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?

4 replies on “Is Perception of Light Culturally Conditioned?”

I want to point out that I despise warm, indirect, yellow light. For me, my mood is improved by shop lights. Big, cheap, blue-white or even green-white fluorescent bulbs. Not just bright, but physically huge. The big long ones that go in the big long sheet metal fixture. Yellow light strikes me as really unpleasant and depressing.

I trace this to all the occasions I had as a young person when, due to living in the middle of nowhere, we occasionally had week-long power outages, lit only by warm, indirect, yellow candles.

Since the days have gotten longer here in AK I find myself utilizing the sunlight more and my electric lights less. This of course means in the evenings it gets a little dim inside, but it’s never bothered me. I equate fluorescent light with my classrooms, not homes.

Hi Sean,
and Hello from Kazan, Russia. I’m here for the academic year on the English Language Fellows Program of the US State Dept. I work at Kazan Federal U. in the Dept of Comparative Linguistics, which is where they have their English Language Teachers Training Program. I work with the instructors of that program — all PhD’s — in an attempt to make their classes less teacher-centered and more communicative and student-centered.
I really appreciated your comments about various types of lighting. I first became aware of the effects of light years ago, as a high school exchange student in Finland. I was from PA, so the change in daylight was dramatic for me. I have since spent time in Russia, Mexico, and Germany. I even notice the difference when I travel to see family in New England: where I live in Atlanta, we are relatively close to the western edge of the Time Zone, so there is a difference in the times for sunrise and sunset, even tho we are in the same Time Zone. During a short visit to Costa Rica, I experienced a place with no real dusk or evening – thus giving me the understanding about why my Latino students said “Good night” as a greeting….. This time, here in Russia, I’ve had to adjust to short daylight again. There were several days when I could feel my natural melatonin kick in around 3:30 or 4:00, as the daylight faded. I took a *short* nap those days and stayed up into the evening.
My wife and I have the same dynamic as you and yours about the lighting at home, except the roles are reversed: having spent the day in her office or inside other buildings, once my wife gets home, she wants to turn off the overhead lighting and turn on the lamps. Once I realized that I was going around turning the overheads back on, we had a conversation about it, and I just let it go: I turn the overheads on when I’m in the room, then off when I leave. I don’t like leaving lamps on when we’re not in the room (or is that too European??).
i think it’s time for physiologists to do some serious studies about the physical aspects of jetlag and culture shock. I believe that traveling and changing time zones are “skills for the 21st Century” and we all need to be able to do those things smoothly with minimal shock. There’s plenty of advice out there (“melatonin”, “no sleeping”, “short naps”….. my father-in-law uses valium!), but I think some serious studies would help.

All the Best from over here,
Paul Spitzer

Hi Paul, Thanks for the comment. It’s interesting that you commented on this post. With no substantial information or conclusions, I wrote it more as an outlet for my puzzled frustrations than anything else. I agree with you on the need for more information on how travel and light affect us. I’m originally from Alaska at 65 degrees latitude, so I understand the power of light and darkness on our bodies. I do think a lot more awareness is needed, though, especially here in Japan, about the fact that it does have this power. One thing I maybe should have mentioned in the post is that it gets dark very early in Japan – its time zone is skewed about 90 minutes to the early side of things. It results in things like 3:30AM sunrises here in eastern Hokkaido, a phenomenon even more bizarre when you realize that the same sunrise observed from Sakhalin, directly north of Hokkaido, occurs two hours later because Sakhalin is on a sensible time zone.

Anyway, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are doing interesting work via the ELF program. I actually nearly applied last year while I was still in graduate school (applied linguistics). If I could convince my wife, I’d update my application and submit. I’m eager to live in another part of the world besides Asia.

Best, Sean

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