Spain

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Spain, like many Mediterranean countries, is multicultural at its core, the product of successive migrations and invasions through the centuries. Iberian cultures were among the earliest to arrive, some 35,000 years ago; Phoenicians, Egyptians, early Greeks, Romans, and Arabs all played a role.

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With a history of multiple invasions, Spain in turn became the invader; its seafaring skills renowned, the country’s ‘conquistadors’ ultimately took over the majority of Latin America – introducing a class system, slave trade, Spanish language, and Catholic religion, taking a good deal of gold and other natural resources – and establishing an empire.

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Spain’s entire history has been one of migration – of others into (and, in the case of both the Moors and Sephardi Jews, expelled from) the Iberian Peninsula, and of themselves to other parts of the world. Today’s population is 12% immigrant, the top 4 of which are Romanian, Moroccan, British, and Ecuadorian.

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Spain unified, somewhat uneasily, from multiple small kingdoms into a republic; organised into autonomous regions, fully 5 self-identify as distinct nationalities. Spain is thus not only multicultural and multilingual but also ‘plurinational’ – the Basque and Catalans, in particular, still aching for independence.

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In the 1930s, Spain was fractured by a civil war; General Franco, backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, succeeded and ruled as a dictator for 40 years. Following his death in 1974, and the ousting of his party some 4 years later, Spain entered a period of wild abandon as they celebrated their freedom.

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Spain today maintains a secular parliamentary democracy and a parliamentary monarchy, a somewhat unique hybrid of governmental models that has emerged in antithesis to the Franco era.

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Post-Franco Spain has focused increasingly on human rights; as an example, the country is widely considered #1 for LGBT acceptance. Asked how a Catholic country could so easily accept marriage equality, the answer is always: the family comes first – my son is my son, no matter whom he loves.

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In matters of gender, Spain’s progress is uneven: recent high-profile rape cases have highlighted violence against women, and the country’s ranking on global gender indices hasn’t changed since 2005. Change is in the wind: as of May 2019, Spain’s parliament now has the highest percentage of women in all of Europe.

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Once considered one of the poorer countries of Europe, Spain now has the world’s 14th largest economy, and is 16th for purchasing power. It’s also rich in history and culture: 3rd globally for UNESCO world heritage inscription.

~EWP

Ukraine

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Ukraine has a long and complex history, and far too much recent trauma. A traditional Slavic culture of hospitality, creativity and intellectualism, it is also characterised by both fatalism and revolution — a paradox.

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Ukrainian culture has a clear Slavic foundation, inherited from the Kievan (or Kyivan) Rus’ state of the 9th-13th centuries, by which its capital city is named. At its peak culturally advanced and politically powerful, it was also a significant trading centre. Later a Cossack republic, a warrior archetype coupled with a strong sense of self remains.

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Ukraine is majority Orthodox today, though of several types and with nearly 40% identifying as nonreligious. Early Slavic mythology and folk religion have been integrated with Orthodoxy, for what Ukrainians call ‘double-belief’.

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‘Mother Ukraine’ has become an important symbol and identifying factor — first in the general sense of nations conceptualised as female, then as a symbol of victimhood and abandonment (‘the forlorn mother’), and since independence in 1991, an increasingly all-powerful, warrior-like icon — denoting the trajectory of the Ukrainian people.

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In the earliest 20th century, Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. Following widespread famine of suspicious origin in 1932-33, and general maltreatment , this identity was shaken — and Ukraine aligned with Nazi Germany. By 1945, however, the Red Army’s retaking of Ukraine was widely viewed as a ‘rescue’. All the factors remain deeply woven in the cultural psyche.

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One of the many great traumas of Ukraine in recent history was the “Holocaust by bullet” only now being acknowledged. Nazis and their local collaborators committed mass executions of Jewish citizens, as well as Romani, suspected Communists, POWs, and the mentally ill — more than 1 million in total, a country living upon numerous mass graves to this day.

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On top of Ukraine’s multilayered trauma, with ongoing poverty and food scarcity, there came Chernobyl — widely considered the worst nuclear accident in history both in casualty and cost. The nation, ill-equipped to handle such disaster, is still dealing with its recovery phase today. Ukraine is Europe’s poorest country and has the lowest median wealth per adult globally.

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Having regained its independence in 1991 following USSR collapse, Ukraine engaged in territorial war with Russia over Chechnya in 1994-96 and again in 1999-2000, still unresolved today. In 2014, unrest and ultimate war broke out in Donbass, also attributed to Russian separatists and yet ongoing, with many lives lost.

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In 2014 revolution broke out in Ukraine, following the government’s move away from Europe in favor of Russia. Called Euromaidan, also Revolution of Dignity, many paid with their lives — and the government was overthrown. Memorials can be seen throughout the city — an event, and general principle, uppermost in the national psyche.

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Despite its embrace of modernity in many forms, including technology and widespread use of Internet, Ukraine remains at its core a traditional culture. The comfort and stabilising force of tradition has no doubt enabled Ukrainians to retain a strong cultural identity — and to collectively survive multiple tragedies.

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As well, Ukraine’s long and widely varied creative tradition has not only expressed its cultural identity; it has also provided an outlet for emotional expression — including the release of emotional trauma.

~EWP

Montenegro

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The former kingdom of Montenegro, nearly 400 years under Ottoman rule but with a high degree of autonomy, then became part of Yugoslavia — and regained full independence only as of 2006. With longtime concern over governmental corruption, 2017 saw an unsuccessful coup attempt.

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Montenegro has long been at the crossroads of religion. Conquered early by Slavs, yet later by Ottomans, and ultimately involved in the religious tensions of the Bosnian War in the 1990s, the country remains primarily (72%) Eastern Orthodox – also a cultural influence. Its strongest tradition, however, is to religious pluralism and tolerance.

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One of the newest (2013) landmarks in Podgorica, capital of Montenegro, is the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. This modernist edifice, most often described as ‘eccentric’, was consecrated on the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan – an early doctrine of religious tolerance, a hallmark of Montenegro’s culture.

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Montenegro has a relatively pristine – and constitutionally protected — environment, its people closely aligned with nature. A poor country despite the presence of lead, zinc, and coal – the mining of which does present environmental concerns, its people of this ‘ecological state’ are nevertheless dedicated to its continued preservation, including the introduction of green technologies.

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Montenegro is often thought of as having an old-world charm and gracious culture. A strong code of conduct is based in an ideal of ‘humanity and courage’ and an early code of chivalry which is viewed as one of integrity, dignity, and self-sacrifice.

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There is also a ‘new culture’ to be found in Montenegro, in its modern art and relatively sophisticated capital city of Podgorico. While gentility still rules the day, the long-held value of diversity and engagement with the European community has allowed for a modern culture to develop.

~EWP

Japan

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Japan is a nation of complex culture. Ethnically insular at 97.8% Japanese (2018), the nation nevertheless opened to trade with the West fully 100 years before many of its neighbours; holding on to many of its traditions and national religion of Shinto, it is at once highly innovative with a focus on technology – and fantasy. Its capital city, Tokyo, is ultra-modern with 36 million residents, at once sophisticated while continuing to embrace ancient customs.

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Historically, Japan has behaved in an aggressively imperialistic manner, never more so than during the first half of the 20th century with an objective of empire-building. For centuries, piracy on nearby states was common – and the nation’s self-awareness as a former empire and the 2nd-largest island nation is woven throughout the culture.

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Japan’s national religion of Shinto, to which 55% of the population adheres – up to 80% when forms syncretised with Buddhism and other traditions is counted – integrates a form of ancestor worship with a more general reverence for all of Japan’s ancestors – and all things Japanese. Some have called it nationalism in the form of religion.

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Up to 45% of Japanese identify as Buddhist, rather than – or in synchrony with – Shinto. Temples abound, both ancient and modern, and principles of emotional detachment, ethical conduct, and humility, as well as the mindfulness and concentration found in Zen, can often be found in the culture overall.

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Folk traditions — minkan denshō, or transmission by the folk – remain important even in modern Japan, a matter of bonding through shared history and custom in this deeply collectivist culture. Many such are clan-related or otherwise connected to a particular group identification.

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Traditional art forms, such as the classical dance-drama of kabuki, also continue to define Japanese culture. While in cities such as Tokyo 21st century living customs prevail, throughout the country even today the traditional art forms and customs can be found – and remain an integral aspect of Japanese identity.

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Modern art is also long celebrated in Japan, including international forms and exhibitions as well as domestic. Throughout the centuries, art has been very highly valued in Japanese culture, a value which continues to this day – often extending to the whimsical and fantastical.

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Amid all the uniquely Japanese customs and traditions still celebrated today, the culture is very much a blend of old and new, east and west – as seen in this very modern outdoor Happy Hour atmosphere in downtown Tokyo.

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The status of women remains measurably lower in Japan than in other OECD nations, at only 64.6% employment rate and 13.4% in Parliament. Legally given the right to vote in 1947 and officially recognised as having rights equal to that of men – the social reality is far different even today.

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An ongoing women’s issue of Japan is that of sexual abuse and enslavement during early 20th century wartime occupations throughout Asia as well as in Japan itself. The so-called “comfort women” issue is a highly controversial one; results of an International War Crimes Tribunal on this issue, held in Japan in 2000, found strongly against the nation – yet the issue itself remains unresolved.

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Japan is one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world today; a long-plunging birth rate, coupled with one of the highest longevity rates, means that more than 1/3 of the population is currently over age 60 – soon to reach 1/3 over age 65. A concern regarding workforce, the nation is strategising ways to handle this unprecedented circumstance.

~EWP

Colombia

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Colombia – known for its gold and emeralds, coffee, art – and drug industry. Its capital city of Bogotá, 4th highest elevation in the world, is the 3rd largest city in South American with a population of 7.2 million. Today’s Bogotá, despite a history of criminal activity, has seen an increase in visitors – and has become a magnet for international foodies.

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Street crime is high in Bogotá, though local perception of insecurity ranges from 50% in the city’s gang-influenced south to 23% in its northern region. Over the past 20 years, Colombia has increased its security – though its current peace plan, backed by US, is in question; the nation also has an estimated 1.3 million refugees from Venezuela, with security issues near their shared border.

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At Colombia’s deepest cultural roots are the ‘pueblos indigenas’. The pre-Columbian (pre-European) peoples, comprise 102 ethnic groups, 70 of which reside in the Amazonian region. Together, they number 1.4 million or 3.4% of the country’s population, with the Wayuu as the largest group. Their cultures are widely varied; they have suffered discrimination by the dominant culture throughout the centuries and are today represented by the Organización Nacional Indigena de Colombia [ONIC].

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As with other South American countries, Colombia has a rich history with gold – both as a resource, strongly desired by the Spanish conquerors, and as a source for art as well as worship by early indigenous peoples. Gold artefacts provide much early cultural information, from the shamanistic religion to the warrior tradition and more.

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The Muisca culture, which inspired the El Dorado myth of a land of gold, continues to this day as a cultural thread of Colombia. An especially advanced civilisation with an elaborate spiritual tradition, once with a territory of 25,000 km sq and a population upwards of 3 million, their descendants are present even today – though only an estimated 14k remain.

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With the Spanish conquest of Colombia came Catholicism, and the country remains deeply Catholic to this day. Constitutional reform in 1991 granted religious freedom; while 70% are nominally Catholic, only 25% are practicing.

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The Spanish occupation of Colombia remains the strongest cultural influence today: multi-active, family- and group-oriented, with a relaxed sense of time – and a legacy of a caste system. In addition, as with much of South America, following a tumultuous 20th century, liberation theology and liberation as well as leftist politics remain relevant. Indigenous cultural underpinnings are still seen in art, cuisine, and more.

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Art and creative expression are highly valued in Colombian culture, stemming from indigenous peoples through the Spanish conquest and to modern times. Vast amounts of pre-Columbian visual art remain, along with an astonishing array of gold work as well as indigenous handcrafts. Today’s artists are also very well represented.

~EWP