Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Random Thoughts: Little Culture, Big Culture

One of the things about living in Northern California in the Bay Area is that it has a lot of people from various cultures. It is far more ethnically diverse than most parts of the U.S. and has ample numbers of people of Hispanic origin, African America, Middle Eastern, Indian and a wide representation of Asian cultures including Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. It's rare that a day goes by in which I don't hear a language other than English spoken. For me, this is actually pretty awesome since I'm used to not completely understanding what people are saying and it makes it feel more like "home" after 23 years in Japan.

Beyond the sense that this is a "right" atmosphere to live in, I also have access to a large number of markets and restaurants offering ethnic food. In fact, it's been very gratifying for me as someone who runs a blog about snacks to have a chance to continue to experiment with different food and write about it. What is more, the people I have met and gotten to know also represent different cultural backgrounds and this has given me a chance to explore other cultures in a way which was not so accessible in Tokyo, aside from, obviously, Japanese culture.

It is this last point which I want to talk about and that is the idea of culture (and I have talked of this in another context in this blog before). My husband and I had lunch with a cohort of his from graduate school. She is of Korean descent, and remarked about how Koreans do this or that in their culture and that her family's ways were different than the way her husband (who is of European descent and more conventionally or stereotypically what people regard as "American") grew up. What I told her at that point was that it wasn't just people of different ethnic backgrounds who experienced such things. Each family or group has its own "little culture". This is what fuels in-law problems in large part. We all see what we experience growing up as "normal" and when we start to encounter people in the broader world, we see what they do as atypical, even when those people superficially resemble us in every way. You don't have to have what society views as a "cross-cultural relationship" to experience cross-cultural problems. They're just either reflections of big or little cultural differences, but they are differences nonetheless.

The somewhat frightening thing about this is that our "normal" can be exceedingly abnormal, but we don't even know it because our experiences are such that we believe our everyday life is the same as other people's everyday lives. We are not aware of the idea of having a "family culture" because no one teaches us that this is the case.

For example, I grew up with an emotionally fragile mother who was prone to depression and who acted out on her pain by raging at her family members, usually my sister or me. Any tiny little mistake could set off a tirade full of personal attacks deriding us as stupid, malicious, and selfish. In my mother's world, others were responsible for keeping her from suffering and any time they upset her, they were doing so willfully. If she misplaced her handbag, something she frequently did because she was careless with where she left it, she would say we "hid" it just to upset her. The notion that we would do anything willfully to set off one of her tirades was absurd as no one would be foolish enough to invite such verbal abuse, but it didn't stop her from continuing to believe this was the case.

In the early days of my relationship with my husband, when he did something which upset me, I would accuse him of intentionally upsetting me. I did this because this was "normal" to me. In my thinking at the time, people who were close to you were responsible for not upsetting you with their careless actions (or what you perceived as such) and they must have intentionally set out to make you unhappy if they did not fulfill your needs.

My family dynamic, which was fueled by my parents' problems, "normalized" a dysfunctional mindset and my guess is that my mother's actions were emulating those of her parents to some extent. Fortunately, my husband reflected my actions back to me and I saw the light rather quickly. He did not grow up with such a "norm" in his family culture, and rather obviously, found this way of dealing with emotions troubling. Had he grown up in a family with similar problems and felt that it was normal to blame others for upsetting you or for not keeping you happy, we both may have simply engaged in such destructive behavior and never changed. A culture "clash" in this case resulted in a better outcome for all and a cultural "compatibility" would have resulted in continued pain.

This brings me, perhaps strangely, to talking about Japan. Culture can be small, as in a family's own culture, or it can be big, as in a country's culture. When I was teaching, students often asked me about "America" as if it were a monolithic entity full of people who thought and acted alike. They asked the question that way because that is closer to how Japan operates and they assume that their "normal" is every country's normal, just as I believed my family's normal was every family's. Once I came to conceptualize this, I got less irritated with what appeared to be ignorant or bigoted questions. They assumed a "sameness" because that's what they tended to experience.

Just as they assumed people operated by similarities, Americans tend to assume there are differences and diversity. If you grow up in a society that struggles to educate people in tolerance and egalitarianism, you assume people will think and behave differently than you and that's okay. We are taught to respect differences, though we may often fail in our efforts to do so. In Japan, we all know the saying about the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. They are not taught to respect differences, but rather to smash them out of existence. They assume people will think the same and behave the same. It is their norm.

The Western reaction to this idea in Japan is to see them as "sheeple" who mindlessly follow their society's wishes. I've challenged this notion before and I will challenge it again. Just because they do what is expected, it doesn't mean they don't question it and it absolutely does not mean they like it. However, in their culture, the "normal" thing to do is to go along to get along, to put up and shut up, and to avoid conflict and confrontation in order to preserve relationships. Whether willfully or grudgingly, they frequently comply.

They face the same choices we face when they deal with people and they feel the same things we might feel to greater or lesser degrees, but they are compelled by their society's norms and expectations to make a particular choice, as are we. We are compelled to speak out and voice our individual opinions. In fact, we often celebrate "speaking your mind". We feel weak and cowardly if we hold back on our opinions or back down from a confrontation and see those who demur as spineless and fearful of being disliked. We believe people should be strong enough not to care what others think. Conversely, the Japanese feel as if they are masters of their emotions and have chosen to preserve a good relationship at the expense of their own ego gratification if they hold their tongues. The norm for "success" in Japan in terms of how people are dealt with is very different than that in the U.S.

In line with this way of handling people, we find that the Japanese are far more likely to obfuscate, lie, mislead, or withhold information in situations in which Americans (or other Westerners) might desire honesty about, even if said honesty results in emotional pain. It can be maddening from a Western perspective to communicate with Japanese people because their culture has different priorities. It is normal for them to do what they can to avoid upsetting any apple carts in communication in order to preserve a particular relationship or situation, either for the benefit of themselves, all parties involved, or for their entire organization.

What is more, since everyone is indoctrinated into a culture which values this type of preservation to greater or lesser degrees, they expect it and have learned to read a situation. The talk of "reading the air" or "reading between the lines" in Japan is related to this form of communication. Western folks don't expect this and don't know how to interpret situations that Japanese people do. It's not that we can't do it if we get enough experience and know what is happening, but more often than not, we are taking things and people at face value because that is our cultural norm. There's a game being played and we not only aren't aware of the rules and procedures, but that there is a game at all.

For many years, I railed against the lying and duplicity I felt I faced in Japan. I hated the way in which people seemed to never have said what they meant or to have meant what they said. There was a lot of capriciousness in how I was dealt with that had meaningful effects on my life and I felt frustrated and powerless. People said "no" then later said "yes" or vice versa. It felt like I was being toyed with, sometimes cruelly.

My husband had an experience when he worked alone in Japan in 1988 in which he was given permission to take a day off to attend a concert and that permission was rescinded weeks later after he'd already bought the tickets. After painful days of shilly-shallying about as they bandied back and forth about what was to happen, they finally re-granted permission with a word about how magnanimous they were being in doing so. In his mind, they gave him permission to do something, went back on their word, and then pretended it was an enormous concession to fulfill their original agreement. It was the height of arrogance and not a little mean-spirited in his estimation and I'm sure in the estimation of other Western folks.

The truth was that my husband had been caught in a crossfire between his boss and his boss's boss and he had committed what the Japanese saw as a faux pas. His boss gave him permission and the boss's boss didn't like it when she discovered it so she simply withdrew it. This was a way of not only showing power over his direct boss and pointing out her disapproval, but also a way of letting my husband know that he was out of line in having ever made such a request in the first place in the boss's boss's mind. This sort of game-playing is abhorrent to me, and to many Western folks, but it is not uncommon as a means of indirect communication in Japan and they are accustomed on the whole to ones word not being ones bond. Contracts, for instance, are seen as starting points for business, not the final word that they are in the West. It is not meant as cruelty or a reflection of exercising of whim at the expense of others. It is simply meant to let something be known without confrontation or directly asserting that the direct boss stupidly did something that her corporate overlord didn't like. It is communication, Japan-style.

Another example of this sort of thing was how vacations worked differently for foreign employees and Japanese ones at my former company. The president gave us far fewer vacation days than he gave the Japanese. While they got the mandated 10 days per year for the first year of employment plus 1 day for each additional year up to a maximum of 20, my boss got frozen at 7 days per year and I got frozen at 5, even after a decade of employment for both of us. The reason the president did this, and I will say that he was breaking labor laws in the process, was that he knew the Japanese would not take off their entire allotted time, but we foreigners would. There was an unofficial understanding that no one took more than 5 days off per year if they were of a certain status and no more than 7 if they were of a somewhat higher status. He gave us as many days as he felt people in our positions "should" take off according to Japanese sensibilities so that the Japanese employees would not resent us and there would not be discord in the office.

For years, I was angry at all of this type of behavior in Japan because it seemed so unfair and even mean-spirited. The rules for gaijin were different than for Japanese and it seemed very, very wrong to me. My anger faded over time as I understood that this wasn't about me, but about their culture and how they operated in it. I still didn't like that I was treated differently, nor that I wasn't given what I viewed as reasonable autonomy to manage my life in ways that I felt I should, but I did understand it better when I saw in in the proper context rather than as a personal affront or prejudice.

Just as I had to change in my marriage when I began to live with someone whose family culture was different than mine (better, actually), I had to change when I lived in a nation's culture which was different than mine. I didn't have to change my core values or what I thought was best, particularly not when dealing with people of my own culture, but I did have to change how I received and operated in their culture.

Knowing the reasons things sometimes happen as they do doesn't make the situation any "better" for Western folks. It's still frustrating to be "played with" in this fashion if you are not accustomed to this sort of "communication". However, understanding this helped me not take such things so personally. It also helped me learn to (crudely) navigate the treacherous waters of Japanese communication style and why choices were made.

It's a tough balance to remain true to yourself and your own values, especially when one of those values is being honest, but it can be done. I had to learn more to read and understand the context of their communication than to subscribe to it as there was more said to me than I had to say to them in most cases given the power structure. That being said, a white lie now and then smoothed things over and made all concerned more comfortable. If a student wanted to schedule a lesson at a time when I had social or personal plans (a rare, but not unheard of occurrence), I would not say that I was going to meet my husband for lunch and didn't want to change that, but rather that I had another student. Japanese people respect work commitments more than personal ones, and the outcome was the same.

What was more, I learned that Japanese people not only have no problem with white lies or obfuscation, but they prefer them or it in many cases if they smooth things over and the outcome will be the same whether you tell the truth or not. They know you're lying or confabulating, but they don't call you on it because they would often do the same thing in your shoes. It's only important that the lie be in the service of preserving dignity and a good relationship. A lie that does not serve those ends will be received differently and not understood or appreciated.

I also learned how to say "no" without saying "no", though this was one of the harder things for me to bring myself to do. If I was overloaded at work and our president wanted to heap another task onto the backbreaking pile, I wouldn't say, "no, I can't do it," but rather that I would do it, but a more pressing task would not be completed until a time which would be, in his estimation, too late. He would withdraw the request in such cases, because the primary work could not wait and he knew it. This was true, after a fashion, but the important point was that it placed the power for the decision with him rather than with me. If I judged the workload to be too big, then I was taking power into my hands. If I offered him two choices and he chose, it stayed with him and that respected his status as president.

The byzantine path of communication in Japan is hard for straightforward-speaking folks to understand and it does waste a lot of time, but there is a positive side to it and that is that it does tend to preserve relationships and, yes, that old canard about "saving face". It's embarrassing or insulting to be starkly told "no" and can make people feel powerless and diminished, even for Western folks in some situations. It's far worse in Japan where such bluntness is not the norm. Once I understood where all of this was coming from and the purpose it was serving, I gained empathy for how people were dealing with me and how I needed to deal with them. In most cases, they weren't trying to be mean, duplicitous, dishonest, or misleading. They were just being "normal" for their culture.


  1. It's so hard to unlearn those atypical behaviors and unless you realize that what you view as 'normal' may not can really put a dent into a relationship. It's only in my early thirties that I have started to figure out where I learned behaviors and try to see them in a bigger picture. To view them from other points of view to know if I am behaving with in normal boundaries or if I am being too lax or rigid. It's a hard a tough thing to do... some people never even realize that things they see as normal are actually quite dysfunctional. It's tough business sharing life with people you weren't raised with.

  2. That's one reason why I resent articles that basically try to make the U.S. seem like a horrible country next to others. I've heard multiple times that the typical American worker is given the fewest days off (only two weeks!) in comparison to other countries. The article even included Japan in the picture, saying that they receive far more days off. I'm not sure if maybe they have more holidays than we do, but I cannot imagine having an unspoken pressure to not take all of my vacation days!

    1. For years, I encouraged my students and coworkers to take the time off that they were due and for years they smiled and didn't take my advice. There are some people who take all of their time off in Japan, but they tend to work for Japanese branches of American companies and are mandated to do so. One of my students works for a high tech company based in the U.S. and takes her time off because they push employees to do so. She's grown accustomed to the different culture, but chances are she'd have to go back to Japanese ways if she changed her job.

      America workers are given less time off officially compared to Japan, and they absolutely are given a lot less time off than Europeans (who actually do take their days off). Americans, in my experience, work as hard or harder than Japanese, particularly when you consider productivity rather than hours spent hanging around the office trying to look busy. However, Americans actually have far better labor law protections and work-life balance compared to Japan. In European countries though, especially the Netherlands, its a paradise compared to the U.S., but that's part of high taxes and socialism. There's always a yin and yang to everything and every benefit has a deficit. It's all about the choices a culture makes, and that's why I'm highly reluctant to talk about a "better" or "worse" culture.

  3. I wonder how folks in engineering, science, and other typically right/wrong, black/white type of professions do this... in my job, if there is a certain assumption is incorrect, or an analysis has a wrong step, etc that leads to an incorrect result, and someone catches it, the good thing to do is point it out. Objectivity is good at times.

    I can sort of see how this might play out though. Engineers and scientists can be pretty defensive about their work, and other engineers typically take critical look at others' work and point out issues and disagreements. Folks who understand this dynamic will make an effort to point out the error in an circuitous manner or ask a question like "How did you arrive at this assumption? Did you consider this?" Or "maybe I'm doing something wrong, but ..."

    In more mundane details though, I just got done explaining to my wife the other day that lying to folks repeatedly about not going to parties will cause a rift in the friendship. A white lie occassionally is no big deal but continuously doing so when just laying it out there is preferable. I explained folks will not trust you if you continually lie in the Japanese fashion. This struck her as odd but understandable. I would have similar difficulties if I lived in Japan.

    Good insights! Thanks for the post!

    1. It's an interesting question. My experience with engineers and scientists is decidedly secondhand, but what I've heard is that there tends to be a similar communication dynamic there as well. Status and seniority tend to determine who is heard and whose work is considered of greater value. I don't think a lower status person would criticize a higher status person's work, for instance. However, I'd be surprised if there weren't indirect ways of making checks and balances for ones work such that questions could be raised without confrontation or personalizing the communication. My guess is they structure the workplace to manage this without making people angry, or that all of the berating is done on the newbies and is within the framework of the sempai/kohai relationship such that it can be managed and not be outside of the understood boundaries.

      And you are right about the frequency of "white lies" not working in Western cultures. People in the U.S. may see through the occasional white lie and forgive it, but continually doing it will make it clear that you're just avoiding people and socializing with them. What works in Japan with Japanese people doesn't work with most Westerners and Western countries.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. I love this. Love love love. I'm always interested at listening to by elementary first and second graders arguing in class over what is ふつう; it becomes important for them at school to establish exactly what is and isn't, but like you say, they all come from different family cultures and they are often quite shocked that other children don't have exactly the same experiences that they do. I often ask them what they have for breakfast (it's a morbid fascination with the lack of nutrition rather than an educational question) and each child will instantly answer what they have for breakfast as being what everyone has, then freak out when a different child contradicts them and says they ate something else. So interesting to see the process of adapting from the "family culture" into the "school culture".

    1. I think that, by asking the questions that you do, you're teaching kids a valuable lesson in perspective that they may not otherwise have. It's really important for people to get away from the self-centeredness that is at the heart of, "everyone is like me." Learning that early, in my opinion, teaches them that there is not one "normal" or "right way."

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. Orchid64, thank you for this. It is probably the most to-the-point thing written about personal communication patterns of the Japanese that I've read so far. And coincidentally, the lying that is going on in Japan, on all levels and scales imaginable, is the cultural difference I struggle the most with. Well, in fact I stopped struggling and decided to leave the country forever after a little more than two years. I am counting the days until I get out of this thought prison. Before I understood what was going on, I gave the Japanese the "benefit of doubt" - but now as I do understand how their society works, I know I could never accept it, as I think it is inhuman, from an objective point of view (which may be the reason why the Japanese are so unhappy with life, why the population shrinks, and why the suicide rates are off the charts since decades).
    Which brings me to my point of (slight) criticism. Am I right to suppose that you subscribe to the notion of meta-ethical moral relativism? I think to do so is absolutely necessary to live in Japan and not see it as a creepy, quasi-totalitarian society ripe with racism, corruption, and all those other demons from the past that the West seems to have at least cut down to manageable size.
    I can't do it. Become a meta-ethical moral relativist, I mean. Because however hard I try, I am not willing to see all the dark and inhuman stuff that the Japanese try to (and for decades successfully did) hide "under the lid" as anything as objectively bad.
    To me, it seems that this so called "harmony" that the Japanese are so proud of, mainly serves to enable the dark elements of Japan, namely the political and economic leaders, and the extremely underestimated influence of organised crime, to continue their evil games at the expense of the regular people, the neighbouring countries, and the rest of the world.
    The lies about history, the current economic crisis, the radiation of the food chain, the huge problem of discrimination and bullying of anyone against anyone, etc., can in my opinion not be excused with a simple "that's how they do it over there". Especially not if the quirks and dysfunctions of the "family" that is Japanese society begin to affect and hurt international relations (between the US and China, for instance). If a family is dysfunctional and beyond help, it is bad enough. But when those dysfunctions start to affect the outer world, they need to be dealt with. I'd even go as far as to say that, on a political level, continuing the relativist approach of ignoring the sinister aspects of Japanese society will lead to another tragedy in the foreseeable future.
    Wow, this got long. I could have simply written that I think honesty is a value that must not be subjected to meta-ethical moral relativism. I would like to hear what you think about this problem. What I am challenging is the sentiment that for a foreigner in Japan, understanding Japanese communication (and other cultural differences) should lead to acceptance of it.
    Am I being too "angry young man" here? I'm not that young any more ;-)

    1. Hi, Stephan, and thank you for your thoughtful comments. I really do appreciate them and what they make me consider as a result. As was the case before, I need to write a lot to address such a meaningful comment as yours. I'll do my best to do it justice without going on and on.

      I wouldn't say that I subscribe to moral relativism, though that may be the inevitable outcome of what I do believe, but rather more that I subscribe to the idea that there are inevitable human traits that shape the systems and problems in all societies. These tendencies produce slightly varied, but essentially similar outcomes.

      For example, economic inequality creates poverty in America. This creates a good deal of suffering for the poorer classes including poor or non-existent health care, substance abuse, increased chances of committing acts of violence or being a victim of one, etc. The reason behind this inequality is greed, a desire for power, and exploitation.

      In Japan, these same desires and character qualities result in different outcomes. They result in worker bees who have a poor quality of life, alcoholism, domestic violence, death from working too much, suicide, and an oppression of personal liberty.

      Another example, and this plays off of the radiated food situation, is that food in the U.S. is also routinely contaminated, altered, or manipulated in ways that affect health, but the corruption at the political level allows such things to continue. The continued subsidies for corn, for instance, are a part of that, as well as genetic modification of food regardless of the effect on health (or, doing so without proper testing). In the U.S., the number of chemicals (especially dyes) in food is horrible, and may be related to cancer rates. Food dyes are actually not so common in Japan. They tend to use beets, carrots, and potatoes to color food. I think every country poisons its people so that big business can keep making money.

      In these cases, the expression of some core qualities that all humans share express themselves in each society. I could be outraged by these situations, but if I went around raging against such things, I'd make myself crazy. I can't bring myself to be angry at Japan because it's expression of these traits is different and has different outcomes than in other countries. I see this as all the fruit of human weakness, selfishness, and desire.

      These are issues that are bigger than me. I can only be responsible for my own choices and expression of my traits. I try hard not to get worked up about that which I cannot control and have no influence over, and that would be everything other than myself. That's not an expression of hopelessness on my part, but rationality. That's my way of saying that I'm not letting any culture "off the hook" for its issues, but rather that it's not within my power to put them on a hook.

      I don't think what Japan does is "OK" and I certainly would not say it is morally defensible. I think I've just reached a place where I think that it's not my place to judge. I'm going to suffer no matter where I live. Other people are suffering no matter where they live. We're all victims of the human condition, but we're also subscribers to it. That is my way of saying that I accept it. I in no way am advocating that others accept it the way I did. We all have to live in our own skins and with our own decisions. I just couldn't live with being mad all of the time anymore.

      I hope that answers your question, and, no, I don't think you're an angry young man, just your own man.


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