Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Travelling with Cultural Baggage

One of the challenges of travel is having to bring myself with me. If the trip is going to be more than passive entertainment, I have to try to erode my preconceived notions, prejudices, blindspots, and cultural programming.

This week I felt shock when I first saw the scene pictured at the top of this post. I had to remind myself I was in southern Spain, and not South Carolina.

Maybe this is just bad taste fancy dress. Then I saw whole families dressed up.
Google quickly came to the rescue.

I'm in Seville during Holy Week. There are parades going on all week with hundreds of people wearing pointed hats called Capirotes.
They are doing public penance for their sins.

I had a similar feeling of shock when I first saw a swastika on a shrine in Japan.
I thought I was seeing some kind of throwback to World War II.

The swastika is an ancient religious icon that can appear clockwise or counter-clockwise. In Japan the 卍 symbol is called the Manji.

Its misappropriation by the Nazis makes it a symbol that has largely been retired in the Western world. It's still widely used in some Eastern cultures, with peaceful connotations. I've seen it in India, as well as Japan.

Maps, including Google's maps, represent Japanese temples with the Manji symbol.
Out of deference to the sensibilities of visitors to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, some maps are being revised. The Manji is being replaced with a Pagoda symbol.

I'm left wondering about the times I am oblivious to the local meaning(s) of cultural iconography.

Note: I downloaded the shrine picture from Wikimedia Commons. I couldn't find a good example in my photo collection.


  1. Even with the knowledge the hoods are a sign of penance, they still hit me in the gut. They are quite disturbing, but I realize this feeling is my own cultural construct.

    1. Yes, "disturbing" is the right word. For us they evoke disturbing thoughts of white nationalism in our country. The origins of the tradition are disturbing: it goes back to the Inquisition when self-flagellation was de riguer.