Saturday, August 09, 2014

Let me explain Japan for Westerners

"Do you want to know our secrets?
Oops, sorry, we don't have any."

(If you just want the quick explanation without all the preamble, skip to the last paragraph of this post.)

There are three common mistakes that many Westerners make when observing or analyzing Japanese culture. First, they essentialize it - they assume there are some core things that never change, and that you can understand these things by studying samurai culture, or stuff like that. Second, they exoticize it - they assume that Japanese culture is very different from Western culture, and that there are deep secrets that only Japanese people themselves understand. Third, they homogenize it - they assume that the difference between Japanese individuals or subcultures is much smaller than the group difference between Japan and other cultures.

To be fair, many Japanese people also make these mistakes, and many Westerners also make a couple of those mistakes when thinking about their own cultures. But the mistakes are especially common among Westerners visiting - or, sometimes, living in - Japan.

The blog Wait But Why is one of my favorites, and I don't want this post to be interpreted as an insult directed at Tim Urban, the blogger. But in a recent post about a visit to Japan, Tim did all three of the things that I mentioned above. Let me quote him at great length:
7) The culture is lovely to interact with, fascinating to observe, and impossible to understand... 
Japanese foreignness is really about what goes on in the depths of the mind, not the zany cartoon ads. 
It makes sense that the differences between Japanese culture and a culture like that in America would run deep. At the core of American life are European cultural roots and a Judeo-Christian value system—both of which have at one time or another influenced much of the rest of the world, through imperialism and missionary activities. But Japan spent most of its history being unusually isolated, both as an official policy and through its ability to resist forceful cultural immersion—it’s one of the few places to A) never be occupied by another country, and B) keep almost all Christian missionary activity out, making it a rare country that has been able to evolve mostly untouched by others. 
Add to this the somewhat secretive, exclusive nature of Japanese culture, and you have a pretty boggling situation for an outsider... 
As my time in Japan went on, I began getting the very distinct impression that in spite of being treated wonderfully, I was not part of the club. Nor did it seem that anyone had any interest in helping me to join it. When it comes to anything beyond the Outer Shell—who the Japanese people really are, why they act the way they do, and what they’re thinking—I know about as much now as I did before my visit. 
Given that my trip was short and I don’t speak Japanese, this isn’t a huge surprise—but what did blow my mind was talking to expats who had been living in Japan for years and spoke fluent Japanese. Without exception, each of them told me that the Japanese treat them like outsiders and that that’s not going to change. One of them was half Japanese, spoke the language without an accent, had lived there for the last ten years and was married to a Japanese man, and she said she was a permanent outsider after being raised in France. 
A visitor to any country is an outsider to the culture there—what makes Japanese exclusivity unusual is both the extent of its stubbornness and the fact that Japan is a large and prosperous world power—usually the exclusive club phenomenon is the stuff of smaller groups, often those who have faced some kind of adversity together. 
The explanation, to me, comes back to Japan’s isolated history and the fact that the cultural gap between foreigners and Japanese runs especially deep. You can speak the language perfectly, but when the Japanese are known for speaking to each other in a very specific, indirect way (someone described it like talking to someone in a semi-circle instead of a straight line) and the foreigner just doesn’t really know how to do that, they’re not part of the club. When the Japanese are horrified at the prospect of losing face and a foreigner doesn’t understand what it would even feel like to lose face, they don’t know what it feels like to be Japanese, so there will always be a distance between them.
You can see all three of the processes I discussed at work here. First, there is the essentialization - Tim explains Japan's supposedly unique culture in terms of its "isolated history". Second, there is the exoticism: Tim thinks there are strange, unknowable things going on in the "depths of the mind" of "secretive" Japanese people, to which neither he nor any non-Japanese person is privy. Third, the idea that Japan is a homogeneous "club" is clearly in evidence.

Tim is certainly right that as a foreign visitor with no local language skills, he had no real chance of fitting in. Imagine a Laotian dude, who, speaking not one word of English, shows up in Vermont and starts walking around wondering when he's going to really be in the American "club." That's you in Japan, buddy! 

But Tim also talked to expats who made the same complaint, and in fact, I've heard it from a number of expats myself. Certainly not all, though - I showed Tim's post to an American expat writer in Tokyo the other day, and he snorted and said (I'm paraphrasing): "If you go around thinking you don't fit in, you'll never fit in."

That's really the key, I think. How do you ever know that you fit in, anywhere? Suppose you're walking around your hometown, talking to people. You feel like you understand them, they understand you, you're one of them. It makes sense, after all - you come from the same place, maybe you're the same race. But what if you're wrong? What if they all secretly think you're a weirdo, and they're all just too polite (or scared, or apathetic, or mean) to say it?

The answer is, you don't know. You make an assumption. And in Japan, many Westerners make the opposite assumption - they think that they'll be perpetually regarded as outsiders by the secret core of the Japanese psyche that no one who's not Japanese will ever truly see. When you make that assumption, it's going to be damn hard to fit in, even if the assumption happens to be wrong! By assuming everyone around you sees you as an alien, you'll act like someone who expects to be treated as an alien. And people around you are going to see you as weird because of that. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(Now, it is true that most Westerners in Japan do not speak Japanese and do not live in Japan. And so Japanese people will generally approach a Westerner with the assumption that (s)he does not speak the language. To English-speaking expats who have worked hard to become fluent in Japanese, I guess this can seem off-putting. But English speakers are unique - they grew up in countries that reasonably expected all foreigners to show up speaking the local language. If you meet a Laotian guy in Vermont, you don't try to speak to him in Laotian. And I guess some English-speakers in Japan expect the same treatment. But the reason we expect the Laotian to speak English is not because we've let him into the secret "club" of American society - it's because the British Empire conquered the largest empire in world history, and America produced 1/3 to 1/2 of global GDP in the years following WW2. English is a global language; Japanese is not.)

Why do I call the three attitudes - essentialization, exoticization, and homogenization - "mistakes"?

Essentialization is a mistake because it causes you to miss cultural shifts. If you think that Japan's culture of "lifetime employment" stems from some deep feudal history and thus will never change, then when it actually does start to change, you'll ignore it or disbelieve it. Essentialization thus blinds you to reality. I think it also contributes to negative trends in international relations - after all, if Japanese culture today is the same as in the 1930s, doesn't that imply that Japan is still a murderous, fascist society underneath a superficial veneer of pacifism? Actually, lots of people do think that about Japan, especially in Korea. I think this idea is wrong, and has poisoned relations between those countries.

Exoticization is bad because of the reason I mentioned above - it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. There's no more surefire way of turning yourself into a permanent outcast than assuming you are one.

Homogenization, though, is the worst of the bunch. It's really just a form of stereotyping. Nearly every bad effect of racial stereotyping is also an effect of national/cultural stereotyping. In both instances, you end up treating people you meet based on what group they're a part of, instead of what they're like as an individual. That can easily lead to stuff like this.

Homogenizing other people is really just another way of voluntarily alienating yourself. Japanese people, as they walk down the street or sit on a train, are not looking at each other and thinking "Wow! We are all the same!" They're thinking "I wonder if that guy is going to shove past me like a jerk," or "Wow, she's cute," or "Look at that silly outfit." They're constantly thinking about each other as individuals. So why shouldn't we think of them as individuals too?

Personally, I've lived in Japan for a total of about three years, on and off, over my life. These days, when I go there, I have Japanese people try to speak to me in English...but I also have Japanese people speak to me in Japanese and get annoyed when there's a word I don't know. I've had people act obviously fake toward me, and I've had people talk about their deepest personal issues and cry on my shoulder. I've had Japanese friends share a worried look with me when some weird Japanese stranger comes up and tries to talk to us. I've never felt any more out of place there than in, say, Michigan, or Long Island.

But that's just me. I'm probably weird. If you want to start learning that Japanese people are not much different than the people you grew up with, friend a few on Facebook - most Japanese people use it - and start reading their posts (use Google Translate or Rikaikun if you can't read Japanese). You'll quickly see that the stuff they post for their own friends is a little different than what Americans post - less politics, more lengthy updates about their own lives - but not particularly alien either. Sure, FB posts don't let you stare straight into someone's soul, but they're a lot better guide to what Japanese people are really like than walking around Tokyo talking to disgruntled expats.

If you don't want to spend the time and effort to do that, then just let me give you my clear, simple, Explanation of Japan for Westerners: Japan is a collection of rocks with some human beings on it. That's the vast majority of what you need to know.


  1. "Actually, lots of people do think that about Japan, especially in Korea. I think this idea is wrong, and has poisoned relations between those countries."

    Well, since the Japanese won't actually cop to raping all those Korean women, and since the Japanese still treat their Korean minority like shit...

    1. Your use of the phrase "the Japanese" shows that you are embracing homogenization, thinking of Japanese people as a single unit. As I discuss above, I think this is a mistake.

    2. Dude, dude, dude...the government continues to leave it out of their text books. Whether or not every single Japanese person agrees, that is the homogeneous policy of the Japanese policy that Koreans have to confront, and it still tells us where the Japanese median voter lies.

    3. But actually, most Japanese people treat the Korean minority perfectly well. I have a friend who researches this. Of course, there are some who discriminate. It's not homogenous.

  2. Anonymous5:59 PM

    I'm disappointed. The post is title "Let me explain Japan for Westerners", but there is no explanation about Japan whatsoever!!

    Most of the post is devoted to explaining why common conceptions are mistaken. The last few paragraphs look like you will finally get to the point, but you just say Japs are just like your average Michigan boy. Which -from my own experience with Michigan weirdos- is utterly false.

    Sorry I don't have a more constructive comment, I'd just like to hear something interesting about Japanese culture

    1. What would you like to know??

    2. Anonymous11:47 AM

      You could start by giving subcultural examples. Food is a god place to start. Whats so different between food related customs of various subcultures, did you wperience any trend in time/space/social structure? In my thinn experience it is interesting who/when and in what settings uses chopsticks/spoon/fingers to eat.

    3. Anonymous3:12 PM

      "Japs"???? You actually used that word?

  3. pretendous7:02 PM

    Thanks for the illuminating post, Noah. I suspect that the three tendencies you point out (essentialization, exoticization, and homogenization) occur between members of any two groups who perceive each other as sufficiently different to make these mistakes somehow cognitively efficient. Why do you suppose the case of interactions between Americans and Japanese is especially egregious?

    1. Language barrier, postwar political relationship.

    2. Anonymous8:08 AM

      Because he's lived in Japan? And not, say, Brazil. (As far as I know.)

    3. I was fascinated by an interview I heard in the run up to the World Cup about foreign perceptions of Brazilians. The Brazilian being interviewed was expressing that it was often exhausting dealing with foreigners because he felt a cultural pressure to conform to a specific stereotype of Brazilians for being happy and care free. The fascinating thing was that it was a collective desire to be seen as an homogeneous society even though it was obvious that there were internal differences and a country so big. Yet, he felt that there was a societal expectation to act in a certain positive way towards outsiders and help perpetuate a certain stereotype.

      It was his own group identification that drove his interactions with other groups.

  4. Lots of hard core porn, compared to many countries where that is outlawed. Its to bad that a country known for its samurai code of honor (Bushido) would devolve to that

    1. And yet Japanese laws ban the graphic depiction of human genitalia (even in drawings). (And for that matter, "tentacle porn" of a sort goes back to the Bushido days, see Hokusai's Dream of the Fisherman's Wife from 1814.)

      However, fact is, while that hard core porn exists, the vast majority of Japanese people find it just as creepy as Americans, and certainly wouldn't talk about it in public. As Noah alludes to, Americans (and other non-Japanese) become familiar with particular Japanese subcultures and assume that all Japanese are that way. Not true. (Every culture does this; Japanese do it about Americans, sure.)

    2. Anonymous10:38 PM

      Also, if you really were a Japanophile or an HBDer (I'm assuming based on your handle) you'd wouldn't buy into this notion that a population of strict prudes could suddenly "devolve" into sexual debauchery in 50 years.

      The Japanese were notorious for their loose sexual more's among the Europeans who first visited them, pornography very popular in the cities and out-of-wedlock children were widespread in the country. Until the Meiji Era most Japanese outside of the Ruling Class were not Confucians, and even among the Samurai aristocracy homosexual experimentation was fairly common.

      The Imperial Era (1868-1945) was the era where "traditional" Japanese morals developed, but I suspect even then they weren't as Victorian as people assume. Prostitution, for instance, was legal and normal.

      Culture can shift due to changing environments, though, as Noah said. TV has gotten alot tamer in the last 20 years, and pornography isn't displayed as openly as it used to be.

    3. "And yet Japanese laws ban the graphic depiction of human genitalia ..."

      Those laws are only "Japanese" in the sense that they're enforced in Japan. They're as American as the Victorian squeamishness that Dugout Doug MacArthur had about sex, and imposed on Japan during the Allied occupation in 1945-52.

    4. Anonymous3:28 AM

      "They're as American as the Victorian squeamishness that Dugout Doug MacArthur had about sex, and imposed on Japan during the Allied occupation in 1945-52."

      Was MacArthur a prude? I've never heard that before. Everything I've read says that Europeans brought Victorian mores to Japan in the mid 19th century, but by the 1940's those views had become mainstream and it was the Americans who were the slutty ones.

    5. Anonymous9:50 AM

      Hal, that's a common misconception. Article 175 regulating pornography hails from 1907, years before MacArthur. Pornography laws have always been a Japanese internal matter. I think this urban legend ultimately stems from another national stereotype, this time of pre-1960s Americans as uniquely prudish.

    6. Anonymous10:38 PM

      I think Hal's confusing the Allied Occupation with the Meiji Restoration, which is a disturbingly common mistake.

  5. Noah, when you say something like 'Japanese people are less likely to post about politics than Americans etc.' you yourself are engaging in what you call homogenization. By your definition in fact you can't really say anything at all about a cultural or ethnic group really without 'stereotyping'. Seems to me you've put yourself into a pretty small box by your standards.

    1. There's a difference between saying that "the average of the Japanese distribution for trait X is different" (most common form of stereotypiing) and "the standard distribution for the Japanese on trait X is much smaller" (homogenization) Groups can be different on average but still have enormous overlap. They can even have substantial subcultures that are very different from some predominant norm. In reality, sociological studies of stereotyping demonstrate that most people who use stereotypes realize that, but of course some people don't.

    2. It's just a statistical tendency among people I know. A few post on politics quite a lot.

  6. Noah, I agree with everything you say. I also think the attitude of allowing people to change, and recognizing the individual is not some cultural weakening as many criticize it to be, but the opposite. I think some critics would label this 'humanism', but it is not, edifying the individual within their own definition (within limits) is a great part of respecting divinity. Thanks, it was very refreshing to read your post.

  7. Hi Noah, I am a big fan of your blog, but have to disagree with you on this post. Viewing Japanese culture as homogenous is not that wrong. Assuming that homogeneity extends all the way to people's individuality is complete nonsense - you can find every imaginable human trait just as anywhere else, but for sure there is something very homogenous about the way most Japanese choose to show themselves to society. It shouldn't be a surprise. It's clear that people want it to be this way. People in Japan make more effort to look and speak as expected of their role and position, and keep their individuality to themselves. The expectations of society too seem to be much stricter than elsewhere. In my case I keep remembering the large groups of graduates visiting prospective employers all trying their best not to stand out to the smallest detail, and look as standard as possible, but the examples are countless.

    There are good sides and bad sides to it, but I incline to think this is overall a good thing. I remember thinking of these things years ago, when I was late in the office and the cleaning ladies had come in. I found myself listening to their conversation. They spoke to each other in exactly the same clean, respectful, and beautiful sounding Japanese that most people use. In other countries you would expect that level of a conversation only between people of "good condition" (i don't like the phrase). When I left Japan for Singapore I wanted to give some of my winter clothes to a homeless man whom I knew from before, and he declined in such a polite and elaborate way, careful not to offend me, and spoke to me in such a thoughtful way that you'd think he was a career diplomat before ending up on the streets. I bet he wasn't. He just told me what he thought was the right thing to say under that situation. And then the homeless guys around Sumida river. If you go there early in the morning, you see something interesting - in front of the tents and the cardboard boxes that they live in, you see their shoes nicely lined up at the entrance. Million dollar mansion or cardboard box it doesn't matter, if that's your home, you leave your shoes at the door. To me this is an important side of Japan. Of course, not all Japan is "mainstream" Japan, but mainstream is pretty big, at least compared to other places. And even rougher types who clearly live outside the mainstream can switch back to mainstream mode if they need to, which again I find hard to imagine elsewhere.

    1. I think the notion of Japanese conformism is mostly a myth. In some areas there's a lot of it, in some areas much less than the West. For example, personal clothing style and political opinions are much less conformist and homogeneous there than in America, in my observation.

    2. Noah, don't get me wrong, I do value your opinion on the matter :D but if you could point me to some literature that says that the notion of Japanese conformism is "mostly" a myth, I'd like to have a look. My own experiences aside, I can point you to a lot of Japanese and English sources that say the complete opposite. I would sure be curious to know if proverbs like 出る杭は打たれる(the nail that sticks out gets hammered back) or 郷に入っては郷に従え(conform to the custom of the place) are actually in no way related to what people find important, and all that talk about Honne and Tatemae, Uchi and Soto and so on, are utter nonsense

    3. Anonymous10:54 AM

      Mandated school uniforms or grouping by fashion or interest preference are neither a myth nor uniquely Japanese. I consider them on one hand technologies of discipline and control and on the other tools of resistance.

      Recommended: Wearing Ideology:State, Schooling and Self-Presentation in Japan (Dress, Body, Culture) by Brian J. McVeigh (teacher at a Japanese Women's University)

      No, neither Japan nor the US are simply an aggregation of isolated individuals making rational choices from an infinite menu.

      Bob McManus

    4. I would sure be curious to know if proverbs like 出る杭は打たれる(the nail that sticks out gets hammered back) or 郷に入っては郷に従え(conform to the custom of the place) are actually in no way related to what people find important

      Well, I've never heard anyone say either of those, and when I asked people about the "nail that sticks up" thing, the first thing they say is "Huh??", and then later "Ohhh, I think I've heard that one."

      Whereas I hear a lot of Americans say "When in Rome [do as the Romans]."

      all that talk about Honne and Tatemae, Uchi and Soto and so on, are utter nonsense

      Not nonsense, since these are just names for behaviors that exist in every culture. The fact that people know the Japanese names for these things does not mean that they are more prevalent in Japan.

      In fact, I have found - and Japanese people have agreed with my casual observation - that Canadians tend to do these things more than Japanese people. ;-)

    5. Oh, and I forgot to give you a source for the idea that Japan is not more "conformist" than we are. Start here:

  8. I've never felt any more out of place there than in, say, Michigan, or Long Island.

    But that's just me. I'm probably weird.

    No, you're not. I was only there in the Tokyo Area for a week visiting a friend, and I felt the same way - it was another first world place with people like anywhere else, albeit one where the signs and language were such that I couldn't read them. It was weird explaining to my friend how the similarities stood out way more than any differences, although there were obviously differences.

    1. That said, I really wish US cities were as good as keeping their streets as free of litter as the people in the Tokyo Area were.

  9. "(I)t’s one of the few places to A) never be occupied by another country..."

    What the what, now? The Allied occupation of 1945-52 never happened? MacArthur was never a de facto viceroy? The use of Japan as both staging and R&R area by the US Army during the Korean War never happened?

    I don't know which timeline this fellow is writing to us from via ansible, but it's not the one I live in.

    1. Anonymous8:12 AM

      Yup, that's a pretty big boo-boo right there.

    2. Agreed. And there were many American institutions and concepts that were introduced into Japan during that period, many of which remain, including their constitution, even if actual practice diverges from the ideal a lot, not to mention that while one can easily find oneself in places where there are no signs in English and people do not speak English, there are also lots of signs in English, and particularly in the large cities it is not that hard for an English speaker to get around without knowing any Japanese.

      Even though it was not occupied by foreigners aside from the MacArthur period, the Japanese have had a long history of absorbing foreign influences into their culture without fundamentally losing it, and they are proud of this. Thus both Buddhism and Confucianism came from abroad, but were adapted to their culture, and also their alphabet, which is really three with two systems, with one of those simply being the Chinese alphabet. Finally, after the Meiji Restoration they adopted western technologies and did indeed become the first non--European or European derived nation to achieve industrialization and high growth, while maintaining their own culture, if imbued with elements from abroad. This continued even more strongly after their defeat in WW II, and while there remain enormous differences between US and Japanese culture, it is quite foolish to fail to realize that there have been enormous influences from the US on Japanese culture and society.

      Barkley Rosser

      Barkley Rosser

  10. Anonymous7:56 AM

    Japan passed a law banning possessing child pornography...two months ago:

    Child prostitution and child pornography were outlawed in the 1990s.

    No, of course Japan isn't homogenous. There's no essential "Japan-ness" either. And I'm not even sure what "exotic" means, really. But a couple things you fail to consider, Noah:

    1. Many Japanese people promote an exotic, homogenous, essentiallist image of Japan. It isn't thrust on them by whitey.

    2. Japan has many deep social ills that are very different from those in the west.

    3. Culture matters. Economic reductionism is its own type of essentialism, and to dismiss cultural differences as being superficial is just as condescending to the Japanese as your garden variety otaku who sees Japan as an exotic homogenous place of kawaii etc.

    1. Many Japanese people promote an exotic, homogenous, essentiallist image of Japan. It isn't thrust on them by whitey.


      Japan has many deep social ills that are very different from those in the west.

      Also correct.

      Culture matters.

      Maybe. In general I think people vastly overstate the influence of fixed cultural traits on economic outcomes.

    2. Anonymous8:07 PM

      Fair enough--I'd say you vastly understate the influence of fixed cultural traits. You and those you criticize are probably in opposite directions from the truth. I still think economists have an ethical obligation to doubt their math a little more, since policy makers sadly listen to them more than, say, literature professors.

    3. Exactly.
      We can apply this as well to the discussion of "fitting in."
      While we can debate how much harder it is to fit in in Japan, there is no honest debate that fitting in is much more important to Japanese than to, say, Americans.
      Americans, at least superficially, take pride in outsider status. Our politics, for example, demand that in absurd ways: a plutocratic former Governor who lobbied the government successfully as well while getting rich as a private equity pioneer casts himself as a Washington "outsider'' since voters insist on that sort of posturing.
      In Japan, business and politics runs on trust and relationships that depend to a much greater degree on acceptance within the group.

  11. Anonymous8:22 AM

    I don't go to Paris and say "Look! There's a McDonalds! They're just like us! Or they should be." This is what is called cultural imperialism, and a famous American fault. It is an aspect of liberalism, and even more neo-liberalism, and has explained much about Noah Smith to me. In Paris I want to see the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Seine, in other words the differences are much more interesting than the commonalities. And there are interesting and entertaining differences between some/most/all Americans and most/some/all Japanese, if only localized, contingent/historical, and of degree.

    2) I don't think you learn all that much by visiting. I recommend books, a whole lot of books.

    Ruth Benedict was a professional scholar, and not that bad, but

    Nakane Chie Japanese Society is considered the necessary classic.
    Sugimoto Yoshio Introduction to Japanese Society is more recent and updated, but std
    Kanazawa Satoshi Order by Accident is one example of recent studies of the contemporaneous constructed nature of the Japanese "groupism" discussed by Nakane Chie
    various books on the "Kyoto School," Nishida and Nishitani as two members, can help understand the historical but modern resistance to cultural imperialism and American universalism
    What is interesting to me about Japan are the constructed aspects of their society, constructed not necessarily as dictat from above, but as entertaining and useful tools accepted and promoted at grass roots level. Sometimes it's troublesome, but from what I have seen for example, many or most Japanese like to play with politeness language and casual hierarchies. Chan or kun? Senpai?, no you were three days before me here.

    Bob McManus

  12. Anonymous8:32 AM

    Noah can you clarify why you feel Americans are making these mistakes? Saying that you felt like an outsider in Japan and alienated means you are guilty of homogeneralization? A language barrier coupled with being a tourist in a foreign country does alienate people. It's not just a state of mind. And stating ones feelings about how one feels different in a foreign country. It doesn't mean they feel that everyone is that country is the same. Maybe your assumption that we, Americans, feel like outsiders because we think Japanese people are all the same is wrong. Maybe we are just expressing the feelings associated with being from a different culture. Perhaps it is you that is guilty of homogeneralization of American attitude toward Japan

    1. Saying that you felt like an outsider in Japan and alienated means you are guilty of homogeneralization? A language barrier coupled with being a tourist in a foreign country does alienate people. It's not just a state of mind.

      You've got it reversed. Sure, there are reasons people don't fit in besides the mindset of exoticization/homogenization. But if you exoticize and homogenize other people, you won't fit in no matter what.

      Perhaps it is you that is guilty of homogeneralization of American attitude toward Japan

      Unlikely, since in my post I describe a diversity of American attitudes... ;-)

  13. We had a Japanese teenager stay with us for three weeks. Normal teenager with similar interests as our daughter. They remain friends.

  14. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Thanks for the interesting post. I agree most of your arguments in general. But I want to make a minor point that someone above already mentioned.

    When you told

    "if Japanese culture today is the same as in the 1930s, doesn't that imply that Japan is still a murderous, fascist society underneath a superficial veneer of pacifism? Actually, lots of people do think that about Japan, especially in Korea. I think this idea is wrong, and has poisoned relations between those countries."

    I think you are unfortunately making the same fallacy you want to criticize. Koreans are not homogeneous.

    On average, Koreans might be the people who hate Japan as a nation, regardless of generations. But the underlying reasons are quite diverse.

    For older generations, many of those who directly or indirectly experienced Japanese colonialism are still alive. They hate Japan as an exploiting and suppressing authority and a nation as well as Japanese people who bullied and hurt them. I think many of them are not stupid enough that they still believe Japanese people are evil like what they experienced more than half a century ago. But their experiences are just strong enough for them to keep their adverse emotion toward Japanese.

    For younger generations, their negative emotions are more toward the Japanese government which persistently make effort to deny their responsibility about the war crimes and innocent victims such as comfort women. Scandals like Japanese history textbook and major Japanese politicians' provocative speaks, which provoke Koreans happen ceaselessly. All of these are a kind of interactions that make many Koreans who haven't even experienced the Japanese colonial period keep the bitter feeling about Japan.

    Their feeling about Japanese people, not Japan or Japanese government, is more ambivalent. Japanese cultures such as movies, cartoons, novels, and dramas, are very popular among Koreans. Many places of Japan are most popular places Koreans love to visit for their holidays. I wouldn't say Koreans like Japanese independently of their feeling about Japanese government. They still rooted against the Japanese soccer team most, even more than they rooted for their own team, in the last World Cup. Of course, they are not stupid to believe that Japanese are evil as they were in the 1930s.

    All I want to say is that Koreans generally hate Japan and Japanese Government, more or less, but their motivations and reasons are heterogeneous very much. I just took the example of generations, because I thought it is the most important factor, but I think there are many other secondary variables that affect the feeling toward Japan, Japanese government, and Japanese people.

    So I feel sorry when you are trapped by the same fallacy saying "lots of people do think that about Japan, especially in Korea." This might just be a minor point in your overarching argument, but it may be a little bit embarrassing and insulting to some Korean readers like myself.

    I always enjoy following your writings. Thanks!

  15. There may some apt stereotypes that are perceived as being cultural but are in fact driven by other things. I think about public interaction with strangers and how different it is in Japan. However, this seems more akin to being driven by population density and urbanization which is just more common in Japan and mirrors societal norms in most other big cities, it just seems more Japanese because it makes up such a large portion of a a particularly large country.

  16. I have not spent as much time in Japan as Noah nor do I know Japanese beyond mere rudiments, although I have spent more time there than most Americans and have made some efforts to study Japanese society and history and all that. I would like to comment on this matter of conformism versus individualism there.

    It seems to me that there is a considerable conflict between these two, both of which are very operative. I think Noah is right that Japanese may have more diversity of political views as well as clothing styles as we do. Particularly when I ride on the Tokyo metro I am struck by how diverse the people are, how individualistic most of them seem, even as one sees the occasional sleeping sarariman in his ill-fitting suit who probably knocks himself out trying to conform to company norms at his job. Certainly within certain situations there is much pressure to conform.

    One reason why many think there is so much conformism may well be the great emphasis on politeness that is there, probably as great as any society on earth, whether that is simply due to population density or what, I do not know. But it is very real, and can be seen on TV for one thing, where newspeople and even on other shows spend so much time bowing and saying "hai" and engaging in other expressions of politeness it becomes somewhat amusing. But American and other socieites could frankly use more of this sort of thing. In any case, this poiliteness can cover over to some extent the diversity of people in the society.

    I imagine that some people who live in Japan long enough and learn the social ways and so on may come to fit in quite well, although there is clearly a different set of rules for gai-jin, some of them making it easier for us. One of these is the matter of bowing. We can get away with minimal head movements quickly made. But among Japanese themselves there is an elaborate and subtle set of rules about how deeply and for how long each person bows to another. I remember observing this the first time I was there over 20 years ago for a professional conference, which was overwhelmingly attended by Japanese academic economists, and I saw all of this complicated bowing and picking up on how different, even if by just a bit, certain bows were compared to others, and seeing even very westernized individuals whom I knew suddenly bowing deeply to some more senior scholar, and then, most hilariously, the phenomenon of people "bowing to an elevator" as it seems if one is not in the elevator, although of course those doing so are bowing to the people in the elevator. I am sure there are foreigners in Japan who get all this figured out, but they will still be exempt from the rules that the locals expect each other to follow to show that they are properly polite, even if they may be very different in views and social behavior otherwise.


    1. I like the comment about diversity in the subway. for sure this is not the time of the morning commute :D that time it's conformity time. people even face in the same direction, to use space better so that more can fit in.

      I once attended a presentation on Japanese politeness in Japanese, given by a professional lecturer to the Japanese sales staff (this is in an investment bank). I was not sales, and I am a foreigner, but I could speak the language and they let me join. the Japanese lecturer started with a little theory of what politeness means in Japan. it was made of 3 things: attitude, tone of voice and choice of words. choice of words, as you might know, is extremely important in Japanese, with different levels of politeness with strict rules, which you better not mix up (particularly if you are asian :D), but by far the most important thing about politeness is attitude. some study even put a weight on it of something like 70% if I remember correctly. to control your attitude means to control the emotions you show, which takes years of practice (or used to), and mainstream Japan is very good both at doing it and at picking it up in others. you don't realize it in the first couple of years, but later you do.

      some of the rudest conversations I heard in Japanese were between the senior trader on the desk and his younger assistant, who kept getting things wrong. the senior trader was humiliating the trainee in front of everybody almost daily. you cannot say these things in English in a civilized work environment. you get sued for a lot less. but the junior was stoically accepting it every time, like you see in the yakuza movies (talk of stereotypes), and nobody of the Japanese staff ever publicly intervened on his behalf. the senior guy knew his position entitled him to do that, and the junior guy knew he had to take it. this is the army. I later spoke to both in private. the junior hated it, of course, but knew he had no choice. he knew he had to fake the regret for his mistakes and apologize. doing otherwise he would make his own situation worse. both played in their role.

      pressure to comply comes from the establishment. try expressing your individuality as an employee at Toyota, for instance, or any major Japanese company see how well that goes. great book here

      or maybe it is mostly a myth. maybe those people quietly lining up for a couple of hours to get water in the tsunami stricken areas are actors, or others around the world would have been just as quiet and disciplined. what's the big deal.

  17. Pretty interesting post. It's a conversation I've had a bit, living in Japan and writing a little about my life and work here, and you're right in showing that it's easy to fall into generalizations and stereotypes in talking about a country like Japan. It's annoying to see someone come in and have this grand theory on how their Japan works and talk about the mystical Japanese hivemind and what not that they'll never be a part of.

    Reading the post and some of your comments here, I still wouldn't say I'm as convinced as you are to say that "the culture of Japan at large fosters homogeneity in a way that western countries generally don't" is an incorrect statement simply by nature of it making claims about more than one person. It's important to avoid painting unnecessarily broad strokes over 127m people, but to think in any way that there aren't differences and that the problem immediately lies with someone who can't figure out how to assimilate perfectly and not the very real differences in culture (i.e., ones that are consistently recognized by outsiders and in many cases Japanese people themselves) strikes me as a bit oversimplified.

    I don't personally find myself headbutting a huge cultural barrier preventing me from interacting sufficiently with my Japanese peers and coworkers, but that's not to say there aren't hangups that are fairly representative of what happens when one tries to have a stand off with the firm "that's just how Japan works" that a lot of ex-pats tend to be faced with at some point.

    In a comment you dismiss out of hand Japanese conformity as a myth, but I don't know. There's obviously individuality in Japan and all that, and I absolutely agree with the first two errors in your list in the original post, but to say that calling out homogeneity in any form is the greatest sin for someone who thinks about Japan and its culture isn't fair. You can't just pull "clothing style" as a point in which Japanese individualism shines over its western counterpart (which I would disagree with anyway, as 'wacky Harajuku fashion,' for example, is hardly representative of what normal people wear every day). It's changing and has changed a lot, but it can't be swept under the rug just yet, I think.

  18. Anonymous10:38 AM

    Something I've noticed time and again is that a lot of people don't recognize that they have white spots in their knowledge maps about countries. That is, rather than cultivate an awareness that they simply don't know, they'll happily resort to national stereotypes in order to explain something baffling. There's just something compelling about our need for narratives, rather than admitting we don't know. People also fail to note that a lot of the stuff they think are true about a foreign country, are really just middle class ideals that gets disproportionately represented in media. And it is in the nature of ideals that people fail or choose not to live up to them.

    1. Anonymous8:03 PM

      The view that all stereotypes are meaningless things and misrepresentations, and that in fact all peoples are the same as everybody else is also a stereotype. Not sure if it is the most useful one in this case. And the argument as to why that is so is - you guessed it :D - also a narrative, and not a very sophisticated one at that either. It's amazing to me as well that the feeling of internal constancy of the story is such a convincing argument to people who have very limited experience with the subject. Let's at least try to give priority to observations over the sense of beauty we derive from our own narratives. And whoever finds himself on the "truther" side claiming the moon landing didn't happen, should better have more serious arguments and solid literature to back it.

  19. white guy lived in japan for a while, now is automatically a Japan expert

    1. Anonymous3:18 PM

      Noah Smith spent all of three years (on and off) living in Japan. Therefore, he's an expert. Of course he is. And I'm the QB for the Giants.

  20. (tried posting a minute ago, but had to sign in, and lost my entire post, so sorry if it's a repost).

    You speak about Westerners as if you are not one Noah. Where did you come to this miraculous education about Japan that so many have failed at before?

    >First they...
    >Second they...
    >Third they...

    You use the demonstrative pronoun They to exclude YOURSELF, because you're one of the good one's aren't you Noah?

    You and only you are the first person in history to realize that over time culture naturally progresses, therefore it is not a definitive thing to be learned in a textbook.

    You're also the first person in history to realize that people tend to view distant cultures and peoples through rose-tinted glasses.

    >...assume you can understand these things by studying samurai culture, ...

    BRAVO! You cracked the secret. Every white person before YOU has been assuming that everything is fixed around Samurai roots. You should have your own TV show so that you might impart your wisdom onto us poor dumb white people.

  21. I really liked this post. I've been living in Thailand for over 30 years now and am amazed at how many expats hate this place, hate Thai people, hate Thai culture, despise working with Thai people and still stay here. When I was in the U.S. or in the Army I always felt a little out of place. Wherever I went I thought everybody had a copy of the script except me. Here in Thailand I've come to realize pretty much everybody feels that way but hardly anybody ever talks about it. I get along fine, and like you say recognize everybody is an individual. Moreover, everybody seems to have pretty much the same motivations as people back in the States. It's just that sometimes their priorities are different from what Europeans are used to.

  22. Michael1:35 PM

    I believe you are the person who thinks the milk in Japan tastes like it is organic. I have apartments both in Tokyo and the SF Bay Area. We drink Clover and Strauss organic milk. In Japan I believe about 90% of the milk I drink is SOUR. The supply chain is large and the milk boxes are left on the hot pavement in 95 degree heat while they load everything into the combini and the supermarket. That aftertaste 3 seconds after you swallow it....The only places I consistently get good milk is a coffee chain like Excelsior and Starbucks as I imagine they have their own supply chain with their own KPIs. That is, if they don't put ice cubes in the cup when you ask for cold milk.

  23. "But English speakers are unique - they grew up in countries that reasonably expected all foreigners to show up speaking the local language."

    You've never been to California or Texas, have you? You know... a couple miles down the road from where I live, the billboards are in spanish. When I go to a restaurant, the hostess is typically fluent in both spanish and english and typically uses both languages with customers while I'm standing around. What was that you said about homogenizing a culture?

  24. "Let me translate this to you: Pattern Recognition is Bad. No, it’s positively Evil. You should not try to use your brain and notice things. That may get you into trouble, and certainly prevent you from getting a job as an economics professor. What you need to do is ἐποχή squared; suspend all judgment, and if possible all cognitive function. Just do as you’re told by your academic betters, i.e. me. "


  25. This post is almost comical. Noah Smith has the aesthetic sense of my daughter's pet toad.

    Differences between different groups of people are real, they are massive, and they are the main reason why people like to travel. As a European man with a Japanese wife and four mixed-race children, I am constantly made acutely aware of both similarities and differences.

    To smother all observation with a claim that it's all basically the same is like describing a picture as a series of light and dark areas reflecting radiation in various wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers. Therefore all pictures are basically the same, you see. What you have said is technically true but also pointless and dull. It is the differences that tell the story!

  26. A lot of ex-pats are viewed as short term and just passing through on their way to somewhere else. So the local does not spend time getting involved with them and why should he.

    Be there a bit longer and they will open up more as long as the ex-pat doesn't get off to a bad start with too much oh you are so different from us great ex-pat types. They know if you treat them as an experiment and not as people.