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Xenophobe's Guide to the Japanese
By Sahoko Kaji, Noriko Hama, Robert Ainsley, Jonathan Rice, Catriona Tulloch Scott
Xenophobe's GuidesCopyright © 2012 Xenophobe's Guides Ltd
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Nationalism & Identity
The ins and outs of being Japanese
To the Japanese, the world is split into two kinds: 'we Japanese' and everyone else (or, vaguely, 'Westerners', for everywhere, even Hawaii, is west of Japan).
Five-sixths of Japan is uninhabitable because it is so mountainous that it is only suitable for pine trees, and there are no roads, houses, or factories. The remaining one-sixth, mostly on the coast, is uninhabitable because there is nothing but roads, houses and factories. This means the Japanese live on top of each other, so any idea of individuality, of not relying on another person, is well and truly expunged from the psyche.
The Japanese are gregarious by nature – individuality and selfishness are as welcome as a sumo wrestler barging the line at a buffet. They consider one of their strengths to be their homogeneity: sentences often begin with the phrase "We Japanese", as though they all act identically and hold exactly the same views. The result is a strong sense of uchi, meaning 'inside', i.e., 'us' or 'at home', and soto meaning 'outside', i.e., 'them' or 'abroad'.
To be taken seriously, for your well-being to receive proper attention, in other words to matter to the Japanese, you must be uchi. If you are not, you can expect little consideration: you are soto, and what you will get is benign neglect. You are invisible. To the Japanese, foreigners are soto most of the time.
Japan is uchi, everywhere else is soto, so the Japanese can behave differently overseas. There you can express an opinion, admit you don't actually want to get married or study accountancy – so long as nobody at home hears about it. 'Embarrassment on the road is left behind' as the proverb conveniently goes. Many a European man is bemused to find that the sparky, fun-loving, independent Japanese girl he's met on her travels turns into a meek yes-woman back at home.
To your uchi friends, you divulge your innermost secrets. With mere acquaintances you stick to talking about the weather. Under no circumstances should the two attitudes be confused. Thus the existence of a stranger in the lift or the corridor is never acknowledged. Doors slam in your face, elbows ram into your side, briefcases leave marks on your knees and nobody apologises. But once you are their acquaintance, preferably their customer, the red carpet rolls.
The Japanese find such sudden switching quite natural. The uchi/soto business is about cutting up the world into manageable proportions. You are brought up to care for each other; but obviously you can't care for everyone, so uchi comes first, strangers last. You have to draw the line somewhere. And, for the Japanese, the coast of Japan is a convenient place to do it.
How they see others
To be Japanese, you must have a Japanese name and exclusively Japanese blood. Everyone else is a gaijin ('outsider') and can never be Japanese. If you are a 'proper' Western gaijin, the Japanese will be disappointed if you are not tall, blond and blue-eyed. These looks have big appeal, especially to the younger Japanese, many of whom wear contact lenses to make their eyes look blue, or dye their hair. Considered the ultimate in visual desirability, Western models, actors and rock stars are recruited by the media to advertise everything from cars to cough drops.
To the majority of Japanese, foreigners are classified roughly as a) the dark-skinned, b) Koreans, and c) Americans. (Even the British are regarded as Americans. The Japanese love affair with America runs deep. Asked 'What nationality would you like to be if you were to be born again?', 30% of those polled answered 'American'.)
Large numbers of Koreans live and work in Japan due to Korea being a former colony. The Japanese Constitution forbids any discrimination – but only against Japanese citizens, and as the Koreans are not allowed Japanese citizenship they are exempt. Discrimination is a touchy subject – and therefore avoided. The Japanese way of dealing with something they find unacceptable is by not talking about it: if it isn't acknowledged, then it can be regarded as ceasing to exist.
Westerners in Japan are exonerated from following Japanese ways and even the most blatant misconduct will be forgiven on the grounds of them being a gaijin – a word that is too impolite to be publicly pronounced; a word that mothers scold their children for using. Gaijin embodies a combination of fascination and disdain for the 'unruly' Westerners, the underlying meaning being "S/he is not Japanese. S/he will never be able to be Japanese, no matter how rich, smart or good looking ... poor soul ... we have to treat him/her kindly".
The Japanese think that, thanks to their learning, studying and research, they know the rest of the world far better than any foreigner will ever know them. Hence a foreigner who speaks Japanese and shows appreciation of Japanese culture is dubbed henna gaijin (weird foreigner). The nation is convinced that, though foreigners will never know them, if they suffer long enough, they will know the foreigners.
How they would like to be seen
The Japanese would like to be seen as an orderly, hard-working people, capable of meeting expectations – of being well up to every task. But their ideal is to be super-clever in secret. As they say, 'The wise hawk hides its claws.' The reverse is the ultimate indignity.
To this end they push themselves in their work, their sport, even their leisure. When the world criticised them for working too hard, they produced television programmes on how to enjoy a leisurely weekend – which everyone watched and studied with intensity at the weekends.
For fear of being seen as layabouts, people will not take holidays. In desperation, companies wanting to encourage employees to go on holiday found that the only way they could be persuaded to take even a few days a year was to shut down the works completely, condemning tens of thousands of workaholics to miserable 'holidays' racked by withdrawal symptoms.CHAPTER 2
No 'Yes' or 'No'
The Japanese will seldom answer a question with a straight yes or no. Direct questions are frowned on, as are direct answers. The normal response is "Ma" or "Ma-ma", meaning 'sort of', 'rather', or 'more or less'. They will erm and ahh and hesitate and leave things open rather than commit themselves to a decision. For a Japanese man to be called 'decisive' is seen as a defective trait, and for a woman to be thought of as opinionated is worse than to be called ugly.
A Japanese business executive described the difference between the Japanese and Westerners by saying that the Japanese are analogue, while Westerners are digital. A digital clock tells the time precisely, but it gives its information in isolation. An analogue clock, on the other hand, can only give the correct information if the big hand, the little hand and the clock face are read together. The Japanese see themselves as parts of this clock, always working in harmony and progressing logically along the course of their lives.
Preferences are rarely voiced. This can lead to expense. For example, when you invite people to a meal you don't ask them their dietary requirements as that would be too direct. So you have to prepare for every conceivable culinary contingency.
When talking to the Japanese, therefore, it is best to bear in mind that:
if they say yes, they mean no
if they say perhaps, they probably mean yes, or no, or else maybe
if everyone in the place is beaming at you, this means you've done the most offensive and tasteless thing imaginable (for example, speared your food with your chopsticks), and they wish you'd go home.
Because of all the indecisiveness, the Japanese are trained from an early age to read each other's minds in order to ensure some progress.
The quintessence of unspoken mutual understanding is to be found in the word yoroshiku: 'You have understood what I want you to do. I have understood that you have understood what I want you to do. Therefore I leave it up to you to finish the task and I expect it to be done in the way I want it to be done. And I thank you for understanding me and agreeing to take the trouble to do the task.' All this in four syllables.
Under the mat, behind the words
The Japanese read between the lines, or, to be exact, behind the words. Everyone knows the true state of things, that behind the tatemae – the 'official position' or what is expressed in words – is a honne, 'true voice', an undefined mass of human emotions reflecting the actual state of affairs. This stays in the background, to be discerned by the discerning. The Japanese will quietly walk away, mentally if not physically, from anyone who fails to recognise this distinction.
Understanding each other's hidden meanings perfectly whatever they appear to say is not as extraordinary as it sounds since, unless they are the closest of friends, what they say to each other is limited to about twenty phrases. They pick up minute clues to the speaker's real feelings from, for example, their expression, the tone of voice, the cut of their suit, or the probability of precipitation that day.
The Japanese have also perfected the art of deliberately misunderstanding each other in order not to cause loss of face. For instance, you ask at the ice-cream stall what's in his Supa-Kureemu. The vendor will give a detailed description: vanilla and strawberry ice-cream, pistachio nuts, topped with glazed honey and chocolate sauce. "I'll have two please," you say. "Sorry, none left," comes the reply.
It's all a polite way out of any mutual loss of face. The seller forlornly hoped the customer would decide against it so he wouldn't have to admit he was out of stock. He answers precisely what he is asked. This happens all the time in Japan. If a potentially embarrassing issue can be postponed or avoided altogether, it will be. Great for avoiding offence, but it's a bit of a bummer if you want an ice-cream on a hot day.
Things that might hurt people's feelings or cause controversy are better left unsaid, especially when it comes to gaffes made by fellow insiders. Since it is of paramount importance in any aspect of Japanese society to save face, to 'squash a face' is a major offence and must be avoided at all costs. This often turns out to be the motive behind actions which otherwise seem inexplicable, or illegal, like cooking the books to cover someone else's mistake. Making a clean breast of it is very rarely the preferred option. Letting things out and making them known to outsiders would be a collective shame. So, whatever can be swept under the mat will be – in as thorough and swift a manner as possible. It's a wonder some Japanese mats aren't touching the ceiling. In the past, suicide was an honourable way of making restitution. These days apologies are seen as one of the efficient ways of dealing with dirty laundry. Once a high-ranking company executive bows his head low and resigns, the slate is wiped clean. In this context, apology is not an admission of guilt, but a means of exoneration, a way of silencing accusers.
Nothing is quite what it seems in the Kafkaesque world of Japanese ritual. Form and substance may contradict each other entirely. But it doesn't really matter so long as people's faces remain intact.
The Japanese will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Take the process of arriving at a group decision. To guarantee agreement, the appropriate information is transmitted to the appropriate quarters, those who must be consulted will be consulted, and those who need convincing will be convinced. This is the art of nemawashi. (The same word is used in gardening to describe a method of transplanting something. You first prune the root and wait until it sprouts from the pruned part. Then you transplant it. Ne means 'root'. Mawashi literally means 'binding'.) For example, it is common for undergraduates after a class to say to their sensei (teacher): "Sensei, let's go for a drink!" This means having a couple of beers in a nearby watering hole. However, deciding on the place requires group agreement. A process of assessment circulates. No-one wants to make the decision. One student thinks she is too young to make a suggestion. Another thinks that Bar A is best but the teacher may not like it. In the end the oldest or the most senior person in the group will suggest Bar Z and everyone will agree with enthusiasm, even those who detest Bar Z. Harmony is what's important, and open-mindedness and understanding are the keys to decision making.
The sequence in which the nemawashi takes place is also crucial. If the right people are approached but in the wrong order, the whole venture is doomed. If you approach the wrong people in the right order, you may find yourself committed to an unholy alliance totally beyond your control. In that eventuality, the original situation that required nemawashi in the first place would cease to matter much.
One big group
In Japanese society, your well-being is everyone's business. People are there for you when you need them and there for you when you don't. They will follow you to your grave to see that you are properly buried. Everyone is part of some group and the group comes first. Precisely for this reason, the notion of enryo (a respectful distance) is encouraged. You should know when not to intrude.
With no clear lines drawn between public and private, or for that matter between anything at all, there is little room for individualism. An art student, for example, must copy the masters for half his life before making his own first strokes which means that there's not much room for a rebel genius to skip stages and take shortcuts.
This does not mean the Japanese lack diversity. Inhabitants of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, for instance, find each other different. And the language is spoken with very different accents all over the country. Yet they all share the basic expectation of being cared for by, and depending upon, one another. Inside their group, everyone has more or less the same understanding and the same attitudes. As the saying goes, 'The nail that sticks up will be hammered down'.
The Japanese cannot understand the self-confidence and self-reliance of Westerners, especially the Americans. 'A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do', says John Wayne in Stagecoach. In Japan, a man's gotta do what his peer group gotta do and they're not in a stagecoach, they're all in the same boat.
Someone to watch over you
Japanese life swims on a tidal wave of communication and concern. Leave your headlights on in daylight and countless oncoming cars will flash to tell you. Lest you feel insecure as you wait for a train, a constant flow of announcements tells you precisely where the train is at the moment, how crowded it is, how to stand back in order to avert an accident, whether to hurry and get on board or wait until the next one, in which case you might as well get on with reading your paper – always remembering to fold it into a thin strip so that you do not cause obstruction with out-thrust elbows, another thing you are thoughtfully told to avoid. Once inside the train, the announcements continue: 'Kindly move away from the doors to facilitate the entry and departure of others', 'The next stop is Nishinomiyakitaguchi; Nishinomiyakitaguchi is the next stop, that's Nishinomiyakitaguchi', or 'Please do not leave anything behind you when you disembark' as if there was room inside for you to leave anything behind.
All this minding other people's business tends to make the Japanese unable to think for themselves unless presented with options. In restaurants abroad they are flummoxed by being asked if they would "like anything to drink first". How can they know, without being told what to choose from?
Every product you buy comes with instructions: chairs, spoons, toilet paper. Machines come with huge manuals which cover every possibility for human error: 'If the light does not go on, could it be that you have inadvertently forgotten to plug it in?' Cartoon characters illustrate every step, pressing buttons, opening lids and smiling congratulations upon successful completion.
Know what you owe
The Japanese are moved by human frailty. If someone makes a mistake, apologises, and asks for help to remedy the situation, they can expect to be forgiven. They show their appreciation by never forgetting as long as they live that help and forgiveness were given. This is when the beneficiary has on towards the benefactor. On means 'what is owed'. Once you have on towards someone, you had better not forget it – otherwise you will be excluded.
Excerpted from Xenophobe's Guide to the Japanese by Sahoko Kaji, Noriko Hama, Robert Ainsley, Jonathan Rice, Catriona Tulloch Scott. Copyright © 2012 Xenophobe's Guides Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Xenophobe's Guides.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Nationalism & Identity,
Manners & Etiquette,
Attitudes & Values,
Hygiene, Health & Looking Good,
Custom & Tradition,
Leisure & Pleasure,
About the Authors,