Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Lies They Told Me About Japan

It ain't what they said it was.

I did a lot of research before I came to Japan, both to avoid culture shock (I had some serious problems adjusting to life in Germany the first time I went) and out of pure old curiosity. I wanted to know what I was getting into, you see.

I learned all kinds of things. For example, I learned that the Japanese are unemotional, lacking in affection and indeed, there was no word for the Western concept of "love" in the language (I swear this is true--one of my first Japanese language learning books included this bit of wisdom).

I learned that Japan was a land of ineffable subtlety and that communication in Japanese is an exercise in unspoken cues, creating an almost telepathic effect. That the language is obscure and almost impenetrable to outsiders because of its intense level of "contextualization."

I learned, basically, that Japan is as alien a place to Americans as Mars would be.

It was all crap, of course.

The first thing I noticed when I got here was how...normal..everything seemed. Oh, to be sure, there are real differences between American/European cultures, the most familiar to me, and Japanese. Food and manners, customs and clothes are indeed not the same.

(This video will teach you everything you need to know about Japan...)

But...I didn't see any mystical displays of "Japanese-only" communication, at least no more than I saw at home between people vying for seats at a cafe. People were smiling and laughing, sharing food and talking animatedly in the streets and in the shopping malls. Sure, the buses and trains are quiet--but that's a matter of manners, more than anything.

In conversation, people looked me in the eye--unless they were intimidated by me, the big loud foreigner who didn't speak their language. But they laughed at my clumsy jokes, and appreciated my attempts at manners. There was none of the dull, robotic lack of emotion I had been led to expect. (Indeed, a student of mine recently told me "They keep saying on TV that Japanese people don't look at each other when they speak...but I don't think it's true." He's Japanese. And he's right. They say stuff like that on TV here all the time, looking at each other when they say it.)

Nor was the language as alien as I had been told. The writing system is a trial, absolutely, the three different character sets require work, and Kanji require IMMENSE effort. But these weird rules, the vague grammar and unclear sentences, the mysterious lack of subjects, and all the little things that supposedly make Japanese an impossible language for blunt Americans--not there. It's a language, with relationships with context and social norms indeed, but nothing at all difficult, even for we unsubtle Americans.

On the contrary, I have found that communication in Japanese is often overly detailed, direct and lacking in any kind of vagueness. Sure, once you've said "Taro has a big car." 太郎が大きい車を持っている。You don't don't have to say "The car is a Honda," all you have to say "Is Honda." ホンダです。 But what kind of idiot wouldn't understand that in the second sentence, we're talking about a car, not Taro? A BIG idiot, that's what kind.

But in many cases, every conceivable detail is laid out as clearly as possible, ostensibly to avoid confusion.

(This is all very important in the case of apologies, of course)

Whenever you start to speak publicly, you begin by saying 発表します (Happyou shimasu). "I announce." Whenever you end a report or email, you end by writing 以上です。(Ijyou desu.) "The end." You ALWAYS write that, otherwise it's not finished. Japanese is full of declarative sentences telling people what you are about to do, or what you have just done...which, of course, they should already know.

I've already talked about books in Japan which suffer from this over-explanation malady.

My favorite example comes from movies--when Western movies are shown on TV here, as soon as a character appears in a movie, a caption appears giving the character's name and the name of the actor portraying it...even if the character hasn't been introduced in the story yet. So when watching Transformers, as soon as that yellow car shows up, a little caption appears saying "Bumblebee." None of the characters in the story knew that information, but whoever was putting these on TV felt that the audience really needed to know it as soon as possible.

It's direct, clear and without room for miscommunication.

So where did this come from, this idea that Japanese people communicate through mysterious ESP powers? My theory is this.

For many years, the vast majority of communication between Japanese and Americans/Westerners was in a formal context, business negotiations or the like. IN a formal context, emotional expression and the like are, in fact, rare in Japan. It's a formal atmosphere, and thus a quiet one. This may have led to the "emotionless" stereotype. When Japanese people listen in a meeting, they may in fact close their eyes, or look down at their desk, instead of at the speaker--as a sign of respect, showing "I'm listening with my ears, not my eyes." Thus, there's not a lot of eye contact. And in business meetings, the Japanese side has already made its decisions and everyone is already in agreement--because of a habit called "nemawashi."

"Nemawashi" literally means "digging around the root of a tree" but in practical terms, what this means is that before a business meeting, the various members discuss the points of the meeting privately, face to face, building consensus through personal contact. The actual meeting is therefore just a performance, a public demonstration of the privately fixed conversations--so to an outsider, it seems as if all the members magically understand each other, without even talking. Roles are set, so that an underling knows what to say when his boss nods at him, or when he cocks an eyebrow he knows he should stop speaking...he's been prepared.

So there is no mystery, just preparation, timing, and context.

It turns out, of course, that Japanese people are JUST PEOPLE. They aren't magical alien beings. They aren't soulless automatons. Just people, with all the failings and weaknesses, and occasional bouts of generosity and warmth, that other people are prone to.

Funny how that works, innit?


Mr. S. said...

Men who've purveyed these stereotypes have something in common beyond imperfect Japanese and an expence-account: 'Orientalism'. Remember that Orientalism includes lust, and yearning for fewer social and moral restrictions. No wonder a drunken evening where younger women laugh at everything they say makes them exaggerate the alienness and perfection of Japan (never mind a laugh as often connotes embarrassment).

JimR said...

I'm not sure I'd say "Orientalism" is necessary for that desire-I see the same thing any time a person is placed suddenly into another culture (especially with a language barrier) and feel sufficiently distanced from social norms to not notice the disapproval their actions cause. College kids backpacking through Europe, new recruits coming off base, and more...

Anonymous said...

Jimmy, loved your theory, but after all of that you ended with "innit"? That has to be Japanese, I know you didn't learn that in Kansas!

Love you BRO!

JimR said...

Hey Brother! (I figure Sis isn't on the internet much...)

Actually, try saying it out's good old fashioned English.

Love you too!