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Skepticism and cultural comparison

Like zillions of people, I'm a big fan of Pharyngula. It's a blog by scientist and outspoken atheist P.Z. Myers, straddling both science and (ir)rationality as its topics.

What do witty, learned discussions of science and religion have to do with Home Japan, a lowly blog about cultural matters? The big item in common: critical thinking. Skepticism and rationality, if you will – the best tools we have for clearing away preconceptions and errors and what not, and getting at the reality. I'm simply trying to take those same approaches and tools into cultural comparison, a field I feel they've had little contact with.

On a recent Pharyngula thread, P.Z. linked to a video, "Christmas in Japan". He added no objectionable "culturology" commentary, just a subject header "Now I want to fly across the Pacific for Christmas" as a note that things sure look fun in that vid. I agree! Follow-up comments by readers also harmlessly comment on the good times. Yet, some of the old stereotypes and chestnuts were bound to pop up, so I took that as an opportunity to add two skeptical cents. Here are my comments, with minor cleaning-up.

On the expected claims of "everything's so weird there" and "Kentucky Fried Chicken for Christmas, how weird!": 

@Cloudwork: "I don't undertand why people are saying that Japanese people are weird."

Here's one answer straight from Tokyo (20+ years): It's an Internet meme. Pre-Internet, actually (just stronger now); there's a long history of visitors searching for (or making up) exoticism to spice up stories. Further aided by a fair number of natives who love being told how exotic they are.

The video is fun and the song catchy, but really, it tells us about "weird Christmas in Japan" more than it actually shows anything a visitor should find bizarre. Then again, the bar for "weird" is set pretty low when relaying stories of crazy foreign countries, so make of it all what you will...

Regarding KFC as a part of Xmas here: The traditional Xmas dinner is a big bird, but turkey's hard enough to find in Japan, let alone goose. That leaves chicken as the choice, and KFC is the one who makes chicken quick, easy, and ubiquitous. No exotic mystery over why KFC does brisk business here at Xmas! 

In response to further comments:

Re the comment: "And that the Japanese, who seem to be effortlessly combining bits and pieces of shintoism and buddhism, would add a little western x-mas kitsch to the mix - that too would seem [weird]."

That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about. We have people in Japan taking native traditions from Shinto - a pretty mundane and harmless religion, as those things go - and later adopting some traditions of Buddhism, a religion that famously fits very comfortably with other faiths. Then in modern days, residents of Japan see all that nifty stuff about Santa and Xmas trees and presents, and decide to join in on the fun - just the easy secular bits, not the difficult religious stuff. The kind of Xmas that I, an atheist, gleefully enjoy myself.

Sounds simple enough to me. Yet I'm constantly told that this this is "strange" and "weird" and even, according to some, "boggling to the Western mind".

Meanwhile, what about religious traditions in "the West"? Well, let's look at Christmas itself:
The holiest day of Christianity celebrates the birth of a Jew who added new teachings to traditional Jewish ones. The holiday actually originated in pre-Christian pagan winter solstice celebrations, borrowed its date from an ancient Roman sun-worship festival, picked up Germanic and Scandinavian pagan elements like trees, wreaths, and "Yuletide", and is jam-packed with things like Santa and reindeer and presents and blowout sales that have no connection to Christ/God whatsoever. (Trivia: This year, Christmas falls on a day named in English after the Norse god of thunder.)

This "Western" mish-mash is arbitrarily labeled as not weird. Why? The best reason I can come up with: Because it's much more fun to say that the foreigners are doing weird, inscrutable things.

Or take another comment, "Japan is rather conformist and collectivist". Well, nothing wrong with that as a casual opinion, but is it factual? What are the definitions, and how do we measure? Is the rest of the world not conformist and collectivist? How about the amazing groupthink regarding religion in the US, which makes Christian identity a practical requirement for public office? Is that not conformist? If not, why?

And so on. I've been inspired by "rationalist" sites like Pharyngula to blog about "cultural comparison". Like faith and superstition, it's a field just packed with irrational thinking: confirmation bias, correlation/causation confusion, received knowledge, and so on.

Granted, these "cultural difference" claims are mostly quite harmless, and pretty trivial compared to the havoc wreaked on the world by religion's sloppy thinking. But as an exercise in critical thinking, if nothing else, I find it interesting to look at "cultural comparison" through a skeptical lens.

I re-post the comments here, as a wee summary of what this site is about. Skeptical, critical thinking, applied to "cultural comparison". What might that reveal? Let's try it and find out!

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