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Culture and Influence

I was an Assistant English Teacher in Saitama Prefecture until last July, and recently I went back to visit Japan again. What I noticed most when I went back was how comfortable and natural it felt to be there - it really didn't feel like I'd been away for six months. I feel like Japan is my second home, after my native America, and it's nice to know that distance and time haven't changed that.

Something else I've noticed more and more about both countries is the influence of their cultures on each other. All over Japan, you can see influences of American popular culture. People of all ages have merchandise with Disney characters. Restaurants like McDonald's, KFC ("Kentucky"), and Baskin Robbins ("31") can be found even in small towns. American movies are shown frequently in theaters and on TV. It's become trendy to use English on everything from store signs to T-shirts. And of course, that "great American pastime", baseball, has become perhaps even more popular in Japan than in America.

Conversely, Japanese culture is becoming more and more influential and popular in America, especially in recent times. When I was younger, I rarely if ever saw a Japanese restaurant in America. Now there are many, even in my hometown of Pittsburgh, which doesn't have a large Japanese population. Sushi seems to have become trendy with Americans, even to the point that we make our own variations on it. (Ever heard of the maki-zushi "Pittsburgh Roll"?) Of course, I did grow up loving Nintendo, whose mascot Mario was found to be even more recognizable to American children than Mickey Mouse. Recently, Japanese manga, which previously was known by only a small minority of Americans, has begun to be sold in mainstream bookstores.

Anime, another Japanese art form that previously had only a small "cult following" (a deep interest or mania by a small minority for something that is not necessarily popular or well-known in mainstream society) in America, has also become much more widespread, with shows like "Pokemon" and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" being aired and watched widely by young Americans. Indeed, in America, where cartoons have traditionally been viewed as "kids' shows", I personally think Japanese anime is largely responsible for stimulating greater adult interest in cartoons and the recent increase in the creation of American cartoons geared toward adults. Places to practice Japanese martial arts like karate and judo have long existed in America, while places to do karaoke have appeared more recently but are widely spreading. And last year on Thanksgiving, one of the most important American holidays, the Japanese pop group Puffy Ami Yumi sang at the huge, nationally-televised Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York City.

I think it's wonderful that my two favorite countries have embraced aspects of each other's cultures, without losing their own. Indeed, I think America's and Japan's influences on each other have enriched each other, and stimulated new creativity in both our countries. (Then again, perhaps this is an American opinion, coming from a country where diversity is part of our national identity. What do Japanese think?)

It's especially wonderful when you consider the history of Japan and America only about 60 years ago. Japan attacked and started a war with America. America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. Yet nowadays, not only do these two nations have peaceful and friendly relations with each other, on a governmental as well as a people-to-people level, but each appears to have an image of being "cool" ("kakkoi!") in the eyes of citizens of the other.

There may be many reasons for why these relations developed as they have since World War II. But maybe one of them is that Japan and America, formerly bitter enemies in a horrific war, were willing to see the good in each other's cultures. And maybe this helped them see the good in each other.

I think the present-day relationship between America and Japan gives us reason for hope that other nations that are currently feuding may one day become friends too (America and Iran, Japan and South Korea, Israel and the Arab world...) And perhaps exchange of popular culture will play a role in this. When nations, and people, realize that there may be something good and "cool" in even our "enemies", perhaps we'll start to look for it more, and then perhaps we'll start to accept and respect each other more. What do you think?
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