A sign outside of an izakaya in Tokyo says “we’re currently quietly preparing” before opening for dinner time.
I was happy to come across this article “Leaning to Think Japanese” by Don George, which describes stories from the writer’s own encounters in Japan that really illustrate, in a subtle but fascinating way, how one might attempt at explaining how and why the Japanese culture values harmony.
It’s one things just to say that harmony is important to the Japanese – the character we give to the concept of wa (和), or “harmony”, is also what we use to describe Japaneseness, like in wa-fu (和風), or “Japanese style”. But it’s quite another to experience in person how that value translates into our day-to-day life.
Honoring Harmony in a Beautifully Subtle Way
As a visitor, I believe, you often experience the spirit of wa in a very positive way, like in the stories by Don George, where people go out of their ways beyond anyone’s normal expectations to make sure you get to where you want to go, or where people take extreme care to avoid appearing rude or unpleasant at all costs, thereby maintaining harmony – the feeling of harmony that you have with each other in your shared experience, however brief the encounter may be.
It’s quite nice to describe the harmony-loving tendencies of the Japanese this way, and I found the little elevator story from the above article particularly beautiful and fascinating, in a way that makes me feel happy and proud that this is the culture that’s a big part of what defines who I am.
If someone I chatted with in an elevator in Kyoto said to me “O saki ni, shitsurei shimasu” (“Excuse me for leaving the elevator before you”), I probably wouldn’t think much of it, because in the context of a conversation that takes place in a situation like this in Japan, that’s the kind of thing you’d say to each other, and for many people, I think, including the lady in Kyoto from the National Geographic story), a phrase like that comes naturally, like saying “hello, how are you?” in English when greeting someone.
But reading about this little phrase in the Kyoto elevator story, I couldn’t help but repeat the phrase in my head over and over again, thinking how deceptively simple but profoundly deep it is to have the aptitude to use such an expression. What it implies – that one honors the little pleasant moments shared between strangers – is just so simply beautiful. And this makes me think of another great Japanese expression “ichi-go ichi-e” (一期一会), which means that “each moment of every encounter is always once-in-a-lifetime”.
Rediscovering and Appreciating My Cultural Roots
I know that part of the reason I’m so pleased to read this article is my (somewhat exaggerated, I’d admit) reaction to anything that puts the Japanese culture and our ways of doing things and seeing the world in a positive light.
I think it’s a common experience among many travelers and expats to have a newfound appreciation for one’s own culture after having lived abroad for a long time. Having grown up in Japan, I’ve spent most of my “adult” life elsewhere, and through my years of living “abroad” (which, after a while, loses meaning because “abroad” becomes “home”), I’ve gone through various phases of emotional attachment to, and detachment from, my own culture.
At one point, probably after being away for around 5-7 years, I had a rather idealistic and romantic view of how everything was great and beautiful in Japan: its cultural sensitivity, the politeness of the people, and of course, the delicateness of our culinary traditions.
Tempura, how it’s supposed to be
A warm soba noodle dish with a side of assorted pickles
Of course, these are some of the most beautiful and notable aspects of the Japanese culture that I am and should be proud of. But just because we have amazing food in Japan, doesn’t mean everything about our culture is rosy. Living outside of the country and not living as part of the culture on a daily basis, however, I could – and happily did – focus only on the beautiful and the elegant; on all the things that made me feel sometimes nostalgic about what I thought, or wanted to think, represented “home”.
When Worrying Too Much about Harmony Leads to Disharmony
And then, after a few more years of not living in Japan, came the opposite phase. I was just really unhappy about how conservative, reserved, and narrow-minded our culture can be. I think this was kind of an intellectual (rather than emotional) reaction to what I perceived as all the problems our country had, which were exacerbated by the conservative tendencies in our culture that made necessary social changes almost impossible.
It’s precisely because everyone worries so much all the time about wa, I thought, that the old ways persist and we can’t make progressive changes in our society. What good is harmony when we’re just so afraid of offending others that we can’t speak up against archaic tendencies that are making people unhappy?
A few years ago, I came across an illustrated book by the actor and writer Suzuki Matsuo that really resonated with me because of all the frustration I was feeling about the way some things in Japan were taken for granted just because they’ve always been that way. The book,「気づかいルーシー」(“caring/concerned Lucy”), is a story about a little girl Lucy and people around her who bend over backwards to avoid upsetting her feelings. They are so worried about hurting the happy little girl they’d do anything – including lying about who they are – to prevent her from noticing that things have changed.
「気づかいルーシー」(kizukai lucy) by Suzuki Matsuo.
Of course, the story is comically and adorably exaggerated, but I do find that some aspects of Japanese culture and its manifestation in our daily experiences are the results of not-so-adorably exaggerated insistence on “the way things are supposed to be”, and this can get really tiresome.
For example, at some ceremonial or ritualistic occasions (whether the occasion is joyful or sorrowful), things are so highly formalized that you don’t feel like you are genuinely participating in the expressing of feelings and emotions and the experience of being together to share those feelings and emotions. Or, sometimes the insistence of being polite and avoiding offending others goes too far that it turns into exactly the opposite of what’s meant to be avoided: being rude and offending others (and, when the person on the receiving end of such rigid insistence on politeness is also rigidly polite, like in the case of Lucy from the above book, what happens is everyone suppressing their inner doubts and continuing to play the roles in the politeness theater that they think they are obliged to work in).
Of course, it’s also not fair to paint an overly negative picture about the conservative tendencies of our culture based on these specific instances. As with most things related to cultures, generalizing only works to a certain extent, because a culture is a living and constantly evolving collective expression of individual experiences, with many different ideas, perspectives and interpretations, and with many different factors from both inside and outside influencing it.
So even those that are among the most change-averse of cultures (of which I think Japanese culture is one) are undergoing a lot of changes, and so blanket statements judging a culture (like, “it’s so conservative”) or generalized opinions about a group of people (like, “Japanese people are always so polite because they value harmony over everything else”) may be interesting and useful in some context, and may even be accurate to a degree, but are largely pointless when exploring one’s emotional connections to a culture and cultural identity.
Finding My Own Way of Defining Cultural Identity
So that’s where I am now, on my own soul-searching, identify-defining, and cultural-roots-rediscovering journey. I’ve come to realize that I don’t want to necessarily hold onto a romanticized vision of how beautiful and elegant everything is in Japan, nor to be bound by a decidedly negative view of how suffocating the conservative attitude in our culture can be.
Instead, I’m proactively seeking opportunities to learn about different aspects of both the traditional and contemporary Japan, and intentionally striving to balance my emotional reactions to what I instinctively appreciate about the Japanese culture (such as the elevator story from Don George’s piece) and my logical (or so I think) reaction to what I think is nonsensical or unnecessary (such as the national obsession with being overly cautious about upsetting others to the extent that the polite gestures become pointless exercises of scripted and spurious politeness).
I am, for example, asking questions about why some things are how they are in Japan, and making an effort to find answers. I’m learning from books like “The Japanese Have a Word for It” (Boyé Lafayette de Mente), “Shinto Meditations for Revering the Earth” (Stuart D.B. Picken, Yukitaka Yamamoto), and “Lost Japan” (Alex Kerr).
Learning about your own culture, by the way, from those who have spent a lot of time studying it is a great experience and I recommend it to anyone. You may not always agree with what you learn (after all, you have the first-hand experience of living the culture in question), but the process of looking at your own culture from outside in while at the same time being on the inside and thus having the “insider” perspective, is a fascinating one, and you undoubtedly learn a lot from it.
In addition to learning about the intricacies of the Japanese culture from experts, I’ve also been trying to be more proactive about finding stories about and from Japan that are positive and exciting – from ecotourism and nature school exchange programs between Japan and China, to community-led local sustainable energy projects, to how some young professionals are coming up with game-changing ideas to transform workplaces across the nation.
(… and this may be the theme of one of my next long-winded-chatter posts – things that I’m doing to find positive ideas and stories that make me feel great about my own country and culture, and what I’ve learned from them.)
So What’s It Like to Think Japanese?
My answer, of course, is I don’t know (enough) (yet). But I’ve learned a thing or two about why harmony is so important in Japan. Simply put, historically people really had no choice but to value social harmony over individuality. Living in the classically collectivist society of pre-modern Japan, valuing wa was likely something that developed out of survival instincts, rather than altruistic philosophy. Acting according to the strict societal rules and thereby not disturbing harmony was an important way of maintaining one’s social status: not sticking out (not being an “outstanding” individual) safeguarded one’s – and one’s family’s – safety and well-being.
Of course, things are different nowadays, but “old habits die hard”, as I understand it, is one good way of explaining why some aspects of the Japanese culture, even today, tend to be very collectivistic – adhering to the strict social rules, honoring the sense of personal obligations to the society, and striving to maintain the acceptable standard of social etiquette.
One unique – and most of the time positive – way this tendency is manifested in the modern-day experience of the Japanese culture is in the particular style of hospitality and customer service that travelers often see (and are impressed with) in Japan. Some friends in Germany (which sometimes have the reputation for not-so-friendly customer service) who have been to Japan have, for example, commented on how so meticulous customer service in Japan was, and how incredibly friendly and helpful most people – from shop keepers to waiters to cashiers – were.
Politeness out of survival instincts may have been the origin of the traditional “Japanese way” of treating customers extremely well, but – happily – this tradition has largely survived even in today’s much more competitive and globalized economy. The Japanese word for “customer”, お客様 (o-kya-ku-sama) is the same as that for “honored guest”. And often, being a customer in some places in Japan does feel like being an honored guest personally invited by the business owner: just as one would an important guest visiting one’s home, businesses would often treat their customers/guests with a level of service that’s over and above normal expectations, or sometimes even beyond what would reasonably be considered within the realm of common business interests.
For anyone considering visiting Japan, this, I’m sure, will be one of the most exciting things to look forward to about experiencing the Japanese culture in person – aside from, of course, the beautifully delicate taste of the Japanese food.