Essay on Japanese Culture
The first chapter I read in Global Society: Introducing Five contemporary Societies, Third Edition by Linda Schneider and Arnold Silverman, entitled “Japan: A Conforming Culture,” It appears on pages 3 through 66.
Japan is a society in crisis. It is a culture that is highly resistant to change; a society that places a high value on each member’s conformity within highly structured layers of Japanese society. Japan is an island nation, consisting of the four large islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Together they are approximately the size of Germany or the State of California, and it has a population of approximately 126 million people (3).
Japan has a large population in relation to its land mass and as a consequence most Japanese people live crowded together in an urban corridor squeezed along the eastern edge of the Japanese islands. A result of this crowding is that Japanese place a high value on public harmony and the avoidance of any conflict, especially in public. Japanese norms require people to be willing to apologize and humble themselves, so much so that even after a minor auto accident each driver will jump out of their vehicle and bow to each other and apologize, instead of risking a very public confrontation. Frequently, Japanese will also employ the use of a go-between to negotiate a possible marriage. In this way, an individual can turn down a bride or groom without rejecting them to their face, thereby avoiding open disagreement or embarrassment of an individual (11).
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The Japanese are constantly reminded that their society is special, unique like no other, and are taught that the cultural homogeneity of Japanese society has a biological basis when in fact racial identity is a social belief and not a physical fact (9). While the Japanese people are not a separate race they are indeed a highly homogenous society. The lack of internal dissent allows them to merge their concepts of race and nationality to foster an unusually strong feeling of group solidarity and national purpose. Every level of Japanese society, from school authorities, to employers, government officials, parents and even media outlets reinforce the popular belief that Japan is special (10).
Japan has historically been an isolated nation; resistant to foreign influences. It has “opened” itself to the outside world only a few times in its history. A first great turning point in Japanese history occurred during the seventh century A.D., when Japan was still a tribal society and possessed a weak national government. Through hierarchal diffusion, a prince of the ruling family began importing cultural practices from China, studying Chinese government and elaborate bureaucracy, it’s tax system and writing, even building Chinese-style cities as Japan had lacked even having towns. After 300 years Japan then retreated back to isolation in the ninth century, during which time the imported thoughts and ideas were slowly digested and given a distinct Japanese identity during its isolation that they then adopted as their own. It is important to understand that then and later, all of Japan’s foreign borrowings were voluntary. Japan was never conquered or colonized by another nation (3).
During a relatively open period in the early 1600’s, Portuguese missionaries and traders were greeted with curiosity and interest, but the subsequent conversion of some 300,000 Japanese to Christianity by religious missionaries convinced Japanese rulers that things had gone too far and forced thousands of Japanese to renounce their religion or face execution. By 1638 they had ejected most foreigners and re-imposed an isolation from the rest of the world that resisted change. Laws forbade the Japanese from building ocean-going ships or traveling abroad, and only a few foreign traders were allowed to enter Japan. This period of refusal and rejection of contact with the West is referred to as the Tokugawa era (4).
For most of its history, up until the Meiji Restoration, Japan was a society of hereditary status rankings: it was a caste society, aristocrat and samurai, commoner or outcaste. People were born into the caste of their parents and there were rules regulating what members of different castes were permitted to do and wear, regardless of what his or her talents were (3).
The first opening of Japanese society, commonly referred to as the Meiji Restoration, occurred in 1853, when the American Navy under Admiral Dewey forced Japan to open it’s ports to American ships and sign a series of trade treaties (5). When the Japanese leadership realized that Japan could only enjoy equality with western powers by modernization and the adoption of new technologies, the government, in effect, went on a world-wide shopping spree for new institutions to adopt. It found a model for it’s navy in Great Britain, it’s army in France, it’s universities in America and it’s constitution in Germany. In effect, Japan took the best ideas that would fit their society and adopted them as their own with some minor changes to suit them. This resulted in an unprecedented rapid industrialization and modernization of a nation that in only 50 years time enabled Japan to resist conquest by Western powers and even begin to launch their own imperial ambitions by the early 1900’s on nearby neighboring nations such as Korea and China that culminated in a surprising victory over Russian naval forces for control of Korea and other territories at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, with Russia being considered a major world power at the time (5).
Rising Japanese imperial ambition would eventually lead to a long, drawn-out war with China in the 1930’s that would ultimately escalate into the Pacific theatre of World War II with the United States, which led to the utter devastation of Japan by the end of 1945 and subjecting Japanese society to reforms imposed on them by American occupation forces after the war. After World War II, defeat had destroyed Japan’s industry and left nearly everyone destitute. The demoralized and disillusioned Japanese were open to change and ideas after the crushing defeat of Japanese militarism (6).
The second opening of Japanese society occurred after the defeat of Japan by the Unites States, ending World War II. Acting as Supreme Commander for the Allied powers, General Douglas MacAurther dismantled Japan’s military, reformed its government and constitution, broke up industrial monopolies and redistributed land ownership. Individuals were given rights beyond what is guaranteed in the U.S. constitution, including equal rights for women, the right of labor to bargain collectively and the right of all individuals to an equal education. The occupation of Japan by American forces leveled many inequalities. (5).
This new combination of Western institutions and Japanese central government brought about Japan’s post-war economic miracle. Japan rapidly rebuilt from wartime ruin and went on to develop cutting-edge export-oriented industries. Japan is a small nation, lacking in raw materials and energy resources. Yet, within forty years time the nation grew to become the world’s second largest economy, exporting cars, radios, televisions, computers and other consumer electronics. Wages doubled and re-doubled, companies promised job security in exchange for worker loyalty and Japanese workers were content (6).
Japan today is suffering through a persistent economic crisis following the burst of the Japanese real estate “bubble” of the 1980’s. Unemployment has risen, many companies have gone bankrupt, prices are falling, stocks and real estate are losing value and consumer spending is down. The crisis has revealed links between the government and business that only serve their own needs instead of the citizenry as a major underlying economic problem. It has also become clear that many Japanese companies had really only been marginally profitable and had been riddled with waste and inefficiency. Banks were left holding nearly 600 billion dollars in bad loans that would not be repaid (6).
Some experts see this current crisis as evidence of a major change in Japanese society. They believe Japan’s successful period of industrial expansion as being over and that the nation needs to embark on a new post-industrial society, a society so advanced that only a small percentage of its labor force is needed in manufacturing with the majority of workers shifting to service sector and information-based services. The problem is that Japan is still geared to industrial manufacturing production. Experts watching wonder if Japan will recover by following tried and true Japanese strategies or if it will begin a new radical social reconstruction via a “third opening” (8).
Japanese schoolchildren are taught that Japan is an island nation surrounded by seas and enemies, and that they must depend on each other. Though the world sees Japan as a global economic powerhouse, Japanese see their country as small and unprotected from assault. Japan is acutely aware that it has become highly dependent on the world economy. Japan has no oil, virtually no raw materials and must import vast quantities of meat and grain to feed itself, since the land is mountainous with only a small percentage of the land suitable for agriculture (9).
Japan is a demanding society with very strong pressure to conform. Families, schools, and businesses all work hard to make sure their members learn the roles expected from them and to conform to them (26). In Japan people are managed very effectively. Deviating from accepted social norms is strongly frowned upon. The Japanese themselves say, “The nail that sticks up, gets pounded down.” Individual needs or wants are not encouraged in public settings. You can be certain that if you violate social norms in Japan, someone will notice and they will take action, and you will pay a price. Ridicule is a common sanction in Japanese society. Mothers commonly tell their children, “If you do that, people will laugh at you.” The children come to fear being laughed at or ridiculed, and this fear carries over into adult life as an important social tool to encourage conformity (30).
Japanese people value being part of a group. Groups figure very prominently in Japanese society. Group life without conflict comes first and people are expected to think of themselves as members of a group and any individual considerations are secondary (14). Japan conditions it’s citizens beginning in school. The school system dominates the lives of Japanese children. In elementary and junior high school students are taught to see themselves first and foremost as a member of a group. One of the earliest groups they are members of is called a Kumi, or home room class. Each Kumi are encouraged to think of it’s class as a collective home. Each action is shown to have an effect of others in the group, and each Kumi rearranges it’s furniture, decorates the class and cleans the room with the teacher each day. The Kumi are further broken down into teams of students called a Han, with a leader being chosen called a Han-cho, whose primary duty is to lead the group in harmonious decision-making. Hans are expected to resolve conflicts and solve problems themselves without having to resort to the intervention of adults (20).
Decisions of a governmental or corporate issue are reached only after a long period of input, with every member concerned asked for their input and thoughts, which is typically in the form of a memorandum that is passed around that they can make suggestions on. No single individual suggests a course of action and the result of this is that there is no minority group to nurse a grudge, as everyone was involved and had agreed upon the decision that was reached. As a consequence, decision making is slow and cumbersome and in a crisis such as a major earthquake or financial panic, the responsible Japanese institutions can be frustratingly slow to respond.
During the 1980’s, Japan had one of the most profitable and efficient economies in the world. Japan exploded onto the global economic scene. The Japanese established themselves among the ranks of the United States and various European powers. But a long drawn out recession has forced Japan to make changes and pushed them back, out of the realm of being an economic superpower. This leaves me with just one question; when I look at Japan’s strengths and weaknesses, is it likely for them to return to the economic status they enjoyed during the 1980’s? I think the answer is no.
Because of Japanese false illusions, increasing national debt and deflation, it is unlikely that Japan will be able to make a full recovery to their former status.
Japanese labor management relations seems a facade to me. While Japan may not have unions like the Teamsters, every major corporation in Japan apparently has one, independent of other unions that may be doing the very same job but only at a different company. They are what I will refer to as a company union, for lack of a better phrase. The Japanese company union seems like a puppet to me, serving only the company interests, but since everyone in a Japan believes that to succeed they need to act together as a group and that only by being profitable can lifetime employment be ensured, they accept this. I feel that one reason Japanese companies lack the labor and management concerns that American corporations have is that the corporation CEO and executives in Japan do not make 100 times the money that the average workers do, as in the United States. But with the Japanese still struggling to recover after more than a decade of recession and layoffs that were previously unheard of before now becoming more commonplace, I wonder what the reaction of the Japanese worker will be when they realize that loyalty to the company will no longer benefit them. I wonder if Japanese labor relations will be become much worse than they are now and how they will be expressed in a society that values conformity and lack of confrontation, if they would even protest at all. I also believe that the overblown praise about Japan’s “lifetime employment system” is a myth, given that it only applies to about a third or so of the Japanese workforce, namely the elite white collar workers and unionized blue collar workers in large companies.
I imagine that the Japanese have difficulty in seeing things objectively when Japan is involved. When things are going fine and dandy for the Japanese, the world is jealous. But when things go badly for them it suddenly does not concern them anymore. An example I would use would be when Japanese forces at the beginning of WWII were running rampant and initially defeating the enemy, their whole country rejoiced. But when the war was lost, it was the army that did it, not them. Japanese memories seem to me as though the Japanese woke up and went out to work one day and the atomic bomb was dropped on them all off a sudden out a clear blue sky. No pun intended. I wonder if the average Japanese citizen is informed about Japan’s past and how it is presented to them. They seem to have a victim mentality when things go against Japan.
I wonder how in such a homogenous and close knit society just how racist the Japanese really are to foreigners. It seems to me highly unlikely I would run across anyone hollering racial epithets at me in public. I doubt I would run into any skinheads or men dressed in white sheets roaming the streets of Japan. It would have to be a more subtle racism but I am not familiar with how they would accomplish that. But since avoiding conflict and trouble is extremely important in Japan, they must use a more diplomatic approach than any westerner would be accustomed to, in that what is not said may be far more important than what actually is. Being complimentary and insulting at the same time, without a foreigner realizing it, must be a source of amusement to some Japanese.
It puzzles me how in such a homogenous and close knit society just how racist the Japanese really are to foreigners. It seems to me highly unlikely I would run across anyone hollering racial epithets at me in public. I doubt I would run into any skinheads or men dressed in white sheets roaming the streets of Japan. It would have to be a more subtle racism but I am not familiar with how they would accomplish that. But since avoiding conflict and trouble is extremely important in Japan, they must use a more diplomatic approach than any westerner would be accustomed to, in that what is not said may be far more important than what actually is. Being complimentary and insulting at the same time, without a foreigner realizing it, must be a source of amusement to some Japanese.
I got the impression from the reading material that while the Japanese stress harmony amongst each other it is ultimately only an image of harmony. What lies beneath the Japanese surface may be completely different. An image of the Borg aliens from the TV show Star Trek came to mind while I was reading about Japanese culture, with their single one-mindedness. And a phrase used by the Borg that they announce before attacking. “You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.”
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This collection of essays represents the first attempt in this country to examine systematically the nature and development of modern Japanese self-consciousness as expressed through culture. The essays reveal eloquently the extent to which important aspects of Japanese intellectual life in the early twentieth century were inspired by European models of cultural criticism, ranging from Kant and Hegel to Nietzsche, Marx, Durkheim, and Bergson. Implicitly comparative, this collection raises the question whether "late" industrialization and related processes call forth cultural convergence (as between "East" and "West") or whether a living culture transforms these processes and makes one nation's experience significantly different from that of others.
Together with the editor, the contributors include Brett de Bary, Thomas W. Burkman, H. D. Harootunian, Germaine A. Hoston, Nozomu Kawamura, Stephen W. Kohl, William R. LaFleur, Hajimu Nakano, Donald Roden, Miriam Silverberg, Eugene Soviak, Jackie Stone, Shuji Takashina, and Makoto Ueda.
Originally published in 1990.
ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.
Subjects: History, Anthropology