Japan is a very unique country in many respects, and has even been called “Planet Japan” by some. Having been more or less isolated from the rest of the world for most of its ancient history, has led to a culture that is both endearing and perplexing at the same time. From ancient traditions, to modern technology, Japan has many sides and facets. The Japanese people as well, have many interesting viewpoints about their culture and especially about the West.
When discussing history and especially the differences between Japanese and Westerners (Europeans), many Japanese will be quick to point out that while Europeans were hunters and gatherers, people in Japan were farmers which in turn is used to explain why they are so collectivist; the “harmonious farmer” mentality and the necessity to share resources. Meanwhile the “barbaric Europeans” fought for individual dominance, which is why they are more individualistic.
In Japan, I’ve come across dozens of university educated people who actually believe this premise. Perhaps it was the copious amounts of alcohol I had imbibed the first time I heard this, or perhaps it was my utter disbelief about this incredulous premise. But for a split second, I actually considered it before logic kicked in. It’s simply an erroneous oversimplification of human history.
There are, of course, many glaring problems with this assumption. First of all, not all European cultures can be thrown into the same mental box. There are quite a few “non-individualistic” cultures in the whole of Europe which would not fit into this simple premise quite so easily. But even that aside, the biggest problem with this erroneous belief held by many Japanese is the time-line involved. The very simple question “Which era are you talking about?” will throw 99.9% of the people believing this off their tracks. Why? Because we are talking about two very different periods in history.
Farming was introduced to Japan only about 2,500 years ago and didn’t spread much beyond Hokkaido in the 17th century. By that time, farming was already quite prominent in Europe for many centuries prior. To put this into perspective, the Japanese became farmers some 3,500 years after the Europeans, and some 9,000 years after it was “invented” in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent.
While it is certainly true that a large portion of Japan’s population in the Edo Period were cultivating rice, trying to tie in an over 3,000 year gap in evolution and human history is a huge stretch. So why do many educated Japanese still adhere to this misconception?
Perhaps it has something to do with the “uniqueness” of Japan and its people. It is widely believed that Japan is special amongst the Asian Countries, and that the harmonious lifestyle, cleanliness, efficiency, eschewing violence, and hard work the Japanese are known for is unique to only Japan.
As endearing as this concept of docile, hard-working farmers who were so very different to the rest of the world may be to some, the reality is that unless they had a time machine on hand, it’s quite difficult to overlook the 3,000+ year difference in historical periods here.
While the sight of a Neanderthal-like horde of European Barbarians landing on the shores of Japan would’ve scared any Agrarian Society into gathering their Pitchforks and Sickles to defend their lands, the likeliness of this happening in history is actually slim to none, and better reserved for a Manga or Anime, rather than intellectual historical debate.
Then again, on the other hand, maybe that’s where the Japanese word “バイキング – Viking (all you can eat), or attacking an all-you-can-eat buffet with reckless abandon, comes from. “Chow down that rice, mateys, we’ve got a 3,000 year trip back in time ahead of us”