Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Japanese people

There is no question about it - Japanese people are unique. I`ve spent 10years trying to understand them, and they still fascinate me. Whilst on some level everyone is an individual, everyone is also influenced by their culture. For this reason there are characteristic features that we can attribute to the Japanese, and still others that differentiate them from other groups in Japan and foreign countries. The purpose of this essay - work in progress - is to explore some of those attributes and to differentiate them from western and other Asian nations.

Japanese Attributes
I have explained the attributes that I regard as Japanese and why I believe it emerged:
  1. Polite: The Japanese are recognised for their politeness. They seldom show an angry face or act with aggression, which contrasts with its militaristic past (WWII). This attribute stems from several sources: (a) Buddhist values affirming the importance of harmony, (b) Collectivist ethic upholding `social` harmony above selfish interests or expectations, (c) Cultural superiority arising out of the Meiji Period that saw the Japanese trying to catch up with the west in all facets of life. They wanted to be more civilised, and embodied those values they thought that represented.
  2. Subjective: The Japanese have a very subjective view of reality. At a concrete level, the Japanese are very honest, as everyone is. Because they don`t hold themselves to achieve personal expectations as other cultures (because values are social), they don`t display self-righteousness. But their lack of individual thinking undermines their mental efficacy, so they have low self-esteem, so if they feel threatened by a conversation, they will evade. So capable of dishonesty, but women are not proactively so. Men can be proactively evasive, but not to the extent of westerners because they are less egoistic or goal-directed.
  3. Values: The Japanese have social values rather than personal ones. This is their pride. They no longer have much respect for their authorities, but they still see themselves as filling a function in society and few question their role. It will normally take overburdened Japanese a trip overseas to change this loyalty. So harmony and commitment to social goals overides selfish personal goals and achievements. Its considered uncivilised to be aggressive, selfish or individualistic.
  4. Thinking: The Japanese are very collectivist and the emphasis placed on harmony and the entrenched roles that everyone places in society mean that Japanese do not question these values or their social management system. Partly this reflects the fact that few Japanese travel overseas, and if they do it tends to be for short trips, and they form a negative view based on their values. Its only after longer stays that they start to appreciate the differences. Because the Japanese don`t like to distinguish themselves as individuals, they are not prone to reflect critically on others or ideas. They just want to get along. Rationality is not a Japanese virtue. For that reason they don`t analyse and thus understand the nature of the world. They seemingly know very little, even about their own country, because they are more interested in talk that unites them with others than differentiates themselves from others. They identify very superficially with others, never really understanding. Trying & appearing to be attentive is more polite.... but you need not achieve any understanding, or expect to understand. Relationships in Japan are long-standing, but they are safe rather than meaningful. eg. Marriage is called `domestic divorce` in Japan because partners often have no communication. Just they function as a couple, but there is no respect, affection, shared values. But the pseudo-relationship fills a security (financial) purpose offering comfort.
  5. Compliant: The Japanese are for the most part very compliant. There is very little theft so people don`t mind leaving things around to be stolen. Teenagers are more defiant because of western influences, though its not strength of character, but rather a 2nd hand appeal for attention from their peers. Peer values override social values, as authority figures increasingly loose respect. The Japanese system had more respect when it appeared to work. It appeared to work more when there was less foreign influence. Every Japanese seems themselves as filling some function. `To be, is to be something`, and that implies they fill a social function, and thus identify with a certain group. They have a primary productive identity (eg. housewife, salaryman, office-lady, bureaucrat, executive) as well as incidental ones (eg. soccer player).
  6. Safe: The Japanese are not ones to challenge themselves personally. They prefer to act through groups, and to rely on the group rather than challenge themselves. This is less threatening, since their lack of mental efficacy makes it validating. The illusion of efficacy is preserved if the group remains Japanese because they all accept it. Some Japanese will honestly state they believe their system can`t function with western influence, because its too ambitious & aggressive. They are right. Hence all the obstacles play to prevent western intervention. It strikes many western people that Japanese are like children, and its true. Women are raised to be `cute` as this is what they identify as `feminine`. Men are raised by women, so tend not to have strong masculine characters, as raising children was perceived as the wife`s role. There is a strong affirmation of respect for elders & authority, so childen don`t question it. There is no weakness in this formalised system - everyone feels compelled to comply. Children might not like doing to cram school, but they accept it because all their friends do as well. They are strongly reliant on authority for direction. Children are taken care of parents until they get married or are independent, thereafter many seek the security of corporate salarymen, offered security by the company. Slowly these dependence relationships are breaking, particularly for those unskilled workers unable to get lifetime employment or the conditions offered during the 1980s.
  7. Pride: The Japanese are proud of their nation and its achievements. Few question this superiority complex until they go overseas. Superficial observation fills them with pride seeing all the Japanese name brands, but its based on ignorance of other nation`s dominance (eg. US) because they have little knowledge of their own country - let alone the foreign world. Because Japan is a big market, the focus is inward, so Japanese have a very superficial understanding of the outside world, apart from wealthy, English-speaking and business people with a Meiji-style curiosity about the outside world. Prolong stays overseas tend to leave Japanese feeling a little apathetic. They become lazy, loose focus because they are `free` from outside direction, as well as its safety since the west is a little hostile. In the west they get exposed to a critical, independent media, and also experience the easier lifestyle in the west. eg. Nice houses & gardens, bigger houses, uncrowded trains, uncongested roads, clean & beautiful beaches, but most of all - no social or peer pressures. They can feel free - to be themselves, but its not the safe existence they are accustomed to. Its a choice they have to make - freedom or safety. Visa restrictions tend to force them to accept safety, and if they have wealth, living in Japan isnt so bad.
Japanese Group Identities
Whilst living in Japan I have come to recognise avariety of cultural `identity` groups. Some of these groups are differentiated purely on superficial grounds like fashion. eg. Punk, gothic, militia, surf cultures, etc. For the most part these fashion statements reflect no diversity of values. The Japanese truly are superficial, particularly the young, and we see this in other countries as well.

Differentiating Japanese from foreign values
The Japanese don`t have a monopoly on these values, but in their entirety there is no country like it. South Korea has a similar political framework, as does Germany, but they have a more aggressive, egoistic ethic which makes it more confrontational. A great many collectivist countries exhibit the safety and concrete-bound values of Japan. Japan is Japan-centric, just as other large western cultures like the USA and EU are.
Because Japanese are so compliant to the social system and sacrifice their interests to collectivist goals, they have very little protection, but still the government maintains the illusion of well-being. People live in boxes, they work long hours, they think they are getting a pension. Its an illusion. Eventually Japan will collapse into a national emergency which will result in sweeping changes. At the moment there is no significant change, as the LDP splinters into a multiplicity of similiar parties. Eventually there will be a crisis and the Japanese people will vote for a very different entity - the opposition. But we have yet to see compelling leadership. Rest assured in a country as collectivist as Japan - it will be nationalist. They will attack foreign investment and influence in Japan.

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