Is Perception of Light Culturally Conditioned?

Do Japanese and North Americans have fundamentally different attitudes and preferences toward the relative brightness and color of light in their homes and offices? Are there specific sources that this attitude can be traced back to, and are they in turn related to other fundamental cultural differences?

I ask this question because evidence that this may indeed be a general cultural truth keeps coming up in my conversations and daily life. In my experience here in Japan, the lighting in nearly every Japanese house that I have entered has been entirely comprised of overhead, white, fluorescent lights. Bedrooms have these lights as well. Very rarely have I seen households in which the majority of the light inside comes from lamps, indirect or diffuse sources of light, or has a warm yellow or golden color. Those that have are typically inhabited by people who have been specifically influenced by their stays in American homes.

These kinds of lights, which are so common here, are those that I would characterize as harsh, unhappy lights. These are lights for working, lights for a purpose. These are functional lights that irradiate every corner of a room and have only two settings – pitch black or blinding white. For me, this kind of light is not appropriate for one’s home. A home is not simply a utilitarian shelter, but a place for one’s mind and soul to seek solace from the outside world. When one is at home, they should feel at home. Warm, indirect light reminds us that we are in a place of comfort, perhaps evoking a womblike quality in which we are able to retreat just enough from the glare of reality to face it again the next day. The glare of a fluorescent is psychologically jarring. So, I fail to understand why it is so common in the homes of the Japanese, a people and a culture who are no strangers to luxury and amenity.

This conflict between these two kinds of light has actually been one of the greatest sources of argument fodder in my own marriage. On summer evenings, I’ll come home first, and switch on a ring of holiday lights that perimeter the ceiling and the small light over the range, and cut vegetables or wash dishes as the sun sets and the day slips into night. It’s a nice feeling. Once it’s dark, I’ll turn on the standing floor lamp and it alone is fine for me to eat by, or play a card game, or do the things that one does in the service of leisure. But then my wife comes home and inevitably switches on the 2000 lumen ring-fluorescent fixture overhead. Sometimes she does need it to do schoolwork or to write something, but for her it is habit, normal, atarimae. It destroys my good mood, both consciously and subconsciously. I’ve spent a good many hours shopping for fancy LED fixtures that can adjust their color temperature with the click of a button, but my good wife has always prevailed upon me that they are too expensive and an unjustifiable expense.

If such a purchase could end our arguments over light temperature, budget would not be a concern. But alas, we do not own this house and we will not be here forever.

What got me thinking about this post (other than wondering when my wife will come home) was something one of my adult English students said to me. Last fall, she travelled to Victoria, BC, to attend an English language school for two weeks. A homestay was part of her package, and she had great things to say about her host family. But she admitted to me that she wasn’t really able to study like she had hoped. Her bedroom had only warmly-colored lamps that were too indirect and dim for her to study from. She told me that she would wake up early every morning so that she could study by the dawn light near the window. She never asked her host family for what she needed.

So, what is the determining factor here? Are Japanese more practically minded? Are Americans more leisure minded? Have Japanese preferences been shaped and confined by a limited and uncreative array of product offerings? Have American preferences been shaped and guided by a commercial notion of what is homey? I think there are many dichotomies between these two cultures that are corollaries of this one. The arrangement of offices – Americans in cubicles with bosses in separate offices and Japanese in banks of desks with the bosses ostentatiously placed at their head. Consider the difference between the typical teachers’ room of a Japanese public school, and the teachers’ lounge of an American one. I’ve been in a few teachers’ lounges in Alaska that put suites in 5-star hotels to shame, stocked with coffee and coronary-inducing snacks. And of course, they were tastefully and warmly lit with standing floor lamps.

For now, my own musings on this are just that. But the study of cultural geography is a real field, and there is no doubting that Japanese homes and Japanese towns and Japanese campgrounds look different than their North American counterparts, and that those differences hew to a certain mean that we can at least try to come close to defining. What is the thread that runs through each system of preferences? What is the essence of these opposing ways of perceiving what is comforting and what is unsettling?