It’s time for A to Wa of Japan again, and this is the last in the series! Last week’s post was about things beginning with ろ (ro) and we looked at Rokurokubi (轆轤首). This week we are looking at things beginning with わ (wa). A big thank you to those who joined in with suggestions this week (and to everyone who has played all year!). Here’s what you suggested…
Jay Dee suggested Wakayama-ken (和歌山県 / Wakayama Prefecture), wasabi (わさび / Japanese horseradish), washoku (和食 / Japanese cuisine), wakame (ワカメ / seaweed), and wa (和 / a Japanese cultural concept translated as harmony); UK Seikatsu suggested wasabi, Waseda University (早稲田大学), Watanabe Ken (渡辺 謙 / an actor), and Wada Akiko (和田 アキ子 / a singer and TV personality); Japan Australia suggested Wakayama-ken, wagashi (和菓子 / Japanese sweets), washi (和紙 / a traditional Japanese style paper), and wagyu (和牛 / Japanese beef); ThroughTheLookingGlassAndDownTheRabbitHole suggested warabi mochi (蕨餅 / a jelly-like confection); zoomingjapan suggested wasabi, Wakayama-ken, and wabi-sabi (侘寂 / a Japanese concept); and Paul suggested wakizashi (脇差 / a short sword used by Samurai), wafuku (和服 / Japanese style clothing), Wanpi-su (ワンピース / One Piece: a popular manga/anime), Wagamama (ワガママ / a restaurant chain in the UK, and also a word meaning selfishness or willfulness), and wanko-soba (わんこそば / a noodle dish from Iwate Prefecture).
As much as I would love to spend my day ‘researching’ Watanabe Ken (i.e. looking at pretty pictures of him), I’ve decided to end this series by looking at something which is an essential part of Japanese culture…
Look at the suggestions above, and what do you notice? The same kanji appears a number of times up there: 和. 和菓子 (wagashi), 和紙 (washi), 和食 (washoku), 和牛 (wagyu), 和服 (wafuku)… whether it’s food or paper, sweets or clothing, all of these words have one thing in common – WA (和). ‘Wa’ in the words above means ‘Japanese’, but it also holds another meaning, which is ‘harmony’. This harmony is an intrinsically Japanese concept, and something which is apparent in so many different parts of Japanese culture (even the sweets, paper, clothing and food).
Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
Wa (和) is a Japanese cultural concept usually translated into English as “harmony”. It implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, in which members prefer the continuation of a harmonious community over their personal interests. The kanji character wa (和) is also a name for “Japan; Japanese”, replacing the original graphic pejorative transcription 倭 – “dwarf/submissive people”.
Wa is considered integral to Japanese society, and derives from traditional Japanese family values. Individuals who break the idea of wa to further their own purposes are brought in line either overtly or covertly, by reprimands from a superior or by their family or colleagues tacit disapproval. Hierarchical structures exist in Japanese society primarily to ensure the continuation of wa. Public disagreement with the party line is generally suppressed in the interests of preserving the communal harmony.
Japanese businesses encourage wa in the workplace, with employees typically given a career for life in order to foster a strong association with their colleagues and firm. Rewards and bonuses are usually given to groups, rather than individuals, further enforcing the concept of group unity.
‘Wa’ can be translated as ‘harmony’ but it’s a much larger concept than that and I won’t attempt to cover everything in this one post as I’m sure a whole thesis could be written on the subject. Essentially, the harmony that ‘wa’ represents is a concept that runs through all aspects of Japanese life, from work to home, school to after school activities. It is about keeping the peace and going with the majority, and it is about putting the group before the individual.
This concept is something a lot of non-Japanese people struggle with when they live in Japan, and I admit I did find it difficult at times. Westerners often tend to express their opinions quite strongly, but the concept of wa encourages us to be harmonious, and sometimes that means shutting up. I realise this can be a bad thing, but overall I think it’s a positive concept. In Japan there is much more of a focus on teamwork and group activities, and I think that helps to build more of a sense of community and responsibility towards others. In Japan, it’s common to want to show that you are part of a team and often this is done through uniform. High school students often wear their uniforms with pride outside of school, or travel to a game together wearing their team uniform. Workers wear their uniforms with pride – not like most people here in the UK.
Harmony is also expressed through many other parts of Japanese culture, and that’s why I find it interesting that the kanji 和 also means ‘Japan’ or ‘Japanese’. Traditional Japanese goods, such as washi paper or wagashi sweets express harmony in their quality and perfection. Japan is still very much a country where care is taken over the art of creating something, and pride in that product is very important.
I might be going off on a tangent here, but in my mind wa can be seen so perfectly in Japanese department stores. The staff all work as one, dressed identically and neatly, they repeat the same phrases and actions as one another, and treat customers with the utmost respect. They do their jobs to perfection – something that can be seen particularly in the art of gift-wrapping. Everyone does it the same way (no one decides to do it their own way), everyone cares about the final result, and everyone strives for perfection. I’m sure there’s a lot I don’t know about working in a Japanese department store, and I’m sure it’s not all sunshine and roses, but from the outside perspective department stores are well-oiled, fully functioning machines of perfection.
As I always say in my posts – I’m no expert! This week I’ve read a lot online about wa, and most people seem focussed on the negative sides of the concept, such as not expressing personal opinions and having to go with the majority. This is a huge topic, but I guess my message this week is that, personally, I believe it is wa that makes Japan what it is today, and what it has been for a long time. It’s a country of tradition, respect, and perfection, and Japan’s wa, harmony, or ‘Japan-ness’ is something I love more than anything else.
So, that was the last post of the series, and what an interesting challenge it’s been! If you missed any of the posts, you can find them all here: A to Wa of Japan. Although it is quite hard work, I do love having a weekly series on this blog, and I really enjoy having weekly interaction with all of you, dear readers! In the past, I’ve done an A to Z of Japan and played Weekly Shiritori, and now it’s time for me to think of something new for 2014 (can you believe it’s almost 2014 already!). If you have any suggestions I’d love to hear from you so, as always, please leave a comment below!
I’ll be back next year with something new for you, but in the meantime I’ll be catching up on all the other things I’ve been meaning to post about. Throughout the month of November I will be participating in NaBloPoMo and posting here every day, and even through December I will post at least once a week.
Thanks for reading! (*^_^)v