Ritual to Preserve

In class on Thursday the subject of preserving culture came up. A couple of people had mentioned ASA’s “Journey Into Asia”, and there was some concern over whether traditional Asian cultural components, which some thought may be “boring”, were being replaced by other cultural components that were seen as more “exciting”. This got me thinking about the concept of cultural imperialism and how, in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we lose track of our cultural heritage and roots.

The introduction and poem readings seemed to reference more of a “physical” dominance. But cultural imperialism seems to be less about overt dominance, and more about social “pressure” to adopt certain norms, usually at the cost of one’s traditional ways. The resulting oppression is no less severe. In fact, when one stops identifying with one’s own culture (through a loss of tradition), one can more readily adopt and assimilate into the encroaching culture. But even in those instances, there is no guarantee that the new culture will accept an assimilated person (as indicated in the introductory reading).

In this way, rituals serve to preserve one’s identity. Not only does it preserve one’s individual identity, but it helps to reproduce the group identity. This identity can then be passed on to others and survive through the generations.

In high school one of my best friends practiced kendo, the art of Japanese swordsmanship. He talked to me about how as modern “sport” kendo became more popular, there was concern that traditional sword forms, the foundations of the techniques that comprised the up and coming sport, would be lost. As a result, several different styles got together and compiled a list of forms which practitioners of kendo learn. These forms are standard, so everyone practicing will be practicing the same form. This allows people to practice together, no matter where they are coming from. For instance, this video depicts the forms being practiced in a training hall in Hungary:

These forms would be the same in Japan, Brazil, the United States, or anywhere else it is being practiced.

What’s interesting to note is that while these forms could have been created for “insular” purposes (to keep culture from being eroded by external factors), standardization has actually allowed for the spread of these traditions beyond language or cultural boundaries. Someone who doesn’t speak Japanese training in Japan would have the same pool of knowledge as everyone else.

So when asking “who gets to share what meaning?”, initial observations would say that it is the Japanese practitioners of traditional sword arts that get to share the origins of their practice among themselves and others for the sake of preserving their art. But when delving further, it can be seen that even “outsiders” to a culture can experience, learn, and potentially even fully adopt these forms so that they can preserve a portion of history.

These rituals can provide a center around which a group of people can gather define and preserve their identity so that they might resist oppressive forces.

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