Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Understanding the Japanese

Well what does it mean to be Japanese? Well you can always argue that they are all individuals, but I am speaking of the attributes that define them collective noun...generally speaking. I find them the most fascinating people because their behaviour is so unexpected some times, and thats what makes them interesting to me. My observations come from about 18 visits to Japan over the last 15 years, from 2 long relationships and a few less serious ones, teaching about 1500 Japanese students at Nova English School and also some business interaction. My perspective comes from abstract intgration more than purely empirical observation....so correct me if I'm over-generalising.
The attributes that stand out to me are:
1. Social identity: I doubt there is any othr culture as collectivist as the Japanese. They place a great deal of importance on being accepted in the group. Its not so much that they hate being alone, but being an outsider. The reason I believe is that values are social as well, so if you dont stand with others, you have no significance and others will frown upon you. Thats why they dont go out with prior plans to meet others, why they are so inclusive of others.
2. Generosity: The Japanese are amongst the most generous people I know, though I think its not the same reason as say Americans. I think Americans are generous because they have positive, bountiful lives, and share or give from a sense of goodwill, sometimes with a desire to be morally superior, or even for the sake of social networking. The Japanese do it out of a sense of obligation to their collective identity. If you are a stranger, they are not so generous, unless they are accustomed to, and welcome contact with foreigners, having had positive travel experiences.
3. Social values: The Japanese have very subjective values, the implication of which their thinking is 'each to his own', except to the extent that others values impinge on the happiness of others, and on that point they are very sensitive, but very tolerant. They would be insensed by a foreigner having a cellphone conversation on a phone or making any type of scene that breaks with the social harmony.
4. Shy: Japanese people are genrally very shy and exhibit alot of self-doubt. They are very sensitive to taking risks, to being shamed or humiliated. You will find them reluctant to speak English despite having good conversation skills, and reluctant to engage in any unfamilar interaction or activity, though keen to do something new involving social interaction.
4. Positive anxiety: Japanese people often exhibit what I would call a 'positive anxiety' in the sense that they feel compelled to do something, but often lack an outlet. They are amongst the least ambitious people I have meet. Even career-orientated men dont exhibit the personal sense of purpose or motivation that western people do. It seems more about success through others eyes, like a it was always a slap in the face to a father who expected nothing from them. Women are raised to be carers, with no career expectations, and considerable barriers to success, and all but the most competent women are likely to fail.
5. Spiritual: Japanese people are scared of ghosts in the Shinto tradition. They believe their ancestors remain in this life as spirits. They will leave salt crystals at the entry points of the house to ward off bad spirits. I've found all ASian cultures to be this way.
6. Self deprecating: The Japanese do not display alot of ego. They take criticism very politely and thoughtfully, though I think they are inclined to undermine the source unless there is a hint of personal redemption in the relationship. Listening thoughtfully is part of their virtue of tolerance.
7. Tolerant: The renouncement of personal value or standing is in fact how the Japanese feel valued. They find pride or virtue in sufferage...in pursuit of noble ideal.
8. Thoughtful: I found the Japanese to be very curious people, though without any great sense of personal purpose, it really seemed to lack personal momentum or depth...just polite conversation, and not something that they readily integrate into their life. They just respect that that is your space.
9. Organised: With the exception of the Koreans (who copied them), I think the Japanese are the most organised or institutionalised people on the planet. I think the virtues of good organisation were recognised by the Meiji Emperor, but I'm speculating. Regardless, Japanese governments, corporations and other organisations offer a range of activities to keep people busy, and alot of these carry with them a sense of social obligation, even compulsion, so attendance is high. Evading participation was particularly difficult when the Japanese were village based. It must be remembered that the 'social identity' stems from their village tradition and its only been in the last 50 years that Japan has opted for the more impersonal city life. But the corporation is really a modern substitute carrying many of the same traditions. And even in the cities there are still alot of people who respond to the traditions of the village, and even outsiders who want to join it.
10. Social status: The Japanese place alot of importance on status, as became apparent when I saw alot of teenage Japanese girls gawking at a rugby union team at the airport. Their first instinct is to ask for autographs to show their friends. Its a basis on which to elevate your standing with others. The importance of standing and harmony are related to this, and the desire to be well-regarded by others, to avoid conflict, it results in the tendency of the Japanese to be 'excessively nice'.

I'm sure I will find more attributes after reviewing my years of notes, but these are the core attributes that come from memory. Understand that there are a great many subtle expressions of these values which are defined by the context. I found there to be a strong difference between gender identities - and I say identities because I find that there are a great many feminine men in Asia. Men strike me as more arrogant, proud, dogmatic, whereas women are more conciliatory, appeasing, self-deprecating and easily contented. Men more self-indulgent and outrageous.

These are by necessity generalisations. I have meet young Japanese people who are more American than Americans. They will aggressively assert that Japan suxs and they want to live in America. I would suggest that such people have reflected negatively on their culture, sometimes only after having drawing something positive from other (usually western) societies.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Impact of commercialism of sport – and the internet on writing

I was watching a movie last night ‘Any Given Sunday’, the story about American football. In one of the scenes they were lamenting the commercialisation of sport and how that had impacted on football. The poignant line was “In the old days it was our concentration that mattered, now it’s them [the audiences].
This is a very apt description since it highlights the importance of ‘making exciting football’ to boost stadium attendance and TV ratings. That demands wins and compelling game play to excite the audience. Yes, its true, in the days of old, there was more soul in professional football. But we need only look at junior or amateur football to see that pride and personal efficacy are still the underlying basis for the game, as much as ‘the money’ might be pulling professional players and administrators in directions that they would not otherwise go, whether its:

  1. The use of drugs to enhance performance
  2. The misbehaviour of sporting stars off the field
  3. The lack of consideration of the broader interests of players for the sake of earnings

In short, yes, the industry does place a heightened importance on money at the top of the league, but then their concern for money is likely to erode once they have enough, and then does it not become ‘just about football’ for everyone but the large stakeholders – the shareholders and executives with stock options.
At the junior level, the tendency of some parents to place undue pressure on their children to perform is not a new phenomena, and in fact has probably declined in recent years as parents become more aware through education. But some parents persist as they attend to live their own lives gregariously through the opportunities presented to their children. Why? They feel inhibited to perform in their own lives, that they feel compelled to shift their expectations to their children.
Is there any cultural malaise in sport. On the contrary, achievement in the field is still praised. Players have unions and managers to look after their interests, allowing them to focus on what they are good at.
Some argue that there is an excessive focus on sports in society, that other fields of professionalism like art, literature and scientific endeavours are not afforded the same level of interest given to sports. Well that’s certainly true if we look at the money involved, but then there are several important differences:
The art and literature world is not as professional as the sports sector, in the sense that the art world is still relatively self-indulgent until one reaches a high level of capability
The art and literature world embodies a smaller fraction of society. Growing up, probably 70% of people enjoy watching sport, and half of us play it. But perhaps only 10-15% of us read serious literature and 1-2% write it, and fewer still seek a career as a writer.

The interesting question is – Is the internet, with the advent of blogging, developing a greater level of interest in writing as a career choice? Well that remains to be seen, though its clear that many more people are writing because they feel they have a chance to expose their ideas to the broader world in a non-confronting way. Certainly the quality of many blogs and the commitment of many bloggers is surely not there, but t minimum the process is exposing them to a great many other writers, so we can see that this might be the basis for a growing industry – if not support for writing then surely support for reading. OK the seeds of professionalism are not there yet, as the quality and commitment to many blogs will attest, and its a steep learning curve for those that want greater exposure for their ideas. Already we see the impact of writers who capture the interests of readers. Look at the worldwide impact of H.K. Rowlings with ‘Harry Potter’ series. Clearly there is a market for literature for those that recognise the market, but I would suggest that a great many professional writers and artists are rather self-indulgent. The reason might be that no objective value is placed on such self-mastery, in the sense that there is a popular belief that any art is good art. Perhaps artists are missing the deeper expression of values. And I say that in the content of what is currently considered ‘art’ in the art world. What is the deeper sense of values invoked? What are we getting from a Monet that we aren’t getting from aboriginal rock art? Are they of the same calibre? As far as I can see there are 3 factors that underpin artistic value – whether we are talking sport, literature or art:

  1. An expression of values – the more profound, the more valued; the more concrete, the less valued
  2. Technical skill
  3. Relevance to the lives of the audience

By that criteria, aboriginal art falls short of the Monet.
The last pertinent question to ask is why aren’t people inspired to write books like ‘Harry Potter’ or produce artwork like Monet. The reality is that some are – and the success of those examples is testimony to that. The problem however is that there is not enough of it. Few parents are preparing their kids for success. Parenting is another one of those areas where its supposed to come naturally, or might others rationalise, ‘if you’re old enough to have kids, then you’re old enough to look after them’. Personally I don’t think I was ready for kids until I was 35yo, though its hard to say given the less onerous provisioning for ‘baby’ parenting as opposed to ‘teenage’ parenting. So perhaps I could have had a child at 32yo and performed well. The reality is that little regard is given to parenting. Most parents teach the way that they were taught. Fortunately some parents are reading and learning how to be better parents, and increasingly the importance of parenting is being communicated through the media, eg. Dr Phil, Oprah and self improvement books. The lesson being missed fundamentally is structure and purpose. Parents are not giving adequate attention to the development of a child’s sense of purpose, and nor are they helping them to pursue that purpose by giving them a framework for growth. Its not about living your life through your child, or overtaking theirs, or pushing them into something they don’t want to do. Its about inspiring them to act in a certain way by demonstrating the value of a structured or systematic approach as opposed to a random, self-indulgent or haphazard approach. If that lesson is learned in childhood, and its value explicitly stated, then the value is retained, and achievement becomes a breeze. If its not fostered or its value not highlighted, then its easily lost when they leave the highly structured school environment, and they are vulnerable to failure. The later those lessons are taught, the harder they are to learn as we have become creates of bad habits.