Gleaning cultural insights from Japanese books and films
Learn about Japanese culture without leaving your sofa
As well as being enjoyable, reading Japanese books and watching movies and TV programs can offer valuable insights into Japanese culture. They can also open up vital points of contact for sharing the gospel. They enable you to experience different life situations, travel back in time, and learn about how Japanese people view life.
Explore different life situations
Books and movies allow you to explore situations you can’t experience in real life. For example, you may never have been a student in a Japanese high school, but you can get a feel for what it is like from movies and books. The same is true for participating in a Japanese funeral and in memorial services, being interrogated as a suspect by police (definitely something you do not want to experience in real life), or meeting a potential spouse in an omiai (arranged marriage interview). Of course, it’s necessary to make allowances for the fact that reality often deviates from fictional representations of it, but it’s still possible to discover a lot through novels, dramas, and movies. This knowledge can help you identify better with those you’re seeking to minister to.
Stories and dramas with historical settings can bring history to life. The history of a nation can shine light on why its people are the way they are today. However, reading history books is not for everyone. A good way to gain an appreciation for history is to watch dramas and read books that are set in a past era. Some historical dramas and novels follow the lives of real historical people, such as NHK’s Taiga Drama series (a year-long television drama series largely based on historical characters and events), whereas others might be fictional stories set in the past. Both forms can be helpful for understanding Japan’s long and rich history.
Gain insights into Japanese worldviews
Perhaps most importantly, Japanese literature and film can provide insights into worldviews held by Japanese. Even genres that are far removed from everyday life, such as science fiction and ghost stories, can illuminate how Japanese view life in this world and the next.
I remember being shocked at a scene in the movie Letters from Iwo Jima in which about a dozen Japanese soldiers blew themselves up with grenades one by one. I would have understood if they had surrendered or made a suicidal assault against the enemy, but blowing themselves up made no sense to my Western way of thinking. It was only afterwards, when I talked to my Japanese friends, that I discovered that committing suicide was regarded as more honourable than surrendering. (This point illustrates how history can affect the present: the high suicide rate in Japan today can surely be partly attributed to the practice of honourable suicide in the Edo era.)
Another movie that shocked me was Like Father, Like Son (そして、父になる). It’s about two six-year-old children who were switched at birth and who were thus brought up by parents who weren’t their biological parents. When the families discover the truth, they decide to swap their children back, and the movie depicts the inevitable heartache that ensues. Throughout the movie, I was thinking, This is stupid! It’s got to be in the children’s best interests to remain with the families they grew up with. But for Japanese, blood ties are often stronger than emotional ones (a fact that partially accounts for the low adoption rate in Japan).
Tips for gaining cultural insights
- Watch movies and read books from different genres with a wide range of settings and various historical eras.
- Be on the lookout for cultural aspects that differ from your own culture.
- Note things that don’t make sense to you.
- If possible, discuss what you watch and read with a Japanese person.
The best thing is that you can watch television and read books guilt-free—after all, you’re conducting vital culture research!