to notice several odd and inexplicable connections between these faraway nations with completely different histories. In both Asian and Latin American cultures, family values are stressed. Youths live with their parents until they are married. Both the Japanese and Ticos are polite and hospitable and this is reflective in their use of language. Japanese has two distinct forms: polite and casual. Spanish also has the ¨usted¨¨and ¨tu¨ forms. Yet it is the Ticos in particular who use the polite form more than any other people in the region. Husband to wife, parent to child, even master to pet use the polite form in Costa Rica. Yes, when speaking to your dog or cat in Costa Rica, you ought to use ¨usted¨.
In Japan, the word ¨chotto¨, or ¨a little¨, is used all the time. In Costa Rica, Ticos add diminutives to everything. The Japanese have varying degrees of politeness, conveyed in how far and for how long you bow, to ways of saying ¨thank you¨ (arrigatou, arrigatou gozaimasu, arrigato gomazaimashita, domo, domo arrigatou, etc.). If you look at language as reflective as culture, these similarities speak volumes.
One of the biggest differences between these nations is their view of religion. Costa Rica, like nearly all countries in the Americas, is a Chritian nation. Japan, on the other hand, is very irreligious. Discussing religion with someone from Japan is like chatting about sports. I remember how the majority of the Japanese had no idea when I asked them the differences between Buddishm and Shintoism, the two major religions. In fact, some people couldn´t even remember which religion they belonged to - or they belonged to both. Customs define society, not religion.
Still, Japan is filled with little shinto shrines in homes and along streets. When I first moved to Costa Rica, I remember walking down the block from my apartment and noticing a Christian shrine. It bore such a striking resemblance to those in Japan that I stopped in my tracks when I saw it, and caught myself staring in amazement. From gaijin to gringo, in certain ways, I hadn´t traveled very far.