Friday 13 January 2012

Breaking the Wa

Japanese people hate ambiguity. No, really they do. I know that many people, eminent people, have said otherwise, but they’re wrong. Get me, picking a fight with a Nobel Laureate. This can only end well.

First, have a look at this. It’s fairly typical of a lot of the stuff that gets written about Japan, particularly for first time visitors. I know too little about either the site or the author to have any particular beef with them, and I’m sure they mean well enough. I’m just using this as an example because it was on the first page of a google search for ‘japan ambiguity,’ and it’s full of shit (unambiguous enough for you there?). I’m half tempted to take it apart line by line, but another time perhaps.

I’ll merely point out the following; the ‘small country’ myth popping up again; the population was very far from maxed out in the 1600s; one family eating more at the expense of another is called the Tragedy of The Commons and has lead to regulatory systems everywhere; and that if chotto ne is ‘famous’ as a way of saying ‘no’, then that’s exactly what it means, in the same way that ‘fuck off’ is also famous for meaning ‘no’.

Q. But isn’t it better to just say ‘no’ if that’s what they mean?
A. Fuck off.

See what I did there?

The meanings of words are, with the odd onomatopoeic exception, almost entirely arbitrary. A rose by any other name and all that. They acquire meaning through the consensus of people who use them, despite institutions such as the Académie Française standing on the linguistic beach bellowing ‘Arrêt!’ and the tide. If enough people agree that chotto ne, or muzukashii mean ‘no’ then that’s exactly what they mean. Perfectly clear.

Read the article further down, the comments from the ‘young people’. There’s absolutely nothing ambiguous there. What these guys have is in fact an incredibly prescriptive (and proscriptive) set of rules for social situations. Don’t express a direct opinion or you’ll seem like a dick. Hint at it, and because that’s what everyone is expecting you to do, they’ll get it.

Because that’s what everyone is expecting. It’s only ambiguous if you don’t know the rules. The fun/pain lies with the fact that there are so many rules, and they’ve all been pushed just a little further than many non-Japanese people are used to, so feel like something completely different. It’s like deer or peacocks – if your only experience is with the small, dull brown females, then when you first meet one of the males you’re going to think it’s a completely different species. It’s not; it’s basically the same just with a few more bells and whistles, or feathers. Or antlers. You get the idea.

Nature In All Her Majesty

Another oft quoted piece of claptrap is the concept of ‘face’. Well, the concept isn’t claptrap, but the idea that it’s specially Japanese or 'Oriental' is. It basically boils down to ‘people don’t like being embarrassed’. Hold the front page. The things people will find embarrassing obviously vary from culture to culture and individual to individual. And again, Japan does seem to have a particularly ornate and complex set of rules about what’s considered embarrassing. The rules are all there though, if you care enough to find them. Many foreigners - perhaps justifiably - don’t. Though that’s another story.

Not wanting to look weak or stupid is pretty universal. This is why doormen (should) always try to separate idiots who’ve gotten into a scrap from their mates. It’s not really about the prospect of everyone piling in, though obviously that’s a consideration; while the chances are they’re all pissed and any semi-competent crew should be able to deal with them, why take the risk? It’s more that if their mates aren’t nearby then our wannabe pugilists have no-one to show off to, and less 'face' to lose in backing down.

It’s doubly true if their girlfriends are anywhere nearby. Certain clubnights always reminded me of a BBC documentary about stags rutting, only without any of the beauty and nobility of the majesty of nature, and more of the beer-soaked carpets and ripped Ben Sherman shirts of the idiocy of twats.

Twats In All Their Idiocy

The best part of this is that the fight normally kicked off because, “E were disrespecting me, brah.” ‘Brah’ of course meaning ‘brother’ in the common street vernacular.

And this disrespect manifested itself how, sir?

“E were eyeing me bird.”

You see? In many of London’s fine drinking establishments just looking at someone in a less than clear manner can get you a trip to Casualty.

Japanese ambiguity?

Pah. Amateurs.

Credit where it's due.


  1. Ha, I've argued with people on this exact manner. Politeness means nothing if everyone knows exactly what the meaning is behind the words.

    And losing face... that's a guy thing isn't it. Only here we call it male ego.

    1. Oh kathrynoh... I'm a male-teacher in elementary school. Women have their own pathologies. There are few workplaces improved by the kind of gender-imbalance I deal with every day.

  2. Expressed in that way it's a guy thing. But women do it too, they just tend to be more subtle and less violent about it. As with so many things...

  3. My fights are all based on paranoia and fear. I smashed someone in the face 2 nights ago and got it all on security footage. I was gonna post it but it's a crime and one of my trolls would use it. Oh well.

    I realized a long time ago that my insecurities are what makes me do things like that. I have a code or rules or whatever but in the end it's just a massive complex that I project on others. I don't even care to stop. It's who I am. I know myself and that is enough to help me sleep.

    basic pigeon (english-hawaiian slang) back home in Hawaii. Just the word reminds me of home :)

    1. Damn... that's honest. I expect our insecurities are what make us do most of how we interact with others, whether with our fists, our pocketbooks, our grooming, or our mating. We're nothing but apes, in the end. The world would be a better place if we were each humble enough to admit that, so there'd be some hope of addressing it. Alas...

  4. Yeah, giving guys with a grudge against you ammunition isn't normally the smartest move.

    To tie it in (vaguely) to Kathryn's point, fights between girls were almost always worse than fights between guys. Men generally fight for someone else's benefit, so remove the trigger and you're fine. Sisters were doing it for themselves (so to speak), which meant that there was no easy off switch.

    So in this Chris, as with so many other things, it would appear that you're something of an exception ;)

  5. I realize this is a very old post of yours, but, hey, I just found your blog so what do you expect?

    In regards to the "saving face" thing, I think there are two aspects of it which are relatively more Japanese than Western. It is absolutely true that no one likes being embarrassed, but in Japan, it is a virtue to help someone else save face by not pointing out something potentially embarrassing. I can't speak for all Western cultures, but many Americans seem to delight in finding something which embarrasses others and rubbing it in their faces. You see this reflected in public discourse all of the time.

    The other angle of this is that Japan is a shame-based culture whereas most Western cultures, because they are predominantly Christian, are "morality-based" (though clearly, what is "moral" is often quite subjective). In a shame-based culture, embarrassment is a much bigger deal so "losing face", particularly over something fairly big like a person who steals or something, reflects more strongly on your entire family. It's not simple embarrassment to them. It's a major failing. That's why you hear about men offing themselves for failing in their businesses. You only see men doing that in the West if they may end up doing jail time for some corruption. If they can file for bankruptcy and move along, they rarely feel that such a failure is embarrassing enough to end their lives.

    Regarding the rules and ambiguity, yes, many foreigners don't take the time to learn them, but it's not like the Japanese themselves have access to a standard rule book on this point. I've spoken to hundreds of people in Japan about such things and they are often as confused as we are. Expectations of what is to be understood vary from person to person, family to family, and business to business, though there clearly are some rules that are thoroughly understood by nearly "everyone". Even those tend to be generational and are altered through time. My husband worked with office ladies who had a manager that spoke so ambiguously that not even they could figure out what he meant.

    One thing I learned was that culture is not just a big, broad thing that a nation subscribes to. It's a highly personal thing that operates on different levels. Each family has its own culture and that's why marriages end up with certain culture clashes that result in inevitable in-law problems. This applies to every country. Unfortunately, while we may be able to see within our own culture that there is wild variability, for the sake of understanding, we tend not to grant other cultures this level of sophistication. I tried through my many years in Japan to keep in mind that what I was told by one person didn't necessarily constitute the whole of what Japanese society thought or believed. Most people never speak to enough people about such points to really know what applies broadly and what applies narrowly. They tend to accept what little they are told from their limited sources at face value and then proclaim themselves experts. This is why it is so important to stay humble, which you appear to be going to some efforts to do as well.

    Kudos on your excellent blog!

    1. No need to apologise for browsing the archives. Wish more people did it. And thanks for the kind words on the blog and the very thoughtful comment (though I've been reading yours for a couple of years now and wouldn't have expected anything less).

      I think the UK occupies something of a mid-point between the USA and Japan, both literally and in terms of the balance between the individual and society, or public and private, or however you want to phrase it. It's one of the reasons that I've never been wholly convinced by the religious explanation for the shame/guilt differences in motivation. As a middle-class Englishman shame is a pretty powerful motivator. Stiff upper lip, doncha know?

      As you say, culture is big and ultimately comes down to individual interpretations. I do think, and this is a repeating theme here, that many Japanese buy into the collective myth of Japanese Homogeneity. That makes it - to an extent - something of a self fulfilling prophecy in a way that the American national myth of individual freedom (say) can't be. Critical mass and all. But you're right about the generational thing as well. Japan is, after all, famous as a country of contradictions ;)