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Sushi Culture?(第22回)

#22. Sushi Culture?

Jayna Tokie Tanaka

     Ever since teaching a reading lesson about the definition of “culture,” I have been bothered by the use of the this word, especially in the media and by young people who are media-savvy. It seems to me that this very useful word has become so “diluted” that when we encounter it in a piece of writing, we must stop and think about what writers want to say before we can read on. Some writers feel the need to attach “culture” to all types of phenomena. Thus, the title of this essay. This usage has perplexed me since I first saw it. Because there is no suitable word we can substitute for “culture” as social scientists use it, I believe it may be a good idea to retain the social scientists’ meaning and find some other word to use when we want to talk about sushi, antique cars, and horses.

     Social scientists use the word culture to distinguish the many aspects of one group from other groups.[1] These aspects usually include everything that joins us to other people in the same group. First and most important is language, for without language, we would not be able to communicate with the other members of our group. Then there are general beliefs that may or may not include religion. These beliefs, for example, determine whether it is permissible to use force on small children as a form of discipline and whether outsiders can easily be accepted into the group. The customs that are generally practiced by most members of the group, the food and clothing, the style of housing, the kind of education, the arts that are admired; all of these are aspects of a group’s culture. You would probably identify yourself as a member of the Japanese culture. I identify myself as a Japanese-American. Although we can learn about each other’s cultures, we would find it difficult to “change” cultures, in other words, become fully accepted as a member of each others’ cultures because of our experiences growing up in different groups. In addition to recent immigrants, there are also large groups of residents in Japan who would not identify themselves as Japanese because of their language, customs, and beliefs. They include Korean-Japanese, Chinese-Japanese, and Brazilian-Japanese. Although these people may have been in Japan for several generations, just as I would call myself a Japanese-American, they would also hyphenate their identity. Moreover, in some areas of Japan, like Aomori, Kagoshima, and Okinawa, local dialects are so different from standard Japanese that some people feel that their language defines their culture rather than their nationality. This is the meaning of culture which should be most familiar to people because that is what we mean when we talk about “cultural differences,” “culture shock,” and “cross-cultural communication.”

     Within large cultural groups, there are naturally many smaller groups which may be recognized as distinct from other groups. These groups were referred to as “sub-cultures” several decades ago, but the “sub” seems to have disappeared. Now we have “corporate culture,”[2] [3] “school culture,”[4] [5] and “media culture.”[6] The first refers to the language, beliefs, and customs of a particular corporation. We can imagine that the corporate cultures of Google, Toyota, and Alibaba differ from each other in many ways, including jargon, goals, and sales techniques. “School culture,” on the other hand, may refer to idealized visions of what schools should be, including the language they should use, what their mission should be, and the educational methods they should use. These different visions are not restricted to one school or area and may even cross national borders. “Media culture” is easier to understand because, according to those who use the term, it includes everyone who uses modern media, meaning the internet in general and social networking services (SNS) in particular. This huge group of people connect with each other without even considering national borders, and the great majority of them use some form of English as their language of communication. Especially when this phrase is combined with “youth” (youth media culture), this group comes more sharply into focus as that vast community of teens and twenty-somethings who have become addicted to seeking friendship, meaning, and personal enjoyment from the Web. They are probably only temporary members of this “culture,” but they are conspicuously present in most of the world today. These kinds of “cultures” are still recognizable as cultures, for they encompass groups with certain languages, beliefs, and customs.

     However, when people talk about “sushi culture,” I find the term too amorphous, too nebulous to grasp. Who are these people? Are they people who eat sushi? Then what about people who eat cheese? Cheese culture (pun intended)? What language do they speak? Is it called “sushi-ese”? Do they believe that sushi will save the world? Are they in the habit of talking about shari (vinegar flavored rice) and gari (pickled ginger)? Do they all share certain ways of eating these bits of rice and fish? I picture people around the world trying to become a part of “sushi culture” by eating California rolls, Philadelphia cream cheese rolls, sushi with Sriracha sauce, European sushi (made with bread instead of rice),  African sushi without the rice, and anything else you can imagine. I hope this shows how absurd this may become. How far can we dilute the word culture? People should just write, “Sushi is sweeping the world!” Why do they have to write, “Sushi culture is sweeping the world!”?

     I hope I have convinced you that the word culture should remain where it used to be, in the domain of social scientists who want to describe groups of people. However, since the usage has already crossed over into Japanese, my hope may be doomed. I am sure you remember the last time you heard some young person talk about manga bunka!

[1] Zimmerman, Kim Ann. “What is Culture?/Definition of Culture.” Live Science. 12 July 2017.  Web. 8 April 2019.
[2] “What Is Corporate Culture?” My Accounting Course.  Web. 8 April 2019
[3] Lim, Sandra. “Corporate Culture.” Investopedia. 12 March 2019.  Web. 8 April 2019.
[4] “School Culture.” The Glossary of Education Reform. 25 November 2013.  Web. 8 April 2019.
[5] Raudys, Justin. “11 Real Ways to Build a Positive School Culture.” Prodigy. 19 November 2018.  Web. 8 April 2019.
[6] Poyntz, Stuart R., Jennesia Pedri. “Youth and Media Culture.” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Education. January 2018.  Web. 8 April 2019.


Jayna Tokie Tanaka(ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ)

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