Friday, January 17, 2014

Memories of Japan: Group Identity

Group of high school girls who studied for their
university entrance exam with an English teacher. 
Notice that they're all making the victory sign.
Today is Friday, January  17, 2014.

I'm not a psychologist, but it really doesn't take a scientist to identify group thinking and its effects in Japan.  There are some good things about it and some unfortunate things.  I realize that the term "groupthink" has a negative connotation here in the United States, but I believe that not all of the negative effects attributed to "groupthink" are present in the type of group mentality you find in Japan, China and other southeast Asian countries.  Since I'm not qualified to speak about any other Asian country, I am going to restrict my comments to Japan.

In Japan, you're either in the group or outside the group, whatever that group happens to be.  It is very telling that the Japanese word for "foreigner" means, literally, "outside person."  The largest "group" that a Japanese belongs to, therefore, is the group labeled "Japanese," and even though a lot of things have changed in that country, I believe that one reason Japanese still have a hard time accepting non-Japanese into their ranks as "citizens" is that their original criteria for membership in the group is being racially and ethnically Japanese and speaking the Japanese as a native language.  Even people who "match," racially, have trouble fitting in if their ethnicity is Chinese, Korean, or Thai.  (Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Thais, Cambodians, Tibetans, Burmese, and Laotians, are "racially Asian.  Perhaps "mongoloid" is a more exact term, except that it has gained negative associations here in the United States.  Although India is part of Asia, for example, only Indian people who live near the Tibetan border are "racially Asian." Not everyone who lives in Asia is mongoloid-Asian.) 

My friend Mitsuko in downtown
Osaka, by Hanshin Department Store.
Photo by Linda LeBoutillier
Here's an example of this.  My friend, Mitsuko, was born in Japan and speaks Japanese as a native speaker, but when she came to the United States, she found that she is actually a Korean National (with a Korean passport), because her father and mother emigrated to Japan but were not allowed to change their nationality.  Her mother even follows the Shinto religion and the family follows all the Japanese customs. Mitsuko doesn't even speak any Korean. But when she came to the United States, her formal name was Kwang-Ja Park.  She had a lot of trouble answering to her own name in the U.S. and it became somewhat of a joke among her friends.  I noticed that the Korean friends she made while in the United States held her at some distance, like a baby's smelly diapers, and she found, later in life, that unless she was willing to marry another "Japanese" of Korean ancestry, her choices for marriage would be strictly limited.  She ended up remaining single.  She was shunned by both Koreans and ethnic Japanese, because she was not totally "in" their group. 

Businessmen on their way to work
Besides the group "Japanese," there are other groups you can belong to: your family, your class in school, your university, and your company are the main ones.  When I was in university many years ago, I took a course in Japanese literature and I remember writing a paper about a book called No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai, in which I argued that the main character of the book, Ōba Yōzō, felt so alienated from everyone that he was not even qualified to be a member of the group called "Japanese."  Because of a very deeply and subconsciously-held belief among Japanese that they are truly human and everyone else is not, he expresses his sense of alienation by declaring that he is no longer human.  If you think it's extreme of me to say that, you have yet to hear some Japanese talk about foreigners in unguarded moments.  

Office ladies (OLs) on their way to work
On one occasion, my mother-in-law was watching a women's volleyball team from a South American country and she remarked, "But those people aren't really human."  Don't ask me why she thought that, but I remember being a bit shocked when I heard her say it.  Another time, a child saw me and said to her dad, "Dad, what's that?  Is that human hair?"   You have to remember that the Japanese' first reference to foreigners who were not racially Asian was a term meaning "barbarian."  Note that they did not think of the Chinese as barbarians.  Only non-Asians such as the Dutch, the British and the Americans.

I used to watch a TV show called "G-Men '75," a long-running detective drama in Japan.  At the end of every show, the character of Superintendent Kuroki, played by Tetsuro Tamba, always came around at the moment his underlings made the arrest.   Every single time, he would confront the criminal and say, "You... you're not even human!"  (...0r something to that effect.)

I think a lot of Japanese who are more worldly might wish to disagree with me, but if they look honestly at their compatriots who have never been out of the country, they will see that this is a deeply-held belief, even though it is rarely spoken aloud.  

Respect for Authority

This is an old picture, but students still bow like this
to their teacher in the morning.  One student acts as
the leader and barks out commands: Stand! Bow!  Sit!
There are a few things about Japanese culture that align with so-called "groupthink" mentality. One is respect for authority.  Japanese groups are almost always hierarchical in nature, and the various levels of authority are clearly delineated, to the point that they are sometimes visible, audible, and even palpable.  Japanese has what you might call several parallel tracks of language, depending on who is speaking to whom, and in some cases, whether the speaker is male or female.  Common verbs such as be, see, give, say, and do, for example, have special forms that are used when speaking to a socially superior person, and these forms don't even sound like the regular verbs.  

Bowing.  Notice that one person is bowing a little lower
than the other.
If you listen to someone talking on the phone, you can tell whether they are talking to a social superior, a colleague of equal social rank, or someone who is socially beneath them (such as a man talking to a woman, an adult talking to a child, or an older person talking to a much younger person).  By the way, if they are talking to someone their superior, they always bow while talking on the phone.

When my ex-husband's extended family found out I was his wife (rather than his girlfriend), they stopped calling me by my first name and started addressing me as "honorable wife."  Their verb forms were a little more formal, as well.  The switch was automatic and immediate.

The Japanese are aware, I think, that their blind obedience to the authority of the Emperor and by extension, to everyone who ruled in the Emperor's name (including General Hideki T Tōjō, for example), has gotten them into trouble, and they know that they lost in World War II because of it. 

By the way, bowing is not a casual thing in Japan.  Bows can be classified into three types depending on the deepness of the waist bend. The most casual bow is the eshaku bow. In this bow, the waist is generally bent at about a 15 degree angle. It is common to lightly dip the head and give an eshaku bow when exchanging a casual greeting or passing by someone of a higher social status. Of course using words by themselves is sufficient, but if you add an eshaku bow while saying arigato (thank you) to someone who has shown you kindness, your feeling of gratitude will come across as much more heartfelt. The bow generally used in business interactions is the keirei bow. In this bow, the torso is lowered to about 30 degrees. It is used when entering and leaving reception rooms and meeting rooms and when greeting customers. The saikeirei bow, the most polite bow, consists of lowering the torso about 45 degrees. It is used to express feelings of deep gratitude or apology.


Japanese high school boys wear a uniform that is
very military in nature.

Another way that Japanese society looks like "groupthink" is the issue of conformity.  Japanese kids grow up wearing school uniforms, whether they attend a public school or a private one.  Many Japanese companies demand that their employees wear a uniform, as well, and even when the "uniform" is a suit and tie, certain colors are acceptable and certain other colors are not.  If you look at a bunch of businessmen or "office ladies," they will look very much alike, even if their clothes are not exactly the same.  Japanese also like to go in for specific clothes for sports such as tennis or skiing, for example.  A first-time skiier in Japan thinks nothing of investing in a complete ski outfit by a famous designer, plus all the required equipment, just to learn to ski on the bunny slope.  Why?  Because that's what you wear when you are skiing.  

One of the many popular singing groups in Japan.
When someone does something that does not conform to the norm, the Japanese will often say something like, "It's going to rain."  It took me a while to "get" this, but I finally asked, "Oh, so if someone does something unexpected, the sky will be so surprised that it will cry rain?"   The answer I got was, "Oh, wow, you understood!"   I didn't, really; I just needed to have them confirm my train of thought.  I still don't understand, really.


The Japanese say that if you give your opinion all the time, you are being waga-mama, or selfish. The waga part of the word comes form the pronoun "I" that only the Emperor can use: wagahai.  I'm sure there must be a lot of Americans who were frustrated when they asked a Japanese exchange student, "Do you like....?" when they came to the United States.  The Japanese tend to get flustered and ill-at-ease, and they will make general statements such as, "It's nice."  It's hard to pin them down to what they like, and even harder to pin them down on what they don't like.  Sometimes they manage to answer by telling you what "we Japanese" like or dislike.  Then later they qualify the answer by giving their own opinion.  It's as if you have to hear the "accepted answer" before you can hear the real one.

The Japanese love to ask Americans whether they can eat sushi or nattō (fermented soybeans), and they love to laugh when an American tells them he/she hates it.  I think they like hearing that because they secretly wish they could be as free to express their likes and dislikes as Americans are.  
I think there are probably a lot of Americans who have told a Japanese that they "liked" some possession of theirs and found, to their chagrin, that the very object they expressed admiration for was given to them as a gift.  That's another reason that you don't go around "liking" things in Japan. 

Collaboration and Consensus

The Japanese are masters at working together in collaborative groups and getting consensus.  However, I think many Americans are misinformed about the way Japanese go about getting consensus.  All they see is the meeting where everybody is in agreement and nobody speaks in opposition.  What they don't see is me-mawari, the procedure used to gain consensus.  That happens before the meeting.  The leader of the group, or the one who is supporting a particular idea, will go around personally to each and every member of the group, individually, and talk to them privately to get their agreement or approval.  This is where the opposition is stated – privately.  The Japanese don't convene a meeting to make a decision until they have completed the me-mawari process.  By that time, it's a formality for everyone to be in agreement.  The term me-mawari literally means  "eyes going around," and it corresponds to the idea of making eye contact with each person in the circle to ascertain their consensus.

Shame and Saving Face 

The concept of "shame" is a complicated one in Japan.  It's one thing to shame yourself, but when you shame your whole group, that's when things get tough for a Japanese.  That's when people start thinking of suicide, and a lot of people still actually do it.  I knew several people who committed suicide while I was in Japan.  

The key is whether or not a person and his or her associated group are "known" or not.  If you don't know a Japanese person's name or the group he/she represents, the Japanese will feel free to act as they please.  If you know the group they represent, and they misbehave, then things are different, because their deeds might shame the group.  It's important to note that the shame doesn't stem fro having done something intrinsically wrong.  Rather, it comes from having embarrassed the members of their group in the eyes of outsiders. 

SONY executives apologizing
When the heads of companies are accused and found guilty of wrong-doing, they will publicly apologize, and they may even end up killing themselves because of the shame they caused the company.  Similarly, people who shame their family for some reason or other do sometimes end up committing suicide.   :-/

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