The bumpy road to understanding
These days a growing number of people have the chance to step beyond our borders and take a look at the moods, cultures, traditions and folk customs of other countries, or even other continents. Of course, everyone’s experience is unique and everyone’s interpretation is different. Sometimes the differences aren’t particularly great, so people have time to notice every little discrepancy. And sometimes the differences are so huge that you feel compelled to find some similarity, no matter how small. And if that doesn’t work, you suddenly realize that “It’s time to study everything around me, to get to know and understand the whole enchilada and the essence of the land!”
I could dig deeply into Japanese culture and come up with a few pearls, but since this is the first time I’m writing in the blog, I’d like to begin at the beginning. I’d like to produce a list of interesting things, to offer some verbal snapshots of things any visitor to Japan might face. I’m thinking of things you won’t be able to interpret if you only rely on a European cultural heritage. Then, I’d like to use these examples to make it easier to get to know the Japanese people and their culture.
Japanese people tend to think and act with a traditional group mentality in all walks of life and every phase of life. That way of thinking defines their behavior and communication, as well as the way the individual, or more aptly the group, is motivated.
Acting and thinking in terms of a group defines the Japanese, from the time their children start kindergarten. This is why people in Japan traditionally wear uniforms from pre-school onward. The uniforms differ depending on the specific pre-school, school, or company where they work and the components of those uniforms identify the group within the business or class within the school to which they belong.
The uniform can include footwear and socks and even raincoats. Depending on the nature and purpose of the institution, the uniform can include special features such in indoor shoes, which for a purely male secondary school graduating class might even be pink.
Also important is knowing when, where and for how long you can abandon certain items of the uniform. Let me go back to the indoor shoes, which is definitely not a small matter in Japan. For instance, changing your shoes is absolutely necessary when using athen toilet. Forgetting afterwards to change back is a major breach of etiquette that will be immediately obvious to all onlookers. You must remove your shoes when entering a room with a tatami, and it also helps to know where and in which direction you should put their toes, so as not to create a hassle for others. There is always a name tag on the uniforms. It contains not only your name but also a number that identifies you within the given community. By itself, that wouldn’t be particularly unusual. The weird part is that the number can become a full equivalent to your surname or can supplement it (completely eliminating your given name).
The non-publication of school grades is another way of reinforcing the group mentality and negating individualism. The fact is that the grades are NOT made public in Japan, or at least not in the European way of thinking. Tests are treated as highly confidential and are returned to students very discreetly. A student will only know his or her own grade, the class average as a percentage, and the lowest and the highest grades. This appears to be a system lacking both praise and criticism, where every student needs to learn how to position himself or herself, meaning self-motivation, with only the above information to go on. This system gets even tougher on the workforce where the mere absence of a dressing-down or critique qualifies as praise. Fear of sticking out of the group, of being isolated or shamed is a “motivational tool” in Japan.
To understand the Japanese way of thinking and forms of communication, it is essential to first understand how groups operate. First, though, there are a few things you need to know. You will need to know the relationships between the groups and recognize the signs of group membership. In a given situation there are a number of things that can clue you in on the details of superiority/subordination. They include the language of the various strata, the depth and duration of a bow, posture, and even the position taken at a negotiation table.
People might be surprised at the seating at a big dinner, set at a round table, where there is also a stage with a performance underway during the meal. The seat with its back to the stage (which, however, offers a full view of all the dinner guests) goes to the highest ranking person in the group. Another surprising but common instance might be at a school event, when the difference in “rank” between the students and the speaker is expressed by having the students squat patiently and listen to the speaker for as long as half an hour (while another speaker may require them to stand or even sit on the floor).
Geographic endowments, history, tradition, customs, etiquette, language…. When I first met with Japanese culture, I tried to interpret the behavior, the way of thinking, and the lifestyles of the Japanese people based on my own experience in a European cultural environment, but I failed miserably. I was confused, clueless, and often annoyed and furious. I started researching and learning, gathering experience, and eventually I managed to evolve an understanding of a system that became logical when placed on a completely different foundation. I would like to offer kernels of my findings in future blogs. I love building atop a knowledge foundation, tearing down walls, and rebuilding different ones. I hope the descriptions of my experience will offer crumbs of information to others, for whatever purpose they choose to use them!
Sources of the pictures: