The Naked Truth

What were you thinking of when you saw this photo?

If you judged these men based on mere visual perception, you were probably unaware of the reason behind their skimpy outfit.  These men were scantily clad for a significant purpose; it is for a festival known as Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival), a festival held once or twice annually in Japan.

The following is a short clip of the festival which took place on 15 February 2011 at Inazawa City, Japan.

Dressed in just a g-string lookalike piece of loincloth covering the bare minimum of their private areas (mind you, it is still winter over in Japan), the festival is traditionally participated only by men. Among the thousands of nearly naked men, there is one dressed only in his birthday suit, obscured among the rest. This man, known as the Shin-otokoa, is chosen to be the absorber of all bad luck and evil deeds. Everyone desired to touch this person because the local shinto tradition believes that all misfortune will be absorbed by this naked man. (For more information on Hadaka Matsuri, click here)

Outrageous, you might think?

In a relatively conservative society like Singapore, nudity is illegal. Go bare and you will be caught by law enforcers. An excessive display of skin is also frowned upon by many, therefore it is not surprising for us to raise an eyebrow when we witness unusual festivals like this happening in other parts of the world. Such events are beyond the norm of  Singaporean culture, and by measuring our culture against the norms of another makes us guilty of ethnocentrism.  Judging another’s culture acts as a  barrier to intercultural understanding, causing us to easily misunderstand those beyond our cultural beliefs.

Just imagine, if you, as a Singaporean, migrate to Japan without prior knowledge of their history and culture. You would experience culture shock when you witness these throngs of nearly naked men parading on the streets. Your experiences in your own country’s culture cannot be brought over to unfamiliar situations to help you make sense of what is going on.

Besides ethnocentrism, anxiety and tension, there are also other intercultural barriers that impede our understanding of members of another group. These are generalizations and stereotypes. I suppose it is very natural for us in general to form stereotypes about particular groups of people based on prior understandings regarding their culture. Don’t you think that the photo above has an uncanny resemblance to sumo wrestlers as we know them?

Sumo Wrestling

With sumo wrestling being a famous sport originating from Japan, there is a high tendency for us to link the participants of Hadaka Matsuri to sumo wrestlers simply based on their similar looking outfit. We generalize that Japan is particularly famous for this culture and may perhaps draw the conclusion that this country is a very liberal society with no strict rules regarding nudity like Singapore.  Subsequently, the danger of stereotyping the Japanese as people infamous for wearing loincloths may come into play. As a result of this stereotype, what is seen as significant to the Japanese may be watered down by our perceptions. Our understanding of Japanese culture is distorted if we draw conclusions haphazardly based on generalizations and stereotypes.

In intercultural communication, we often find ourselves possessing attitudes that diminish our understanding of another culture. These barriers prevent us from objectively processing the culture of another country before judging them based on what we perceive. To remove such barriers, we have to be open minded and embrace the beauty of cultures differing from our own.

Food for thought:

Have you been guilty of judging another culture based on what is seen as not the norm in Singapore?

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March 6, 2011. Uncategorized.

15 Comments

  1. Jael replied:

    I guess many times, we tend to judge a person by their appearance and how they act because many believe that the first impression is the most important factor to determine how others will treat us in the future. Just like the picture in your post, I had a bad impression of those guys due to the way the dressed up. However, after reading more, I came to realize that I should not judge them so quickly because there is always a reason why people behave in a certain way. In this case, the japanese were actually doing so for a festival held in Japan. Many times, we find it hard to accept how people from other culture act because we do not do it in our own country. Probably we should be slow to judge but quick to understand instead.

    • Valerie replied:

      I was guilty of thinking the same thoughts as you! I found the picture rather disturbing as well but tried my best not to be judgemental. Doing this post really helped me to gain insight into Japan’s culture and allowed me to understand the true significance behind the seemingly uncanny things that they do. I hope this entry will enlighten others as well(:

  2. papaya replied:

    At first when I came to this blog, I was also startled by the image i see at first but started to feel guilty after reading what you typed below. The first thought that came into my mind was thinking that they are pervert.
    I am not familiar with other cultures that are hardly seen in Singapore but i used to judge the Indian culture too because of the unbearable smell of the oil they apply on themselves. I would always make fun of them with my friends or shun away from them, thinking that my shirt will also smell the same like them if I stay too close to them.

    • Valerie replied:

      That’s a good example you brought up there!

      Maybe the Japanese culture is unfamiliar to many if they are not natives of the country. But in Singapore, the Indian culture is one that is recognizable to the locals. Indians are often the subject of ridicule, and we often stereotype them due to their supposed “smell”. We also base our stereotype on constructs formed from prior understanding of the Indians. It is definitely unfair to cast a label on people because of the lack of understanding of their culture. We definitely need to look beyond our immediate response and be less quick to judge.

  3. Lina replied:

    I guess it is very normal for anyone to be aversive about another person’s culture if it is something new and beyond what is socially acceptable in our own culture. So a very good point which you brought out here! As objective as I try to be, there will always be instances where I will frown upon someone’s culture (like this naked festival)if I do not have a clearer understanding of its true significance.

  4. Ces replied:

    Okay I am guilty of judging other cultures based on simple what I’ve heard or seen or read about.. It is easy to slip into our pre-conceived notions of other people based on our prejudices and mindsets. This can also be seen in Seth rogen’s recent interview on a talkshow. It was talked about because he criticized Singapore, our way of life and policies. To him, Singapore is very restrictive because he compares it to the freedom that he experiences in the USA. Hence creating an impression that we are boring and obedient when we are not necessarily all like that.

  5. Shermin replied:

    hey val!!!!

    i guess everyone will tend to judge other cultures in some way or another. i used to view the cultures of other Asian countries in a negative light as compared to the more popular Western culture. However, i believe it is important that we learn to put aside these cultural differences so that we can appreciate others better. After learning to accept these differences, we may come to find that other cultures are unique and interesting as well. We never know if we do not give it a try.

    • Valerie replied:

      Hi there! I guess it’s an intrinsic human nature to judge others before looking more objectively at the underlying significance of another’s culture. Being subjective and judgemental will only serve as cultural barriers that impede our understanding of what is otherwise a culture that is unique to each community.

  6. Ben Tay replied:

    Ethnocentrism is common. Everyone judges. This is where education plays a pivotal role to help society understand the different cultures within a nation or internationally.

  7. Li Yin Low replied:

    Hmm. Perhaps you can consider another point of view: the usefulness of stereotypes. The reason why stereotypes still exist despite the repercussions is that they have a function. Stereotypes enable people to make quick judgments without having to tap on much mental energy. Not much mental processing is needed. As such, people will have more mental capacity left to perform other more crucial tasks. How about the self-fulfilling stereotype?

    • Valerie replied:

      Wow ok i’ve never thought of stereotypes having useful functions! I guess we always take stereotypes for granted without really considering the possible usefulness of its existence. Maybe the self-fulfilling stereotype is applicable here because we already have predisposed beliefs regarding certain aspects of Japan’s culture. When the naked destival took place, our beliefs on the stereotype of the Japanese were strengthened.

  8. Ryan replied:

    We humans are often quick to judge and susceptible to comparisons. It is inevitable that we would identify and establish differences between our culture and that of another country. I, for example, was appalled when I saw a primary school classmate drinking a water bottle filled with a murky precipitate which turned out to be the charred remains of a type of “holy paper”. I quickly shunned him, and I am definitely guilty of being judgmental. However, to me, it is unavoidable because of the heterogeneous world that we live in. The most we can hope for is tolerance of others’ cultures and values.

  9. Elle replied:

    Hey i agree with you! It will be good if we can embrace the beauty of cultural differences as that is what makes a culture unique. I think people experience cultural shock as they are constantly in their comfort zone. Thus, we should venture out more often and experience different traditions and practices to keep ourselves open and accommodating to other cultures. It will be wonderful if we are able to exchange the knowledge of social norms within different cultures and gain more understanding towards others. Conflicts and hostility will be reduced and result in a more cohesive society. What’s your take?

  10. Jennifer replied:

    I definitely agree with Elle that we should venture out more often to experience other cultures. Even though Singapore consists of many diverse and unique cultures, we, as Singaporeans, should discover beyond our own country and learn through firsthand experience the lifestyles of others.

    There is, however, a cost and time issue that may be hard to overcome. As much as we desire to go abroad to broaden our horizons, the lack of money and time will prevent us from doing so.

  11. Yuanxin replied:

    Actually I think that it is not very necessary to venture out of our own country to experience the culture of others. Technology has enabled us to “experience” another country’s culture without having to travel abroad. Just go to YouTube, google, etc and you can find out even more about the world than to travel around personally, which is extremely time consuming. We simply do not have the luxury of time to go backpacking and experience what could have otherwise been experienced through the screen.

    It is equally effective, in my opinion, to reduce the amount of culture shock that people will have if they eventually choose to go overseas.

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