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Sun Nov 11, 2012, 09:56 PM

Nice primer on Japanese cultural differences

I found this nice introduction on Japanese cultural differences. I am giving a lecture on the subject this Thursday at a HS so am boning up on this endlessly fascinating issue.

Much of the talk about Japan being anti-union, sexist, or anti-foreigner is largely a lack of understanding about Japanese culture.


1. Uchi-Soto ("Us and Them"

This is one of the first things you will notice about the Japanese. The Japanese have been raised to think of themselves as part of a group, and their group is always dealing with other groups. This is viewed on many angles -- internationally it is "We Japanese" vs. everyone else (more on that later), but in schools, companies, sections of companies etc. there are many groups and sub-groups -- and not always in perfect harmony and cooperation as it may look on the surface. Dealing with Japanese on a one-to-one basis usually comes very easy to non-Japanese, but dealing with Japanese as a group can be a different matter altogether. And no matter how nice you are, or how good your Japanese becomes, you will always be treated as an outsider. In fact the literal meaning of "gaijin" is outsider. Many westerners see Japanese as aloof, shy, and always walking on eggshells. There is a lot of truth in that -- Japanese are extremely sensitive to what others might think of them (or worse -- what they say behind their backs, and Japanese really do engage in gossip) and are very hesitant to do something new, different, or independent. Being ostracized is one of the worst things that can happen to a Japanese, who is raised to be part of a group and depend on others. Therefore, when making requests, it often takes more time since the person asked usually consults others in the group to reach a consensus. It also might interfere with what your goals are -- when teaching an English class a teacher gave some subjects for the students to debate. Of course the goal was for the students to use as much English as possible and improve their abilities. But what happened was the students reverted to their old habits and tried to compromise and reach a consensus -- in which case, the debate promptly ended. In short, however, while the westerner starts so many sentences with "I", the Japanese "I" usually means "with the approval of the group". This is not to pass judgement on this trait, as in many things there are both positive and negative aspects. For the westerner, it can be good in that you are often not subject to what sometimes becomes excessive, even oppressive methodologies. On the negative side, even if you do find a group or niche that you want to be in, you may be frozen out or the last one to find out about many decisions that profoundly affect your schedule and work.

Uchi-soto has one other important trait -- there are next to no strikes in Japan. Ever. Because Japanese labour-management relations are better? Partly, yes. But in Japan there are almost no unions like the Teamsters or AFL-CIO. But each large corporation has its own union, and they feel no bond with other company unions even if they're doing the same work. In one sense, the company union is almost a puppet, led by a management executive. But in another, everyone in a Japanese company knows that to succeed they need to act together, and being profitable in the long run is the only way to guarantee employment. You don't see a lot of the friction between labour and management in Japanese firms -- one reason is that the workers often cave in since they know a profitable company eventually benefits them. Another is that they know the CEO and execs don't make 100 times the money the workers do, or $2500-$5000 per hour (That's no exaggeration either -- you do the math.)

2. The Gaijin Complex

How Japanese view non-Japanese is always a subject of debate. Often there is a mixture of admiration, suspicion, and most often a lot of nervousness about dealing with someone who doesn't look or act like the Japanese. As stated in the Japan FAQ, it is very hard for non-Japanese to get an apartment, or a loan, credit card, etc. There is no logical or rational explanation for this conflict -- since Japanese do not think in a logical, rational fashion, at least in western terms. If you look at Japanese TV ads, the first thing you'll notice is that there are westerners in about a third of them. There are also half a dozen fluent Japanese speaking foreigners endlessly recycled on TV variety shows, constantly ingratiating themselves and amusing the Japanese enough to want them back. They are part of a group called "tarento". Their only real talent is speaking Japanese well, and many long term ex-pats see them as intellectual whores since they must go through the same problems others do, yet they know the rule of getting invited back is to never bite the hand that feeds them. Yet there are also periodically TV infotainment shows following the cops and catching those awful foreigners committing crimes in "our country", with sinister background music shrieking away. Japanese youth generally show positive attitudes about you, from others there is often indifference. And then there is the racial question. Many people coming to Japan ask if the Japanese are racist and cold to westerners. The answer is not that simple. But it is no exaggeration to say that, bending the metaphor a bit, the Japanese see things through xenophobic glasses. It must be emphasized though that Japanese racism is in almost all cases NEVER HOSTILE towards others -- so the idea of people screaming epithets at you like in the U.S. is inaccurate. (And lest you feel superior, you won't find skinhead thugs or people in white sheets in Japan, and being a woman or minority religion or race might get you far worse treatment in many countries. Maybe even yours). For some young Japanese, having a western boyfriend/girlfriend is a status-symbol, but when things go deeper (especially for a western man/Japanese woman) some people's attitudes can change dramatically. Suddenly the same people showering compliments to the Japanese with a western lover are asking if he/she is weird, or warning about terrible consequences. The attitudes from the Japanese parents may be even more disturbing. In short, it's cool (kako-ii) to look western on a superficial level, but anything more serious may bring a negative reaction.

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Reply Nice primer on Japanese cultural differences (Original post)
Bonobo Nov 2012 OP
Art_from_Ark Nov 2012 #1
AsahinaKimi Nov 2012 #2
Art_from_Ark Nov 2012 #3
Kablooie Nov 2012 #4

Response to Bonobo (Original post)

Mon Nov 12, 2012, 05:07 AM

1. Speaking as a "gaijin"

there is much truth to those observations.

It was hard for me to get my first apartment, many years ago. However, I have had no problems with finding accommodation since then.

I also had no problem getting credit cards in Japan, and the only time I took out a loan, I had no problem getting that, either.
However, since most foreigners coming to Japan don't stay for a long time, I can see why credit card/loan companies might be hesitant to issue a card or loan to someone who doesn't show too much potential for becoming a long-term resident.

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Response to Bonobo (Original post)

Mon Nov 12, 2012, 07:16 PM

2. Thank you so very much for this...

I have heard much about this, from my parents..and from friends who visited Japan. Some is new to me. I intend to post this in my group as there are many enamored with Japanese culture and want to go live in Japan. I have often tried to warn them, that it is not like living in a real life anime... too many have stars in their eyes, to hear it..

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Response to AsahinaKimi (Reply #2)

Mon Nov 12, 2012, 09:09 PM

3. It's easier for younger foreigners

say, in their 20s and 30s, to fit in with, or at least acclimate themselves to, Japanese society, especially if they're single and Westerners. It's generally harder for older foreigners to break the ice.

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Response to Bonobo (Original post)

Mon Nov 12, 2012, 11:46 PM

4. I find that if you are a visitor and learn a little Japanese they appreciate it a lot.

You are never a member of their group but you are a guest. In Japanese culture a guest has very high status. That's why Japanese stores offer such great service to their customers (guests).
If you don't try to be more than an appreciative guest and also go to the trouble to learn a little about their language you will be treated very well.

If you decide to live in Japan long term or try to become part of the Japanese society you won't experience the same welcome you do as a guest.

An American writer in the late 1800's, Lafcadio Hearn, moved to Japan to study and write about Japanese folk and ghost tales. The Japanese were delighted that he was translating and sharing japanese culture with the rest of the world. He grew to be an honored celebrity in Japan. He became so enamored with Japanese culture that he changed his citizenship to Japanese. From that point on he was a pariah and lost all his status in Japanese eyes. An outsider could be an honored guest but could not ever be an honored Japanese.

Also a big difference between western and Japanese cultures is related to the Japanese phrase phrase, "honne to tatemae", true feelings and facade.
The facade holds much more importance than it does in the west.
It is considered honorable to present a facade of pleasantness to hide your true negative feelings as opposed to the west where it is considered hypocritical.
The Japanese may disagree with you but present a facade of being pleased. To Westerners this is deceitful. To Japanese it is polite.

These are some of the things I learned when living in Japan and some of the things I forget when my Japanese wife and I get into disagreements.

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