World Cultures, Big and Small

Why do some cultures capture public imagination more than others do?

Japan, for example: Manga. Samurai. Ninja. Geisha. Origami. Bonsai. Zen gardens. Kabuki. Pagoda.

I could go on.

I’ve listed only Japanese cultural symbols that came to mind without research.

We can’t credit diaspora for Japanese culture’s huge influence. Japan is a tiny country. Compared to other nations—India and China come to mind—few Japanese exist in the world (and given low birth rates, the number of extant Japanese gets ever smaller). Therefore, Japanese emigration cannot build enough force to engulf another place in Japanese culture.

Chinatowns exist. Japantowns do not.

In contrast, I can’t think of many symbols of Canadian culture. Turkey has an amazing history, but few people can cite representative elements of Turkish culture without a Google search. How about Norway? Or Finland? Or the Philippines? Fiji?

The closest I came to anything that might explain the phenomenon came from an interview with Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, who said that heightened emotional states help us remember events. Every day living doesn’t embed in our psyches as well as cataclysmic moments do.

If I twist Small’s theory a bit, I can see that perhaps the sheer “otherness” of Japanese culture—the fashion in which Japanese culture is so wholly its own and so entirely different from most others—engenders our fascination, sparks our imagination, and lodges in our minds.

Or is that too simple an explanation?

What do you think?