September 01, 2011

Useful Japanese stereotypes

A while back, my sister asked what I thought of two books she's using in her Business Communications course--How to Say "No" Without Feeling Guilty (U.S.) and 16 Ways to Avoid Saying "No" (Japan)"--specifically, the sociological picture they paint of Japanese society. To summarize:

Japanese culture values non-confrontation over confrontation and discourages the expression of negative emotions (but more amongst insiders than outsiders; it is more acceptable to be rude to outsiders than insiders). An individual raised in Japan will make more group ("we") references, rely more on nonverbal communication (silence, eye contact or lack thereof), and experience more communication apprehension (get worried about communicating) than an individual raised in the United States.

As far as broad brushes go--which anybody painting big pictures has to use (stereotypes persist because they are useful)--I don't find much here to disagree with. But in explaining the what, the why perhaps needs more attention. It's too tautological to say that a culture is a certain way because that's the way the the culture is.

For example, generally speaking, it's true that Japan is a "high-context" culture and the United States is a "low-context" culture. Japan has maintained a common frame of reference for centuries (from 1603-1868, allowing nobody else in as a matter of national policy), while the United States has been integrating unique frames of reference for centuries.

Americans have to let the words speak for themselves because they can't automatically assume a shared context. Japanese can imply a lot more, trusting that the other person will understand what they are hinting at (which is not to say that this trust can't be highly misplaced).

Writers can play with this ambiguity and hide information from the reader. (Unfortunately, doing so also hides information from the translator.) It is grammatical in Japanese to drop subjects, and the passive voice is ubiquitous. Dialogue tags can also be a lot more vague, with the speaker being identified, for example, solely by the choice of pronoun (and I'm not refering to gender).

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis--which goes in and out of favor, depending on the tides of academic political correctness--has its place. To quote Wikipedia, "Differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages will tend to think and behave differently depending on the language they use."

However, it can quickly degrade into a chicken-egg problem, encouraging nativist nonsense such as the Nihonjinron craze during the 1980s, which extrapolated Sapir–Whorf down to the genetic level and back up to the nationalistic level, pushing the notion of "exceptionalism" into the absurd.

Applying Occam's Razor, though, I think these approaches can overthink the whole thing. The biggest clue is that while Japanese are indeed "group oriented," they're not a bunch of extroverts who want to hang out together volubly emoting in a big Oprah-fest. It's more a collective action and safety-in-numbers thing.

The easiest way to understand Japan is that it's a country of 128 million introverts living in a country the size of California. It really is that simple. As the Wikipedia writer wittily puts it (with a bit of editing):

Under the alias of assertions of differences, expressions of nationalism in Japan, as elsewhere, borrow promiscuously from the conceptual hoards of others, and what may seem alien turns out often to be, once studied closely, merely an exotic variation on an all too familiar theme.

Considering Japan's recent feudal past--more efficiently run and deeply entrenched than medieval Europe's--and in light of an ultra-high population density, institutionalizing ways of not stepping on the toes of people who could ruin your day was a Darwinian necessity that shaped the society and the individual and the language (like those Russian foxes).

And has also resulted in a culture where the default coping mechanism is passive-aggressive behavior. Maybe that's why nerdy introverts all over the world instinctively "get it."

Related posts

Life is a sim
Understanding Japanese women (and introverts)

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# posted by Anonymous Kaikyaku
Hi, sorry if this comment is a little off topic. I really enjoy your perspective on culture and especially your discussions on introversion. What you write really rings home for me, so I appreciate learning from you.

I was wondering if you had seen the anime Victorian Romance Emma and if you had any thoughts about the main character, Emma. She strikes me as strongly introverted and not like a typical anime heroine at all. I'd be curious about your thoughts if you have seen it.

I've also read all of your Juuni Kokki translations and thought they were fantastic, so thanks!
9/09/2011 8:31 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
Thanks for your comments. Perhaps Emma is a reverse example of what I'm discussing here. I can imagine that Japanese writers are drawn to characters like Emma and James Stevens (in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day) because of their introverted natures and the class-conscious society in which they live. The ironic result may be that Emma is a more accurate portrayal of a Japanese "everywoman" than the typical tsundere anime heroine.
9/10/2011 3:45 PM