26 February 2010

Unique Japanese society: perspective of a foreigner

Japan is a country made up of more than 6000 islands and is 70% mountains. It is a country whose entire population is half that of the United States squeezed into a land mass about the size of California. Japanese face almost 1,500 earthquakes every year. Japan is the only country to be attacked by atomic weapons in the history. Life expectancy of Japanese is the highest in the world. Japan is one of the biggest economies. They are the largest automobile producer in the world and Japanese electronic products need no introduction. Japan’s national anthem is the oldest in the world. Japanese prefer to call their country as ‘land of the rising sun’… you must be wondering if I am going to list out all the facts and figures on Japan. Well, definitely not. In fact, this post intends to talk on some of the strange social and cultural aspects of Japan that I have observed.

Attitude towards foreigners and Internationalization

How Japanese view foreigners may be a subject of personal judgment. Japanese appear very friendly with foreigners but at the same time it's always hard to make them 'a friend'. They will admire you for seemingly smaller doings but may also sometimes suspect you. For a foreigner, it's usual to hear the expression 'nihongo wa jouzu desu neh', which means 'your Japanese is so good', no matter how worse is your Japanese ability. Their expression may come as a compliment but given your level of Japanese you may also feel embarrassed at times. In Japan, you often come across the word 'internationalization', a slogan to show that Japan is positively open to the outside world. However, very few seem to have understood this catch-word. Everyone aspires to it but is often confused when it comes to realizing it practically.

A vertical society and the group-culture

In Japan, everyone belongs to some group, and every group has people of superior rank and status. Here, employees are not necessarily evaluated according to the execution of their specific assigned duties. Rather, individuals are treated as part of a group. One may be denied a promotion just because of his/her age even if he/she possesses the required  talent to move up. Japanese believe in long-term relationships with their bosses as they tend to stay with the same job even though other opportunity arise.

Japan is a male dominated society

I was surprised to find a country like Japan as a male- dominated society.  Despite of high level of literacy and religious freedom, there exists discrimination against women in the Japanese society. Though the number of working women in Japan is very high which may give an impression that no gender gap exists. The status of women continues to remain low and it is rare to find a women senior manager or CEO in the financial world or big trading companies. Even in daily life, women have their role clearly defined especially after marriage. She is a house-wife and supposed to execute all the domestic activities including child caring / raising. Most of men tend to shy away from helping their female counterparts in activities like cooking or shopping. However, this trend is changing now a days.

Japanese ladies often act cute

As a tradition, Japanese culture prefers every little, cute and immature things. A foreigner often has hard time accepting the fact when an adult Japanese woman speak and act like a child. It seems that Japanese men want cute, child-like women rather than women who are more emotionally matured. And, most of the Japanese women put a priority on pleasing men (like in most of the Asian countries) and prefer to live a luxurious life rather than seeking a responsible position. In fact from the early days of school women are taught to act and look cute, not sophisticated.

Japanese apologize too much

Japanese apologize so often. Generally, an apology is required when an offense or violation of social norms takes place. But apologizing is a part of Japanese culture. A display of modesty is considered a sign of virtue. When people have a problem or they need to ask a favor, they will begin with 'sumimasen', which means 'I'm sorry'. Though, expressions like 'sumimasen' make the atmosphere favorable for cordial interaction, foreigners are often puzzled by this behavior of Japanese.

Like most other countries, Japan has also a lot of positive traits, and at the same time a lot of strange ones. Based on my knowledge and experience, I have tried to summarize some of the characteristics of Japanese society. I found the above aspects of Japanese culture a bit strange. In case you differ with me, you're entitled to have your own opinion.

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Shahid on February 26, 2010 at 11:48 PM said...

Hmmm...even i was surprised about the gender bias......but nice observation of the japanese culture

Andrei Yudin said...

I knew some dozens japanese of different occupations some years ago in Moscow.All of them,including some dozens japanese students and post-graduate students at the Moscow State University,turned out to be spies and informants of their secret services and police.Since i made acquaintance with them at random,the results of my "survey" can be considered sociologically valid.They are really a nation of spies and sneaks,both inside the country and abroad.
The author didn't spoke about racism in japan.In fact,the japanese despise other races - burakumins,philippinians,other asians,blacks etc.and abstain from mixing their blood with them.All those "inferior" races are subjected to a cruel discrimination in all spheres of society.In fact,you will never see a japanese subordinate to a non-japanese,because the japanese find it beyond their dignity.At the same time the japanese are greedy for white flesh.Since the beginning of 90-ies they have taken away from my country about 300 russian girls each year as only wifes not to mention concubines and prostitutes.Usually japanese husbands recruit their russian wifes making them work for the japanese secret services and police as agents.
Now i am going to give you an example of japan's activity in Russia.The japanese embassy in Moscow opened "free" japanese courses at the Foreign Literature library in Moscow.The japanese embassy pays that KGB-FSB(russian secret services)scum to persecute with all legal means and all abuses of civil&human rights those people whom they together with KGB-FSB admit to those courses in order to recruit them and force them to work at the japanese embassy or japanese companies in Russia.Some people might be bought into slavery by the japanese to take them away to japan and force to work for the japanese secret services and police.

Anonymous said...

Deependra Dai,
You have written very good article.
In fact, I personally have observed many of them. I want to add some of my observations as follows:

1) Among the developed world, Japan is the only country with homogeneous society. Eastern Europe and United States by virtue of their location, history and trandition didn't/doesn't have any problem in internationalization.

2. The conservatives stronghold in Japanese government for several years helped to shape the country's economy but has left some everlasting consequences. They did little to mend the impression of Imperial Japan to some new and old generations Koreans/Chinese. What is incomprehensible to me is that, Japanese conservative mindset has a superiority complex in the Asia and inferiority complex with the West. This problem basically stops Japan going socially international and multicultural.

3. Japanese young generation lack enthusiasm and they are very much worried about the future. This is hard to explain but basically it is not the same Japan where their parents grew up and made good fortune in its economic boom. In contrast, many Chinese youngs are quite optimisitic about the future of their nation. When young generation goes pessimist it is hard to drive the changing 21st century world map.

4. Regarding Female demography: It may not be strange to go cutie in manga/anime obsessed society, but they have now grown up with different conflicting requirements. Males are not different from this. Thus, you can see the degree of growing domestic violence in Japan. I have observed that Japanese women are more smarter than men if you evaluate the younger demography. But, Japanese mens are not ready to accept the changing role of the tranditional "HOME". It has caused growing number of singles.

5. And, frankly, Japanese way of saying sorry speaks the politeness and responsibility but I still have doubt wheather they really feel when they say. :) "Feeling" sorry is more important than "saying" sorry. It is hard to judge how much they have felt.

6. In almost every points I made above I criticized Japan and Japanese. But, I love Japan. There are many things in Japan that we can't simply express but love, like and feel easy.One should feel very lucky to have some experience of staying in Japan. This is in fact an wonderful country in many aspects.

And, the bottom line is that it is the country of the Japanese by the Japanese for the Japanese.

Dilip Acharya on February 28, 2010 at 4:11 PM said...

Yet another informative post. I'm learning lot of things about Japan from your blog :)

Anonymous said...

From my experience, studying abroad in Japan and having lived here for a few months now, I would say most your observations are pretty common interpretations of the culture but perhaps a little overly simplistic.

As far as how Japanese people treat foreigners; I have yet to have a consistent enough experience to claim any kind of trend. I have seen the typical disdain for foreigners that older people will give you and I have had random guys pay for a whole night at a bar after just asking them for directions. I think it has to deal more with the social status and age of the person to determine how they will treat you. As far as telling you your Japanese is good you have to keep in mind how many foreigners they see on a regular basis and how many of them likely speak good Japanese.

Groups are certainly a very important thing to the Japanese people, but they are for every culture its just much more overt in Japan. Japan has never really had a proper revolution of the people to greatly upset the deep seeded institutional hierarchy that has existed throughout its history. It takes a lot to change a culture drastically and the current system is pretty strongly entrenched.

Cuteness pervades the culture, but the way you describe it makes it sound like its forced upon women when it seems more like they want to be cute. Humans are in general hot wired to be attracted to cute things, its what drives us to take care of babies rather than letting them die. It is also not something that is sole restricted to women. Everyone has a cute little keitai (cell phone) charm, including old salary men, and there is a good deal of androgyny in male fashion. The notion of sexuality among the Japanese is inherently different from most other western countries in a way I can't really put to words.

Finally just a small point on the language; I find it better to translate sumimasen as "excuse me," it feels way more natural that way. If you actually have something to apologize for you would say gomen nasai, not sumimasen. There is still a rather larger amount of formality and self deprecation in the language, which I won't deny.

I hope I didn't come across as attacking you or anything I just saw the post saying "I'm learning lot of things about Japan..." and thought I would add on a little more depth. I see a lot of people essentializing Japan and like to throw out counterpoints and caveats where I can to make Japan more of a real human place rather than a exotic alien land.

Dhruba Panthi on February 28, 2010 at 5:32 PM said...

Very informative post! I sometimes wonder if this is the same Japan that I had read and heard about when I was back in Nepal. I fully agree with Anonymous' comment that "Japanese conservative mindset has a superiority complex in the Asia and inferiority complex with the West. This problem basically stops Japan going socially international and multicultural." Nevertheless, there are several things that make Japan a nice country to live in. The polite behavior of Japanese people (no matter whatever they might be feeling inside) is really appreciable.

Shailesh Ghimire on March 1, 2010 at 3:48 AM said...

Great observations. In my dealings with Japanese students I was surprised by the way the girls always wanted to act so cute all the time. Also, one young Japanese he was very worried about the lack of hunger in the young generation.

Anonymous said...

I think these are kind of one sided perspectives of you about Japan. There are more cultural diversities in Japan than you would imagine. Also, most characteristics you picked could be universal like... " In Japan, everyone belongs to some group, and every group has people of superior rank and status."as this can be applied to most people in the world who are working for big enterprises or administrative etc. Besides, whereas there are millions of small individual shops, small companies or freelance workers in Japan.

As for "Sumimasen", it doesn't necessarily mean "I'm sorry". It normally just means "pardon" or "please pay attention". Often "Sumimasen" will be used to make a mental cushion because they just don't want to argue or confront with someone. Sometimes it even means "I don't want to go into any serious relation with you" Probably "Moushiwake arimasen"or "Gomennasai" will be more used for real apology.

Probably only obvious unique characteristics of Japanese are that they are not so straight to the point about saying something negative, or some collective social behavior, due to historical and geographical background. Generally, every culture is different and each could be described as unique.

badri on March 4, 2010 at 5:20 PM said...

Thank you Deependra-jee for very informative posting.

Alok said...

Nice one! your perspective on Japanese society matches with my understanding of the same. disappointing to read that Japan continues to be a male dominated society. Anyways, thanks for posting an informative article once again. keep up the good work!

Chaitanya on March 7, 2010 at 9:28 AM said...

The article is quite balanced and informative for the learners of Japanese society. Of course,everything from the history till now cannot be included in a single shot,you have taken much care to put the picture as it is. Everyone's dedication to his/her work and the group culture in Japan is very impressive.

दूर्जेय चेतना on March 9, 2010 at 9:22 PM said...

साह्रै ठीक र सही कुरा लेख्नु भयो। मैले पनि यस्तै देखे र भोगेको छु। यो लेख बास्तबमा जापान सम्बन्धी लेखहरु मध्ये सबै भन्दा सही छ जस्तो लाग्छ मलाई। मन खोलेर जे देख्नु भयो त्यही लेख्नु भयो दिपेन्द्रजी धेरै धेरै धन्यवाद है।

दिनेश राज on March 12, 2010 at 2:01 AM said...

मैले पनि जापानको बारेमा लेखिएका धेरै लेखहरुमध्येको एउटा सहि लेख । दिपेन्द्र जी राम्रो लाग्यो ।

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Chaitanya on April 9, 2010 at 4:05 PM said...

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Renu on May 15, 2010 at 10:10 AM said...

Thanks for sharing ! most of the asian countries are male dominated societies, infact when I read about chinese I dont find them any different... Oriental culture is very similar to us.

eco on July 14, 2010 at 10:29 AM said...

thanks.. Nice one!

Mahesh on July 25, 2010 at 1:46 PM said...

Very good sharing of culture...

Mark on January 2, 2011 at 1:12 PM said...

The strangest apology I often get in Asia is 'Sorry, here is your food' from waiters/waitresses.

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