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.

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