Japanese Culture for Newbies

Japanese Culture — A Primer For Newcomers

Culture Shock 101

NO!! This is not another site on Japanese Zen and rock gardens, nor fantasizing about pretty geisha, samurai, ninja, and Japanese comics. This site is to familiarize you with a few basic characteristics of Japanese culture and behavior that the westerner will encounter. There are many reactions and attitudes that Japanese will give off — many of them the typical westerner would ordinarily not pick up on. But if you come to Japan and want to have better relations, as well as a better understanding of how many Japanese people think and perceive you, there are a lot of key items you should be aware of. Some you may like and others you may not. That, of course, is fine — you’re entitled to your own views, no matter what anybody else says. But you will have to deal with some of the cultural and behavioral aspects whether you like it or not. Those that can recognize and deal with the differences in Japanese attitudes will adapt faster, get better jobs, and have a more positive experience living in Japan. Do not feel that you will ever have to completely understand the Japanese, since the Japanese don’t completely understand themselves either.

*Important*: Japan has a lot of positive traits, and a lot of negative ones also. You’ll find Japan captivating, bewildering, enchanting, enraging, humorous, frustrating, loose, uptight, accomodating, and anal-retentive — sometimes all at the same time. However, the contents of this site center more on the negative aspects than the positive ones since these are what make life for westerners more difficult here. They are meant to show more of what culture shock is experienced and are *NOT* to be taken as an accounting of the number of good traits vs. the bad.




Here are a few basic traits to remember–

  • Uchi-Soto — Us and Them
  • The Gaijin Complex
  • Honne and Tatemae — The Real Mind & The Veneer
  • Osekkai! — Mind Your Own Business!
  • “Goatism” — Giseisha and Urami — On Scapegoats, Victims, and Envy
  • Amae — Dependency
  • Tate-shakai — The Vertical Society
  • Shikata ga Nai and Gaman — You Can’t Fight City Hall
  • Nihonjinron and Kokusaika — We Japanese & Internationalization
  • The Iron Triangle and the Empty Center

1. Uchi-Soto (“Us and Them”)

This is one of the first things you will notice about the Japanese. The Japanese have been raised to think of themselves as part of a group, and their group is always dealing with other groups. This is viewed on many angles — internationally it is “We Japanese” vs. everyone else (more on that later), but in schools, companies, sections of companies etc. there are many groups and sub-groups — and not always in perfect harmony and cooperation as it may look on the surface. Dealing with Japanese on a one-to-one basis usually comes very easy to non-Japanese, but dealing with Japanese as a group can be a different matter altogether. And no matter how nice you are, or how good your Japanese becomes, you will always be treated as an outsider. In fact the literal meaning of “gaijin” is outsider. Many westerners see Japanese as aloof, shy, and always walking on eggshells. There is a lot of truth in that — Japanese are extremely sensitive to what others might think of them (or worse — what they say behind their backs, and Japanese really do engage in gossip) and are very hesitant to do something new, different, or independent. Being ostracized is one of the worst things that can happen to a Japanese, who is raised to be part of a group and depend on others. Therefore, when making requests, it often takes more time since the person asked usually consults others in the group to reach a consensus. It also might interfere with what your goals are — when teaching an English class a teacher gave some subjects for the students to debate. Of course the goal was for the students to use as much English as possible and improve their abilities. But what happened was the students reverted to their old habits and tried to compromise and reach a consensus — in which case, the debate promptly ended. In short, however, while the westerner starts so many sentences with “I”, the Japanese “I” usually means “with the approval of the group”. This is not to pass judgement on this trait, as in many things there are both positive and negative aspects. For the westerner, it can be good in that you are often not subject to what sometimes becomes excessive, even oppressive methodologies. On the negative side, even if you do find a group or niche that you want to be in, you may be frozen out or the last one to find out about many decisions that profoundly affect your schedule and work.

Uchi-soto has one other important trait — there are next to no strikes in Japan. Ever. Because Japanese labour-management relations are better? Partly, yes. But in Japan there are almost no unions like the Teamsters or AFL-CIO. But each large corporation has its own union, and they feel no bond with other company unions even if they’re doing the same work. In one sense, the company union is almost a puppet, led by a management executive. But in another, everyone in a Japanese company knows that to succeed they need to act together, and being profitable in the long run is the only way to guarantee employment. You don’t see a lot of the friction between labour and management in Japanese firms — one reason is that the workers often cave in since they know a profitable company eventually benefits them. Another is that they know the CEO and execs don’t make 100 times the money the workers do, or $2500-$5000 per hour (That’s no exaggeration either — you do the math.)

2. The Gaijin Complex

How Japanese view non-Japanese is always a subject of debate. Often there is a mixture of admiration, suspicion, and most often a lot of nervousness about dealing with someone who doesn’t look or act like the Japanese. As stated in the Japan FAQ, it is very hard for non-Japanese to get an apartment, or a loan, credit card, etc. There is no logical or rational explanation for this conflict — since Japanese do not think in a logical, rational fashion, at least in western terms. If you look at Japanese TV ads, the first thing you’ll notice is that there are westerners in about a third of them. There are also half a dozen fluent Japanese speaking foreigners endlessly recycled on TV variety shows, constantly ingratiating themselves and amusing the Japanese enough to want them back. Yet there are also periodically TV infotainment shows following the cops and catching those awful foreigners committing crimes in ‘our country’, with sinister background music shrieking away. Japanese youth generally show positive attitudes about you, from others there is often indifference. And then there is the racial question. Many people coming to Japan ask if the Japanese are racist and cold to westerners. The answer is not that simple. But it is no exaggeration to say that, bending the metaphor a bit, the Japanese see things through race-colored glasses. It must be emphasized though that Japanese racism is in almost all cases NEVER HOSTILE towards others — so the idea of people screaming epithets at you like in the U.S. is inaccurate. (And lest you feel superior, you won’t find skinhead thugs or people in white sheets in Japan, and being a woman or minority religion or race might get you far worse treatment in many countries. Maybe even yours). For some young Japanese, having a western boyfriend/girlfriend is a status-symbol, but when things go deeper (especially for a western man/Japanese woman) other people’s attitudes can change dramatically. Suddenly the same people showering compliments to the Japanese with a western lover are asking if he/she is weird, or warning about terrible consequences. The attitudes from the Japanese parents may be even more disturbing. In short, it’s cool (kako-ii) to look western on a superficial level, but anything more serious often brings a negative reaction.

Nihongo Wa Jouzu Desu Neh!

Upon entering Japan you’ll soon discover an unusual trait of Japanese — they can both insult you and compliment you at the same time. One good example is that on top of a few Japanese “Love Hotels” (which are hotels decked out in glittery pink neon and rent rooms by the hour or night for obvious reasons) you will find a big Statue of Liberty. (photo) It may be flattering that such an American symbol is taken for “liberty”, but at the same time to see it on top of a sleazy hotel is a little disconcerting. In the same way, the westerner coming to Japan will right from the airport be drowned in the “compliment” Nihongo wa jouzu desu neh, or “Your Japanese is good”. It’s usually spoken in a “Look Mom, the horse can do math problems” kind of way — slightly condecending. The problem with all this is that it is put on you a thousand times a day, every time you open your mouth, in exactly those same words — never once said in a different way. And the fact that it has nothing to do with your Japanese ability. In fact, the better your Japanese gets, the less you hear it. Even more demeaning is hearing “O-hashi wa jouzu desu neh” which means you can use chopsticks well. The fact that a 2 or 3 year old Japanese child is supposed to use them easily but you’re never expected to know how is an insult few Japanese are “international” enough to realize. To the Japanese, they are not consciously looking down on you, but rather trying to establish rapport through bombarding you with things they think you like to hear. It’s important not to get upset about this and just play humble by denying the praise over and over as they would. All of that is relatively benign. The real problem is dealing with the occasional neanderthal where even if you’ve attained near native fluency still has a “See-White-Face, Hear-Japanese, Does-Not-Compute” mentality, or the elitist complaining how you foreigners never bother to learn Japanese, and then you come along speaking proper Japanese and they insist in doing all communication in English. Dealing with such Groupthink is going to be a challenge, but while you never have to like it you’re going to have to deal with it.

The term “gaijin” according to the dictionary means foreigner or alien. In practice however, it always means “white person”. Japanese use a lot of discrimination — Chinese and Koreans are usually referred to by their nationality, not as “gaijin”, unless speaking in legal terms. [And whatever your complaints are, SE Asians have it far worse.] The gaijin = white person stereotype is so deeply ingrained into the Japanese psyche that when the Japanese go abroad they still refer to whites as gaijin, and despite using their passports, US dollars, and going through US Customs, they are still not consciously aware of Hawaii as being a US state. Even though all Japanese know Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods are from America, it still doesn’t dispel their notion that ALL Americans are blue-eyed blonds. The term “gaijin” is not in itself pejorative (though it can be used that way), but when one Japanese tells another he’s doing something like a foreigner it’s a strong put-down. Many Japanese ex-pats who’ve lived abroad are viewed supiciously. If one’s English is “too good”, he might be ostracized. For Japanese children who’ve spent time abroad and can speak English fluently (kikoku shijo), bullying from classmates can be swift and cruel. There is one exception though — the Celebrity Factor. If one becomes a Japanese celebrity, singer, actor/actress, etc., then paradoxically all is forgiven. Then the cruelty is turned on its ear and you become a paragon of Japanese achievement. This all sounds contradictory, but the Japanese often follow such an irrational and unpredictable course.

3. Honne and Tatemae

There is the way things are and the way we’d like them to be. The reality and the facade. The real reason and the pretext. The substance and the form. Being direct and being diplomatic. And the truth and the white lie. In short, that is honne and tatemae, respectively. Since avoiding conflict and trouble is extremely important in Japan, using diplomatic language is often used rather than the direct approach. It’s said that in formal situations a direct “No” is avoided and there are a thousand nicer alternatives — which can be true, but it depends a lot on the situation and social status of the parties involved. Some westerners unfairly call this deceptive, but this shows more ignorance of how the culture and language are intertwined. Japanese may say things very politely and vaguely, but if the meaning is not clear it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification. But while we in the west judge tatemae to be cake icing and hypocrisy, the Japanese have elavated it into an art. Sometimes, anyway. When it comes to creating a reason, in some cases the Japanese seem to have left their reasoning on Pluto. Like blocking European ski equipment from the Japanese market because “Japanese snow is different”. In fact, almost every “reason” for not importing foreign goods is crammed full of it. While many so-called Japan “experts” tell the world about how much Japanese stress “harmony”, the reality is that they push THE IMAGE OF harmony. What lies beneath may be completely different.

“Let’s have dinner together sometime.” — A Culture Clash

In the west when someone says to another “let’s have dinner together sometime”, it usually means “let’s have dinner together sometime”. Sounds like an invitation, doesn’t it? And if you’re new in town, don’t have a lot of friends yet, or looking for a date, it sounds even better. Unfortunately, if a Japanese person says that or “come over to my place sometime” to you, what he/she really might mean is “I hope we get along well together.” Is that more than a little confusing? I had 2 big shocks from this myself. When I first started working at a company, I had one secretary (the cute one everybody wanted to date) tell me this. Now, if the other 5 or 6 secretaries all said the same thing to me as a matter of etiquette, I would’ve caught on immediately. But only one did, and after agreeing on a date and time, I got stood up. I dismissed it as a misunderstanding, but when a similar situation occured again later, I finally got the message. So let this be a warning — take offers with a pillar of salt. Unless specifics like a date and time are mentioned, don’t hold your breath. If you’re really interested, leave your phone number, tell the person to call you anytime, but don’t sit waiting by the phone Saturday night.

Once you adjust your thinking from romance language syntax (subject-verb-object) to the Japanese syntax (subject-object-verb), Japanese is easy to learn. Understanding it is a different matter though. How’s that? In Japan, a part of tatemae is speaking diplomatically, and what is not said may be more important than what is. There are also a certain number of fixed phrases that translated directly don’t mean a lot. “That’s a little difficult” (Sore wa chotto muzukashii) really means “No way!”. “I’ll think about it” (Kangaete okimasu) is a declination or refusal. And “Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu” can mean “pleased to meet you”, “with my best regards”, or “I leave it in your hands, please do your best”. Why don’t they just say “no” when they mean no, you ask? How western of you. We might like it more but in Japan it’s not part of the culture — besides that, there’s always a 1 in 100 chance that the situation might change and then you might say yes — so why burn your bridges behind you?

4. Osekkai! — Mind Your Own Business!

Japanese society has two concurrent streams that frequently bump heads and the result as you can guess is tension and stress. One current is protecting your own privacy, following your dream, and doing things your own way at your own pace. Facing this is the overwhelming social pressure to conform, follow the rules, and make sure everyone else is in the same boat as you. With big Japanese cities having extemely high population densities, personal space is scarce, and with little space in front of you many Japanese retreat to the only space they can; inside their heads. Becoming introverted, shy and withdrawn is not atypical. There are exceptions to this of course; some young people love to associate with westerners because of this and they can more freely express themselves and not have to worry about being looked down as too gregarious. Liquor consumption is also high in Japan and used as a social lubricant to loosen up. But privacy in Japan is a precious commodity, more for cultural than demographic reasons, and nobody likes someone to butt into your life.

Unfortunately pushing everyone to conform often does just that, and many Japanese take it upon themselves to make sure everyone is in lock-step with one another. Most often, like many things in Japan it is done indirectly, such as through gossiping, backbiting and meddling. Hence in Japanese there’s a plethora of terms referring to a nosy busybody, such as osekkai, sewa yaki, kansho-zuki, yakkai na sewa, and deshabari. This is viewed in different ways of course. In the ivory tower books on Japan there is the company superior who is also your counselor, paving your way to a better future, getting that reservation at a popular place or bank loan for you, etc. But there may also be the company autocrat who tries to know everything about you to manipulate you or run your social life, and for women can even cross the line into sexual harassment (seku hara).

5. “Goatism”– Giseisha and Urami

The term goatism comes from scapegoat, and for a time was a frequently used buzzword by the Japanese. Japanese also have very positive traits, but this is not one of them. In many instances, Japanese love to think of themselves as the victim — when trade frictions grow, when international criticism of Japanese stances mounts, or especially when it comes to responsibility for WWII, Japanese often retreat into a scapegoat or persecution complex. The fact that their export frenzies and occasional cases of dumping have brought hardship and unemployment in their target countries rarely dawns on them. Perhaps the best example of this was 20 years ago when Mitsubishi and Hitachi were accused of espionage against IBM to gain industrial secrets. Yet in the Japanese press IBM was villified of hatching a plot of entrapment along with the FBI against 2 innocent and successful Japanese firms. The Japanese are just doing their best, producing things people want. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The Japanese vs. The Borg

Ok, boys and girls, it’s test time! Ever see the Borg on Star Trek? Ever wonder if the Japanese are really the Borg in disguise? See if you can tell which said the following statements!

“Let’s all live in a harmonious society” (whether you like it or not).

“We only wish to raise quality of life”.

“We are not Saracens, we do not come as invaders to sow desolation…we offer our knowhow, better quality of life, greater reliability, and the beauty of sound and image.”

“You’re nothing but raw materials to them.”

“You will be assimilated!! Resistance is futile!!!”

A little tough? The first and third are from Japan — the third was a full page ad in the French newspaper Le Monde after growing criticism that Japanese mass-exports of VCRs to France were seriously hurting the economy and draining foreign exchange reserves. But the Japanese have extreme difficulty in seeing things objectively when Japan is involved. When things go well, the whole world is just jealous at how hard Japanese work. When things go bad, suddenly it hasn’t anything to do with me. When the Japanese military in WWII overran other forces, the whole country rejoiced. When the war was lost, it was the army that was guilty, not me. This attitude is still in the A-bomb Museums in Nagasaki and Hiroshima — never a word about the war or its causes; only one day the Japanese went out to work as usual and this big bad bomb was dropped on them. Want to know what happens when some Japanese brings up the subject? Ask the former mayor of Nagasaki — he made a statement that Japanese should discuss Hirohito’s role and possible amount of guilt, and a right-wing kook promptly shot him. So much for a debate in Japan. Many Japanese have their noses so hard-pressed against the grindstone that they can’t see the forest for the trees. The majority of Japanese are not well educated or are indifferent about the past. And many Japanese wonder why many SE Asians still harbor ill-will towards Japan. Periodically, without fail, some Japanese politician makes a remark that Japan’s “advance” into Asia (not “invasion” — that term was purged from textbooks by the Japanese Ministry of Education) was all well intentioned, and the Rape of Nanking et al either never happened or was grossly exaggerated. And this view doesn’t come from the kook fringe, it comes from the elite leading the country. If this is the way Japan’s leaders act, it’s no surprise that other nations still hold a grudge. Until recently all Japanese music was banned in Korea. And the Chinese, despite having a massive superiority in military might as well as nuclear weapons, is still hypersensitive when it sees anything like an active military in Japan. Of course, the subject is never brought up in Japan. The image of harmony is very important, and so the Japanese try to avoid open conflict wherever possible. And to be fair, the Japanese may have a lot of Groupthink, but no, they don’t all act as one like The Borg. The stereotype of “Japan Inc.” is false — within the government, the parties, the companies, and the company departments you find sub-groups, all working strongly against eachother for more money, budget, power, etc. Only when the diverse groups agree on something (like keeping foreign goods out as much as possible) is anything decided and implemented quickly. The Japanese are NOT hate-mongers, it must be re-iterated; they don’t froth at the mouth when you bring up these subjects, rather they think what they are taught to think. You’ll find the Japanese are very open, gracious and kind to westerners in Japan. On television Japanese spend a lot of time patting eachother on the back on how supposedly “unique” they are. The problem comes when someone in charge takes that one step further and thinks unique is really “superior”.

The term “giseisha” means victim, or sacrifice. It is also used when things don’t go the right way. No one wants to take responsibility for reform in Japan if it offends those who pull the strings (even if it benefits the nation as a whole). “Gaiatsu”, or pressure from abroad (usually for political reform the Japanese bureaucrats are too constipated to do themselves), is often used as a whipping boy. Japanese also have one other noticeable trait — the Urami Complex. Urami means envy, and Japanese are keenly aware of what others in their group have or get. Many Japanese motives are based on envy, and while equality in the west means a fair chance for all, in Japan it’s more like spoiled children thinking, “if I can’t have it, neither can anyone else”. Japanese society itself has been pictured as a round table, with everyone sitting around it — and viewing what everyone else has or does. Being branded as someone who causes trouble (meiwaku) is the worst scarlet letter (even if you are just standing up for yourself) and almost carries the stigma of child killer in the West. Lots is spoken about harmony and being equals in a group. So in office politics there might appear to be a lot of non-committal attitudes and indifference, and lots of smiles and superficial agreements to avoid open conflict. But not everyone can end up as CEO or section manager, etc. so there must be a weeding out along the way. Behind the smiles and polite courtesies there are often feelings of resentment and stress, often from being in a cramped room with others for 5-7 days a week, as well as from jockeying for position on who’ll get promoted. If the Japanese are really so happy and harmonious, why are they gulping down liquor and chain-smoking their lungs out every day? Behind the veneer you’ll find a lot of stress and pressure which is kept well hidden.

6. Amae – Dependency

Amae means basically dependence. In Japan, mavericks and lone-wolf types are very much frowned upon. When Japanese go off alone to a foreign country or somewhere, many rapidly become insecure. It’s no exaggeration to say that Japanese (particularly women) think on a more childlike level. Again, this is a double-edged sword. Japanese women undeniably have a lot of charm that comes from this. But it has its drawbacks as well. Douglas MacArthur made a remark that the Japanese should be treated like they’re all 12 years old. And that was 50 years ago. That sounds condecending of course but even in the 1990s you don’t exactly see a large number of western women carrying around Mickey Mouse pencil cases and Hello Kitty notebooks well into their 30s. Women are taught to act and look cute, not sophisticated. Japanese pop music sounds like it was written by elementary school students, and pop-stars (“idoru”, from idol) are here today, gone tomorrow. At any rate, amae is a fundamental characteristic of Japan–one (the ‘kobun’) presumes on a superior (the ‘oyabun’) in a group, and a vertical, symbiotic relationship is created. It often occurs when one joins a company or school, and a person needs something and to get integrated into a comfortable niche very quickly. The underling gets a channel to move upward and the superior gets someone to do their bidding. And as part of a group, success is shared by all, and guilt is diffused when something goes wrong. In the latter case, it can be detrimental because it’s impossible to find out who is responsible, or for anyone to take responsibility. Amae has several other manifestations. Women are always portrayed as frail, delicate, or dainty in pictures, tv, movies, and music. And in adult videos women are treated like trash who are just asking for it. When movies are dubbed in Japanese, the women’s voices are always ultra-soprano; the men’s are very low. The same for women announcers. And regarding all the overblown praise you still hear ad nauseum about Japan’s “lifetime employment system”, in reality it only applies to about a third of the Japanese workforce, namely elite white collar workers and unionized blue collar workers in large companies. It does not apply to women, and it certainly does not apply to foreigners. Women are relegated to being “Office Ladies”, or “OL”, doing minor clerical duties, making tea, and being wallflowers (shokuba no hana). When they reach their 30s or if they marry they are coerced to quit. A take-charge woman in Japan will not get as much help or attention as a cutesy airhead who always needs the help of some big, strong, kind Japanese man. And why are things like this? Perhaps it’s because some men might actually have an even bigger ego-deficit than the women, despite appearances.

7. Tate-Shakai — The Vertical Society

Tate Shakai means a vertically structured society, like the military or a caste system. The phrase was made by Japanese sociologist Nakane Chie, who wrote a good book on it. From 1600 until 1868 Japan was an officially segregated society with 5 classes of people. At the top were the samurai, then the farmers, then the artisans, then the merchants, and finally the outcasts (the grave diggers, leather tanners, etc.). The system collapsed because by the end of the Shogunate rule the merchants had all the money. Yet even today a shadow of this system is still around; while a democracy on paper, the notion of Jeffersonian egalitarianism is still alien. Everyone belongs to some group, and every group has people of superior rank and status. The notion of boss and worker being perfect buddies after work without a thought of the company relationship for Japanese is impossible. The language itself has many words for “I” and “you”, each showing how much respect (or lack of) one shows the other. This trait also contributes to a strong materialist mentality in Japan; of always trying to “keep up with the Jones” and many paying absurd prices for brand name and designer goods. There are other manifestations also. We’d think universities exist to educate the students. Yet in fact in Japan universities serve the needs of the professors more, who are given carte blanche for privileges while students are subjected to numerous excessive rules, and professors pay little regard to the quality of their classes. (In Japanese colleges you can nearly sleep your way through and get straight A’s though). And some foreigners have quipped that the Mercedes that are illegally parked on the street get a lot fewer tickets than other cars–that may or may not be true. However, while in the US it’s a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” in Japan it’s really a plutocratic government “of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich”.

8. Shikata ga Nai and Gaman – You Can’t Fight City Hall

Shikata ga nai means “There’s nothing you can do about it”, and is often used by Japanese when they face a troubling situation they think they can’t change. It is in fact a strong form of brainwashing put on the Japanese from the day they’re born to conform and follow orders without question. Again, this fits in with Tate Shakai in that the strong control the weak and the weak exist to serve the strong — be it the almighty Company, or the Establishment. You will find the Japanese do an enormous amount of complaining about things they can’t change (e.g. the weather), but put up and shut up about things they can (e.g. political corruption, unfair treatment by superiors, etc.). At least until they’re full of liquor and you see their personality do a 180. By making the underlings feel powerless it is far easier to control them, make them work harder or give “voluntary overtime” (work for free, which is illegal but many companies practice), sacrifice themselves more for the group, etc. In the West this would be seen as sinister, and it can be. But to be objective, it also makes the Japanese tougher competitors in both Japanese and international markets. If ever one falters, or feels he can’t take it, he is told to put up with it (gaman). Gaman means to take it or be patient, and again, is a double-edged sword. For Japanese it’s a source of great strength. No matter how hard things get, they just keep fighting (ganbaru). This has allowed Japanese to overcome enormously difficult times, including natural disasters as well as a bad economy. But on the negative side, there is also a time to cut your losses and move on — and Japanese sometimes get blinded to this and fail to see when more fundamental structural changes need to be made.

9. Nihonjinron and Kokusaika – “We Japanese” and Internationalization

The term Nihonjinron (or “Ware Ware Nihonjin”) is a “We Japanese” mentality. It is part of the Uchi-Soto mindset except it is almost always applied in a “Japanese and everyone else” kind of way. Japan is the center of the world — and if you buy a map of the world don’t be surprised to find Japan in the middle of it. This can be very bewildering to westerners in Japan. If there’s a Japanese news report of a plane crash somewhere in the world with 398 non-Japanese and 2 Japanese people, the news report will focus on the crash and then the lives, family, and friends of the 2 Japanese. The rest of the people? They don’t exist. They’re never even mentioned. Another example is when 2 Japanese baseball players, Hideo Nomo and Irabu, made it on US teams. Suddenly, you start seeing lots of major league baseball games on Japanese TV, with the promos blaring “Major League Baseball–Nomo!!” as if he were the captain, manager, and God’s greatest gift to the team. Other MLB games without Japanese players are never shown. And all this in spite of the fact that Nomo became a persona non grata in Japan’s leagues because he wanted to throw the ball his way, not the way the manager dictated. (Nomo now says he’ll never play baseball for a Japanese team ever again. And he’s still hailed as the baseball hero of Japan.) As stated, when Japan is involved in an issue, the Japanese often find it hard if not impossible to look objectively. If a foreigner criticizes some act of corruption in the Japanese government, many Japanese will feel offended that this foreigner is attacking “us”. In other words, in a society where show takes precedence over substance and getting along with the group is more important than work performance, there are more than a few Japanese who’d take anything even slightly negative against Japan as a sweeping condemnation of everything Japanese as well as insulting their mother’s honor, and might be anwered with “then why don’t you just go home, you racist foreigner”. Hypocrisy is something attacked in the West, but in Japan it is often standard procedure. Even today, when western nations ask Japan to open its markets (to the benefit of the whole Japanese population), many Japanese initially see it as an attack on the Japanese way of life and culture. Rice, the most heavily protected product in Japan, is the by far the biggest example of this. The agricultural unions cranked up their propaganda machines about how rice is the soul of Japan and how “unsafe” foreign rice is. And the Japanese people bought it hook, line and sinker. The current recession is testing this notion however, and due to GATT Japan has been forced to grant “minimum access” to foreign rice. The powerful yen also has sent many Japanese shopping overseas. Yet instead of wondering why Japan is so expensive, the typical reaction is how weird it is that other nations are so cheap.

The term “Kokusaika” or “Internationalization” is another trendy buzzword being bounced around the country. Everyone is supposed to become more international these days. However, since the Japanese never bothered to define what exactly “international” is, it is just another vacuous idea. To many Japanese women being international is carrying a Louis Vouitton bag and drinking Budweiser. To others it’s meeting foreigners (i.e. white people–the rest of the world doesn’t matter) and speaking English. And many Japanese can’t even picture anything of what “international” is supposed to be. This is not surprising since many Japanese haven’t a clue as to what “being Japanese” is either.It is often the subject on tv shows. McDonalds was first told they’d never make it in Japan, since “Japanese eat rice-balls, not hamburgers”. Coca-cola got the same message with green tea. Now both have billions of dollars in revenue from Japan. Some Japanese even ask Americans if Kentucky Fried Chicken is in America, as if it were a Japanese invention, or even ask if there are 4 seasons in your country, believing that Japan is the only nation in the world where the seasons change. Since no working definition exists however, “being Japanese” usually means doing things the traditional way — a backwards looking view. Whenever some big reform happens, it’s always decried as anti-Japanese, but Japanese soon adapt and it disappears from mind. And Japan is still Japan.

10.The Iron Triangle and the Empty Center

OR: The Buck Never Stops

These terms are the lowest common denominators of how things run in Japan. The Iron Triangle is the Japanese System — the politicians, Big Business/Special Interests, and the bloated bureaucracy. So who runs the country? None of them, really. Each is engaged in a tug-of-war for their own interests. The politicians want re-election, the bureaucrats want cushy jobs and bigger budgets (and fight reform and any attempt to streamline themselves out of a job) and Big Business/Special interests want protection, public works projects, subsidies, and freedom from the other 2 groups’ meddling. And each coddles or lambastes the others to get what they want. The bureaucratic ministries themselves are often at war with eachother, with one department or ministry fighting another in turf battles. The winner gets more clout and a bigger budget. What happens when something goes wrong? Each side points their fingers at the other, and plays the blame game. Since Japanese do things by consensus, getting a consensus means a lot of negociation (nemawashi) and horse-trading. In Japan even the smallest problem must turn into a major crisis before something is done about it. Even if some reform is passed, it’s up to the bureaucrats to implement it; and by tacking on numerous procedures and red tape (called gyosei shido, or “administrative guidance”) they can severely water down its effects. People vote for politicians who can bring home the most pork. Fully 10% of the Japanese people are employed in the construction industry, a major beneficiary of public-works spending. With Japan’s post-war economic miracle and rapid urbanization, but no change in the distribution of political power, today’s dwindling rural voter has 4 votes to every urbanite–and they continue to pursue protectionism and pork at the expense of everyone. And politicians are more than happy to oblige for the votes. Today Japan’s budget deficit is officially over 140% of GDP (unofficial estimates put it at over 270% of GDP) and rising. And these practices show no sign of ending soon. And in many industries, the mafia (yakuza) carry considerable influence. (For a comparitive study, look at Italy’s history for the last 100 years. The parallels are uncanny).

So how can such a system exist in a “democracy”? In part because there is no accountability or taking of responsibility — nor any effective Freedom of Information Law where the public can see how its tax money is being spent. In other nations, there is the public “right to know”, but in Japan info is only disclosed if there is a “need to know”, and so far the government feels the public doesn’t need to know. Only in 2001, after a full 22 years of Liberal-Democratic Party stonewalling, will any such law come into effect — and the politicians and bureaucrats can still withhold any info if they feel there are “sufficient reasons”. To sum up their attitude, one LDP Diet member warned that the law could give “a mistaken notion of direct supervision by the people”.

The Empty Center is another term for the Japanese System. In short, the person at the top is not the person in charge. The Prime Minister is not the most powerful man in the country, but the puppet-masters who put him there are. The person with the most business contacts and bureaucrats in his hip pocket stays in the shadows and exerts influence from there. This is not new. Historically, for centuries the Emperor was a powerless figurehead — it was the Shogun who ruled. Yet to maintain order, the Shogun always said he ruled in the Emperor’s name — never was there a declaration of a new dynasty. Often when scandals errupt, it is the president of the company who resigns — even if he didn’t have any connection — out of a sense of giri, or a duty to fufill social obligations. In fact, by the time a proposal reaches the CEO, it’s more or less decided by the underlings and consensus already. The top-down, take charge approach is not common in Japan. However, for small companies and the like, the manager may exercise total control. For you, maybe in a small school or firm, you might face a petty-dictator or a control-freak. Power is the ultimate drug — if you come here, you can’t get it, but you may have to deal with those that are addicted to it.

Where do I fit in?

For the foreign resident in Japan, the attitudes of the ex-pat actually goes through three predictable phases, of varying lengths 1)The Honeymoon Phase, 2) The Critical Phase 3) The Integrating Phase. Let’s look at each of these–

The Honeymoon Phase

This always is the mindset of the eager foreigner who has just arrived, and usually lasts a few months to a year. Every day in Japan is like a new day at Disneyland; everything is new, there are lots of places to see and things to do, meeting the warm Japanese is always a joy. Usually the language isn’t much of a burden since you simply don’t know much of it and don’t worry about it. It is these people who stay a short time, go home, and spread myths about Japan being a mystical Shangri-La, full of happy, happy people and money just lying in the street waiting for you to pick it up and make “Big Money Fast”.

The Critical Phase

For those that stay longer, they usually leave the Honeymoon and then enter the Critical Phase, which might last several months to even a few years. The disillusionment of Japan not being a Paradise on Earth sets in hard, and the ex-pat encounters frustration at dealing with the language (which is profoundly difficult), cultural differences, and Japanese social obstructions such as the constant treatment of being an Outsider, as well as the needless difficulties in finding an apartment, getting a credit card, or functioning in society. The ex-pat may also find that some of the young Japanese have been really friendly more to practice their own English than to become genuine friends. The pleasures and joys of the things back home become missed more, and the realities of paying the highest prices on the planet become clear. Meeting other ex-pats who vent their stress by attacking nearly everything about Japan may aggravate the trouble. Depending on the person, isolationism or alienation may also set in. It is quite easy to spot an immature ex-pat by seeing how they make sweeping generalizations about Japanese people, Japanese women, etc. and think they know everything there is to know about Japan because they just do the same things every day. He may also believe he has all the answers to everything wrong with Japan and become more irate with the fact that Japan isn’t following his brilliant conclusions. These types who go home for good usually have little positive to say about Japan, spread misinformation about Japan on the internet and may permanently hold enmity toward it.

The Integrating Phase

If the ex-pat sticks it out though, and usually takes a periodic vacation to blow off steam, he will usually enter the Integrating Phase, the most objective of all. He can see both the good and the bad of Japan and where he’s from, and learns to appreciate the best of both worlds. This is the person who has matured more and is an asset to any company. It is not unusual for long-term ex-pats to have a love-hate relationship with Japan, but over all, they have a stronger resilience as well as a greater tolerance than most people back home. Different people of course will behave differently, and your mileage may vary. It is important though to keep an open mind, to learn about yourself as well as Japan and where you’re from, and not to get bogged down with negativity. And remember whatever problems you face, others like southeast Asians have it far harder. It’s not unusual to learn as much about your own country as well since you can note the differences.

This then gives you a few of the more difficult cultural aspects of the Japanese. Many of them may delight you and others may completely sour your stomach — but remember that they may take your behavior as equally “uncivilized”, so there are always more than 2 ways to look at it. Remember you’re not from Utopia either, and if you were, you wouldn’t be thinking of coming to Japan. Once again, for the “why-is-there-only-bad-things-in-the-newspapers” crowd, it’s necessary to re-state that what’s listed here in not the whole of Japanese culture, only the things that are difficult — Japan has many, many positive traits as well but these of course will not be problematic for those adjusting to Japan. On the whole, the Japanese people are very warm, helpful, and gracious to the western visitor. One can attain a lot of personal growth as well as make a lot of good friends in Japan. Only when the westerner stays here long enough and tries to go deeper into the Japanese society does the resistance begin.

Japanese Culture: A Primer For Newcomers, 1997-2004 All Rights Reserved.


Go to the whole version of The Japan FAQ: Know Before You Go.