If you’ve been studying Japan or Japanese for any length of time, then you know that studying a different culture can challenge your basic, everyday assumptions about, well, pretty much everything.
Before you started getting interested in Japan, maybe you never imagined eating raw fish or using kanji. But it can go deeper than that too. Take comfort, for instance.
You might think that comfort is a universal value — everybody everywhere likes to be comfortable, right? Apparently, what you might think is comfortable might be damn near insufferable to whole swaths of the world.
A recent article in the New York Times called What Does It Mean to Be Comfortable? takes a look at what it means to be comfortable in different cultures across the world. It turns out that “comfortable” is a concept with a lot of flexibility, and is much more culturally based than you might think.
What is Comfortable?
The Japanese idea of “comfortable” is on the move, so to speak. The Japanese have different ideas about comfort from other cultures – the articles uses the Norwegians and their love of koselighet, or coziness, as an example – but it’s nothing too radical.
As you might be able to tell from sometimes drafty Japanese houses, you’d correctly assume that the Japanese are, compared to other cultures, generally okay with being a little chilly.
What’s really interesting though is that as countries and cultures become more and more exposed to each other, they begin to change. According to the Times article, the Japanese once considered air conditioning not only unnecessary, but “
unhealthful and unpleasant.”
Can you really blame them? New, foreign technology is usually met with a healthy dose of skepticism, no matter where you are in the world.
But that changed. Obviously, most Japanese are a-okay with air conditioning nowadays, preferring the artificial cold to the hot, humid Japanese summers. Japanese attitudes towards the frigid winters have started to change too. Space heaters and other methods of keeping warm have been on the rise in Japan for decades.
What it means to be comfortable in Japanese culture is a shared idea that’s never settled, and always up for debate. Even after the Japanese had adopted air conditioning, the pendulum started to swing in the other direction.
Japan’s biz: the coolest.
In recent years, the Japanese government has promoted a “Cool Biz” program that encourages working people to ditch the suit and tie in the summer, crank down the AC and embrace the Hawaiian shirt. The government started Cool Biz with the goal of saving energy, but it might have farther reaching cultural effects than getting people to turn off the lights.
It’s incredible to see that cultural ideas like comfort adapt and evolve based on the here and the now. Does that mean that other, bigger concepts can change too? As long as I get to wear a Hawaiian shirt, I’m down.