Not long ago, I saw a program on Japanese T.V. that asked foreigners on the streets “What is Japan?” Some where tourists and others were residents. People said things like, “sushi”, “kimono”, “beautiful temples”, or “Mt. Fuji”. Those are nice symbols of Japan, but it got me thinking, after living here for more than ten years, what is Japan to me? For me, I was thinking more about aspects of the Japanese character or psyche. This is my attempt to answer. These are a few of the attitudes of the Japanese personality that I’ve observed that help explain why Japanese do the things they do.
1. Attention to detail
The Japanese focus a lot on the details of things. I noticed this about Japanese toothpicks. In America, toothpicks are sharp at both ends. Japanese toothpicks are different. They are sharp at only one end, the other is rounded and shaped like the finial at the bottom of a staircase. A Japanese person once told me, you were supposed to break off the rounded end and lay it on the table as a rest for the sharp end like a chopsticks rest. In America, being able to use a toothpick twice is more useful. In Japan, the design is more important.
The appearance of things in Japan is very important. This is especially true of Japanese food where presentation is often just as important as the taste. Platters of raw fish will be meticulously laid out is an esthetically pleasing arrangement. End of year osechi dishes include many kinds of colorful foods that are arranged in square boxes where balance and color are just as important as in Japanese flower arrangement.
This attention to detail is not limited to art or design, but also social interaction. Small things are very important in Japan. In America, at a business meeting, if you say one aspect is very important, it implies that other things are not so important, but in you will never hear a Japanese person say something is not important. Product quality is important, customer service is important, sales is important, everything is important. Japan is famous for their customer service which is excellent. They really go out of their way to help a customer. In America, “the customer is always right”. In Japan, “the customer is God.”
2. Working within boundaries
The Japanese are experts at working within boundaries. This is no more beautifully expressed as in the art of Japanese origami. One small piece of colorful paper can be used to create wonderful works of art. In the west, we don’t like boundaries or limits where bigger is better. But if you accept the boundaries, there is room for expression and beauty. I think this Japanese resourcefulness of working within boundaries comes from Japan being an island nation where space and resources are very limited. It’s also what allowed them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and rebuild their country after World War II into the second most powerful economy in the world.
3. Seasonal sensitivity
The Japanese are lovers of the seasons. In America, we often ask people “What’s your favorite season?” but in Japan, I think this is a strange question. Each season has its own uniqueness and beauty. Spring has cherry blossoms viewing. Sumer has festivals and fireworks. Fall brings beautiful leaves. Winter brings snow and outdoor sports. And of course each season has its special cuisine. In the west, because of modern transportation, we can eat any food at anytime, bananas in winter for example. But the Japanese are much more sensitive about eating food that is “in season”. The traditional Japanese almanac is called the nijushi sekki and divides the year into twenty four “seasons” which includes the equinoxes and solstices, about one every two weeks. Each of these special days takes its name from a change in the seasons. For example: March 5th, Keichitsu (Awakening of Insects), May 21st, Shōman (Grain fills), October 23rd, Sōkō (Decent of Frost), January 20th, Daikan, (Great Cold).Many of these special days have specific customs or foods associated with them.
American homes are closed and climate controlled, but Japanese are more open and you can feel the weather of each season. Shoji are Japanese paper doors over a wooden frame but there are some shoji in traditional homes with a window in the middle called a yukimishoji to allow you to watch the snow falling outside. Also, Japanese haiku are short poems and traditionally must include reference to the seasons.
4. Being an expert
Above all else, the Japanese respect and admire someone who is an “expert” at something. The Japanese word sensei literally means “teacher” and is an honorific term for teachers, doctors or those of very high education, however anyone can be a sensei is if they have dedicated their lives to one profession and have a very high knowledge in one field. It makes me think of a question a friend once asked of me “Are you a fox or a mole?” The fox is a generalist, opportunist, jack of all trades, but master of none. He knows a little about many things. The mole however, is a specialist. He knows one thing very deeply. Actually, in ecology as well as economics, when the environment is in disarray and resources are scarce, it is the generalists like the fox who survive. The specialists are the first ones to go extinct or lose their jobs. But for the Japanese, the specialist or expert is definitely preferred. As I said, anyone can be an expert, but this is especially true of craftsman or people who make things. There are many documentaries or news shows about everyday normal people who are experts in their fields. The metal shop craftsman and owner, the master knife maker, the eggplant farmer, the squid fisherman, the sushi chef, the man who makes toys by hand for the festivals, the rice taster, who determines qualities of rice and can tell you not only what variety of rice it is, but also which prefecture it was grown in, the list goes on and on. Their jobs might seem unexciting and mundane and probably they didn’t have many career choices growing up, but they all have one thing in common, they have done the same thing all their lives and are therefore an expert sensei. The Japanese people respect that even more than the flashy IT businessman who made his millions overnight.
The Japanese are famous for being polite. This is no more apparent than in the Japanese bow. There are different angles of bows for different situations, a full 90 degree bow in very formal situations, a 45 degree bow for customers, or a simple nod in casual situations. I’ll never forget seeing a train conductor once. When conductors come in to check tickets, first they walk to the front of the car and bow to the passengers and then again before they leave. Usually they just give a short nod, but on this one occasion, the conductor planted himself and took his time. He really did it right and bowed slowly and gracefully as if he were addressing royalty. I was so impressed. All this bowing and politeness is not simply being nice. Again, geography comes into play. Being so densely populated in a small area, one has to keep emotions and behaviors on a tight rein or there will be chaos. In Japan, one must always think of others and how what you do affects others. You must not disturb the wa or communal harmony. I always thought I was a pretty sensitive person, but I can’t hold a candle to the Japanese. They are experts at reading a social situation and being able to act accordingly. The Japanese language has two forms: a common form and a formal form when addressing superiors. You have to know when to use the correct form. In addition, Japanese seem very comfortable with a certain level of formality in social interaction as well as fashion. In America, the necktie is a noose, to be taken off as soon as possible and people dress casually in their free time. Japanese really like wearing suits and in general seem to “dress up” a little more than westerners.
The Japanese invented humility. They are humble to a fault. It’s something ingrained in them. One must never show off. Americans often carry pictures of their families and will bore the hell out of anyone bragging about how smart or beautiful their kids are. You can’t shut us up. Not so in Japan. Japanese parents often say things like “my idiot son” or “my foolish daughter” and play down their achievements. They don’t actually believe this though and are very proud of their children. There’s a Japanese proverb that foreigners especially like to quote, “The nail that sticks up, gets hit.” The educational system does its best to bring up the lower students into the average mean, but one almost gets the impression they also discourage the overachievers from being “too” smart. If you get too full of yourself, society has ways of knocking you down a peg or two.
These are just a few of the things I’ve noticed. This is by no means a complete view of Japanese culture and if I’ve offended anyone with my generalities I apologize. (bow)