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Japan and Acceptance

October 13th, 2007

Tim mentioned this as a topic recently, so I thought I’d have a go at it. I’m no expert in Anthropology, but I do have some on-the-ground experience here in Japan.

The commonly held belief is that Japan is an exclusive society, and that it does not accept outsiders readily. This is true, and then again it’s not. It’s kind of like the belief that Japanese people are “polite.” Yes, they are, sometimes–and sometimes they are not.

A lot of this has to do with cultural differences not happening all in the same way. To use politeness as an example, it’s not as if Japanese people are “x” number of times more polite than westerners in all situations. Yes, in many social situations, Japanese can be polite to the point of obsequiousness. Where a westerner might just say, “sorry,” or “my apologies,” a Japanese might bow deeply and say, “taihen moushiwake gozaimasen,” or “I have absolutely no excuse for this!” On the other hand, if you have had much experience walking in crowded public places, you will probably have been jostled enough or nearly knocked down in such ways that you would expect an apology–but the Japanese person who just hit you just goes along their way as if nothing happened. Or you might see a middle-aged Japanese man in a business suit loudly hawk and spit–right in the middle of a highly-trafficked train station corridor.

It’s the same with acceptance of outsiders; in some cases, Japanese can be exclusive, but in others, they can be incredibly accepting.

One example of non-acceptance is common in the workplace. Foreign workers often find themselves excluded from all kinds of information and decision-making, even when it is open for even the lowliest worker in the office. On many occasions, I have seen or heard of people who were the last to hear of important news or decisions that involved them deeply. They simply were not consulted or told what was going on, even after having worked for the school for some time. Now, part of that example could be connected to language–office meetings are held in Japanese and foreign staff, who don’t speak the language, don’t attend–but that does not explain exclusion fully. Say, for example, a teacher’s schedule is to be changed; the teacher should be consulted first, or at least informed at the same time a decision is made. But to tell that person only after it is announced to part-time office staff who have no actual relation to the decision nor are affected by it–it is hard to see this as anything else than being excluded.

There are other forms of exclusion that come to mind as well: the great reluctance to allow non-Japanese to take on positions of authority or influence, for example. Foreigners are not allowed to become public school teachers (unassisted, at least) or take on public administrative roles of consequence. Japanese corporations setting up overseas have been known in the past to import leadership positions from Japan instead of allow them to be taken by non-Japanese.

And then there is immigration; Japan has always been stingy about allowing foreigners in; it usually allows in the least number of refugees, or is unwelcoming enough so that slots that are offered are often passed up on. It’s a lot harder to become a naturalized Japanese citizen than it is to become a citizen of many other countries.

This is what I had heard of coming into Japan. However, I have had experiences that have since belied an assumption of universal exclusion. One of the first was my host family experience. On my first trip to Japan, I had a homestay with a family, one of many arranged on that trip. But this one family was very, very accepting. They later invited me to stay again, and I visited several times over the years. But after just the first few stays, they invited me to their daughter’s wedding. In doing so, they did not just invite me to the reception, which is normal, but to the ceremony–which is very unusual. The ceremony is usually only a family thing, more private than the reception. The bride’s family sits along one side, the groom’s along the other, everyone in order of family seniority and closeness to the bride. I was seated as if I were the bride’s brother–not a small statement to make, especially in the presence of the groom’s family. And this was a countryside family, relatively conservative. At another time, when I visited and mentioned my mode of transportation while living in Tokyo, they started talking about that car that their daughter wasn’t using anymore–and I had to shut that line of conversation down as they seemed ready to give the car to me!

Sachi’s family has shown me similar acceptance. Part of this may be a family’s desire to please their daughter, but again, this is a conservative countryside family, and their acceptance upon meeting me was nothing short of full-hearted. It seemed much more than just the desire to please a family member. That kind of acceptance doesn’t come easily, and is not easily explained by a cultural predisposition to distrust outsiders.

Then there are examples of individual acceptance; people who are virtually xenophiles, people who accept you because you’re a foreigner, and not always just because you represent language practice (why are they so eager to practice language in the first place?).

There is a great deal of acceptance of foreign culture, if not the people themselves. Non-Japanese language is accepted almost too much into Japanese, with loanwords and English peppered liberally into Japanese. Foreign and especially American TV shows and movies are extremely popular. Ever since the Meiji period and after WWII, foreign styles have been adopted into Japan in almost every category one can think of, from clothing styles to education to administrative practices and so on. In fact, Japan has a long history of adopting things foreign–even the system of writing is adopted from the outside. China was a main source of cultural importation in the past, America and the West in general in the present. Baseball is now a Japanese national sport on par with Sumo, with Soccer catching up fast.

How can all that be in an exclusionary society?

Looking at the examples of personal decisions to accept or exclude, however, leads to the question: how much is simply the personal predisposition to accept or exclude? What is the difference between exclusion and simple xenophobia, or perhaps racism? There is certainly quite a bit of that in Japan, as I have blogged on a few times before. But that leads to a very uncomfortable question: can the rather common Japanese exclusion all be traced back to racism? Well, one possible answer is simple exposure: what you have become used to, what you know, is easier to accept. And Japanese have not been very much exposed to non-Japanese people.

Some of this is self-reinforcement, not becoming used to something because you’re not used to it. At one of my earlier jobs teaching in Japan, I was approached by my American boss, the teacher supervisor. He sought me out because of my experience in Japan, and asked me about a hiring situation. He had interviewed many teachers, and one stood out as most qualified–but she was African-American, the spouse of a serviceman at Yokota Base. My supervisor asked me if I thought that the students would be put off by her because she was black. My response was twofold: first, you can’t hire on that basis, and second, if the students are nervous about being around black people, it’s because they simply haven’t been around black people. By denying them the experience, you’re reinforcing the discomfort that exists in the first place.

The supervisor decided to hire the teacher, and she became quite popular with the students. But the question from my supervisor highlighted for me the entire question of acceptance, exclusion, and its causes.

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  1. elimam
    October 14th, 2007 at 16:02 | #1

    not really! I came to Japan in may 2001 and i became a naturalized Japanese citizen in June 2006. and before that, i received my permanent residency only after 3 years & half. other than having a japanese wife, i had no connection to japan whatsoever.

  2. Tim Kane
    October 16th, 2007 at 21:34 | #2

    First I want to thank you for this piece. I find this kind of discussion from the likes of you very, very valuable – both from veterans here in Korea and from yourself in Japan.

    Also I want to comment in length but these days I am snowed under. So maybe I will have some time in a couple of days to comment.

    I will say, and this is why I think it is valuable, that maybe the East Asian paradigm is the real-post-modernism thing. For nearly a century western academics have pondered what post modernism would look like. Most of the time, the description of post modernism is some sort of amorphic extreme of modernism itself. But what I think comes after modernism, economically and then culturally, is a fusion of pre-modernism and modernism. No where is that more evident in east asia. John Owen Haley, my Japanese law professor at Washington University used to say that Japanese society is essentially primitive. In this I think he’s talking about the communitarian aspect. Japanese communitarianism, as I researched Japanese corporate law, is seemingly ‘village communitarianism’. As I said, more on this later. I think it’s important.

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