City skyscape photo that I took from Odaiba

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A land of contradictions and the group mentality

I realize I have not posted a blog entry in a while, and I finally decided the reason for my avoidance is because it is difficult to articulate impressions in a "land of contradictions."

For every piece of cultural understanding I glean from my experiences here, I can think of a counter-example to show why that perception is not totally accurate. Coupled with the certainty that there are layers I can't yet decipher, I hesitate to blog about my interpretation of events because I know I won't be painting the full picture. I further hesitate because I am afraid some of my Japanese friends, coworkers, and students would be offended by and/or defensive of some of my frustrations and critiques. These factors combined have, in effect, rendered me mute.

My inability to explain life here, with both enthusiasm and tact, bothers me.

Before I came here, I read many things about Japan, and especially Tokyo, being a model in contradictions. The yin and yang. The old and new. The east and west. Etc. etc. Nearly every guidebook or information website I read made some sort of reference to this juxtaposition. For example, my Lonely Planet: Japan guidebook states:
Tokyo is a riddle of contradictions that springs from tensions between large-scale commercialization and meticulous detail; the frantic rhythms of contemporary consumer culture and the still, quiet moments that are the legacy of other, older traditions. It is a creative behemoth, inevitably reinventing, re-creating, resolving itself... and it may well be the perfect metaphor for the globe as it spins and wobbles through the 21st century.

But after a while, I found it annoying that no one could really concretely explain Japan. It's this, but also that. It has this, but also that. It's unique. It's Japan. While I certainly didn't expect any country or culture to be without idiosyncrasies, I did presume there would be some common characteristics that could help me frame my understanding. To me, it almost felt like the explanations were cop-outs -- as if to imply that making any definitive analysis of Japan would be erroneous.

Thus far, I have tried to avoid writing about Japan in this way. I have taken the approach that this "riddle" must be answerable. That by describing my experiences and insights, I will begin to see the puzzle pieces come together, a picture will emerge, and I will be able to make sense of it all.

Maybe, though, my problem is I'm approaching it as though I have a 100-piece puzzle, but really it's a 1,000-piece. For example, I am trying to figure out how to explain Japan's group mentality. It seems like one piece of the puzzle. But then I as try to figure out how to articulate it, I am faced with contradicting experiences and attitudes, and I realize I still haven't quite made sense of it. It's like a small cloud in a landscape puzzle. On the 100-piece puzzle, the cloud is on one piece, and I could just fit it into the larger picture very easily. But on the 1,000-piece puzzle, I feel like I'm at the point when I have all the pieces of the cloud gathered together, and I think two of the cloud pieces should fit together, but even when I force them, they clearly weren't meant to connect.

So, I will just have to reframe my thinking and realize that while I can shed some light on a topic, the whole issue is still nowhere close to being illuminated.

So, with that preface, I will attempt to simply shed light on the group mentality aspect of Japanese culture. Because mentality is beneath the surface, yet shapes all aspects of behavior, this has been a topic that affects my daily interactions with Japanese people, but has also been difficult to put a finger on.

The basic idea (although as stated, this is not the whole picture) is that in the West, we value individual thought and personal initiative, and we generally view the actions and beliefs of individuals as separate from their family, state, or country. In Japan, there is a famous saying that my students like to tell me: "The nail that sticks up will be pounded down." Here, everyone has this heightened awareness of being a part of a group and that their actions and beliefs represent their family, coworkers, and country. The goal is to think of others first and not to rock the boat.

This plays itself out in subtle ways, like the requirement to constantly keep the glasses of your drinking companions filled, lest you be unaware to their needs. Or the pressure to work unpaid overtime because it is selfish to leave work while your colleagues are continuing to labor. When there are any sort of personality clashes or conflicts of ideas at work, for example, the best solution is to move on and avoid talking about them. Direct conflict resolution -- a value I was raised with -- is seen as aggressive and problematic. Why should you want to point out how we are not getting along? The idea of agreeing to disagree doesn't really exist; rather consensus-building is the ideal.

There is a website that one of my foreign coworkers told me about because it described some of the Japanese traits I had been discussing with her. It's called Japanese Culture: A Primer for Newcomers ( I found it incredibly informative, and I will probably try to break down and go over some of its explanations and my personal experiences with those topics in future blog entries. On the subject of group think, it has this to say:

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.
And then to further this explanation, here is another section on the group mentality, but with an international perspective. While I think the whole section explains this topic very well, I'm going to change the text color to red in the part I specifically want to highlight.

Nihonjinron and Kokusaika - "We Japanese" and Internationalization

The term Nihonjinron (or "Ware Ware Nihonjin") is a "We Japanese" mentality. It is part of the Uchi-Soto mindset except it is almost always applied in a "Japanese and everyone else" kind of way. Japan is the center of the world -- and if you buy a map of the world don't be surprised to find Japan in the middle of it. This can be very bewildering to westerners in Japan. If there's a Japanese news report of a plane crash somewhere in the world with 398 non-Japanese and 2 Japanese people, the news report will focus on the crash and then the lives, family, and friends of the 2 Japanese. The rest of the people? They don't exist. They're never even mentioned. Another example is when 2 Japanese baseball players, Hideo Nomo and Irabu, made it on US teams. Suddenly, you start seeing lots of major league baseball games on Japanese TV, with the promos blaring "Major League Baseball--Nomo!!" as if he were the captain, manager, and God's greatest gift to the team. Other MLB games without Japanese players are never shown. And all this in spite of the fact that Nomo became a persona non grata in Japan's leagues because he wanted to throw the ball his way, not the way the manager dictated. (Nomo now says he'll never play baseball for a Japanese team ever again. And he's still hailed as the baseball hero of Japan.) As stated, when Japan is involved in an issue, the Japanese often find it hard if not impossible to look objectively. If a foreigner criticizes some act of corruption in the Japanese government, many Japanese will feel offended that this foreigner is attacking "us". In other words, in a society where show takes precedence over substance and getting along with the group is more important than work performance, there are more than a few Japanese who'd take anything even slightly negative against Japan as a sweeping condemnation of everything Japanese as well as insulting their mother's honor, and might be answered with "then why don't you just go home, you racist foreigner". Japanese don't have a monopoly on this attitude by any means, but it can be quite surprising to suddenly get such a retort. Hypocrisy is something attacked in the West, but in Japan it is often standard procedure. Even today, when western nations ask Japan to open its markets (to the benefit of the whole Japanese population), many Japanese initially see it as an attack on the Japanese way of life and culture. Rice, the most heavily protected product in Japan, is the by far the biggest example of this. The agricultural unions cranked up their propaganda machines about how rice is the soul of Japan and how "unsafe" foreign rice is. And the Japanese people bought it hook, line and sinker. The current recession is testing this notion however, and due to GATT Japan has been forced to grant "minimum access" to foreign rice. The powerful yen also has sent many Japanese shopping overseas. Yet instead of wondering why Japan is so expensive, the typical reaction is how weird it is that other nations are so cheap.

The term "Kokusaika" or "Internationalization" is another trendy buzzword being bounced around the country. Everyone is supposed to become more international these days. However, since the Japanese never bothered to define what exactly "international" is, it is just another vacuous idea. To many Japanese women being international is carrying a Louis Vouitton bag and drinking Budweiser. To others it's meeting foreigners (i.e. white people--the rest of the world doesn't matter) and speaking English. And many Japanese can't even picture anything of what "international" is supposed to be. This is not surprising since many Japanese haven't a clue as to what "being Japanese" is either. It is often the subject on tv shows. McDonalds was first told they'd never make it in Japan, since "Japanese eat rice-balls, not hamburgers". Coca-cola got the same message with green tea. Now both have billions of dollars in revenue from Japan. Some Japanese even ask Americans if Kentucky Fried Chicken is in America, as if it were a Japanese invention, or even ask if there are 4 seasons in your country, believing that Japan is the only nation in the world where the seasons change. Since no working definition exists however, "being Japanese" usually means doing things the traditional way -- a backwards looking view. Whenever some big reform happens, it's always decried as anti-Japanese, but Japanese soon adapt and it disappears from mind. And Japan is still Japan.

Coming around full-circle now, I am afraid voicing any of my frustrations about Japanese culture or society might be found offensive by the Japanese people I know. And while that wouldn't be how I would intend it, it still might be how it is taken. In the U.S., we have this idea of constructive criticism, and just because you say you don't like a government policy, or apple pie, or even the racist attitudes of someone you know, it doesn't automatically translate into you disliking the entire society, or all American food, or even your racist friend/relative/coworker. Mentally, I separate these in my mind. But here, I have found a somewhat different reaction to these types of comments. If I say in one of my discussion classes that I think a Japanese government policy is flawed, I can feel the tension rise in the room. If I say I don't like one particular Japanese food (except for the few pat ones that Westerns aren't expected to like), then the people I'm talking to seem personally sad that I don't enjoy the food and my life here. If I try to explain that there are some difficulties that come with being a white person here, it seems as though people feel a bit indignant because of my ungratefulness for all the nice things they have done for me (but I do recognize and value the enormous generosity that has been shown to me, and my statements are not meant to deny that).

So, I guess I have been unsure how to proceed. Because this is a land of contradictions, there does always seem to be a flip side to any topic that I think I'm beginning to understand. And because the perspective is different here, I don't want to be insensitive or unappreciative when I show the more negative side of the coin. Yet in order for me to more fully understand this country, I want to proceed with honesty. So, I resolve to continue chipping away at things, and hopefully the puzzle does indeed come together with time.


andrew.francis84 said...

Wow Adrienne, you really hit the nail on the head with this post. A lot of what you wrote here really explains what I've been going through in China. It's the same with the Chinese food, (which in my opinion is not near as good as the Japanese food), the group mentality, the us vs. them, not wanting to rock the boat. I'm also impressed with how much effort you put into this blog. You write really well. I tried having one for a while, but I didn't have the discipline to sit down and write everyday, or even once a week. I also didn't want my parents reading it, because I've been through a few rough patches here that I didn't want to burden them with. All in all, great blog, it was great to read something that so well articulates a lot of the things I see here in China.

Nicole said...

Hey Adrienne,

What you wrote about is similar to what many of my students who are studying at a university in Tokyo have been experiencing. While reading your blog there were some connections that I could draw to my experience in Germany, but at the same time I don't feel like there were the contradictions that you are talking about. That must be really frustrating! All I can say is that you will find your balance in between these worlds. It might be an imperfect balance, but what is important is that you gain that imperfect balance and it is comfortable for you. You may get there before you come home, and you may not. But don't be overly critical of yourself- it's all about figuring the puzzle out and it sounds like you're doing a great job of that.

baato said...

I don't wish to be contrary, quite the opposite, but to me, Japan is no more a land of contradictions than any other.
Human beings are a tad polar, in my view, and there are huge contradictions happening everywhere across the globe.

However, for me, going to Japan is like going to another planet. I've been to Osaka twice :) I'm going back and I want to live there :)

To understand the Japanese psyche is a difficult thing indeed - it's best attempted by living there, eh ?

Minnasan wa ganbatte kudasai !

Anyway, your site is lovely, Adrienne, thanks :)
Care to look at mine ?