Life is so unfair sometimes (63/365)

Originally uploaded by labspics

A colleague recently gave me an article from the Daily Yomiuri. “The Language Connection”, “Cultural Connundrums: When Fairness Runs Foul” by Kate Elwood, Tuesday November 4th, 2008. It compares Western (North American) concepts of fairness with Japanese. Yes, they are not always the same!

Intercultural communication researchers Junko Kobayashi and Linda Viswat distributed a questionnaire about classroom fairness to 157 university students in the United States and 155 university students in Japan. Many similarities were observed between the groups. For example, both groups agreed that exams should reflect material covered in class and that it is unfair for a teacher to ask anything falling outside this scope. However, Kobayashi and Viswat also found some interesting differences.

In a question about a student asking information about an upcoming test after class and as a result being better prepared, many students across the Pacific thought it was fair because the student had shown resourcefulness and motivation, while many students in Japan viewed it as unfair because not all of the students had the same information regarding the test.

In a scenario in which a teacher had good readers of English read large passages in class but had poor readers fumble their way through just a few lines, many students in the United States felt this was not unjust given the clear discrepancy in skill. However, the students in Japan believed that teachers must give all students the same opportunities irrespective of capability.

Viswat and Kobayashi at least try and identify a basis for these differences. In the first example, they write,

it appeared that the students in the United States believed that it was fair for personal initiative to be rewarded even if it produced benefits that gave the seeker an edge over others.

The second example, they write,

was related to fairness in the face of differences in ability.

Viswat and Kobayashi identify two kinds of Japanese “unfairness”, as represented by the words “zurui” ずるい and “fukouhei” 不公平 (my emphasis):

Zurui, which is sometimes rendered as “sly” or “cunning,” is related to having the upper hand, or at least being seen as such. While a student at Tokyo University, Nakako Kondo conducted research regarding zurui. She notes that zurui is an emotional expression of perceived injustice that is not subject to rigorous scrutiny but which assumes a sympathetic response on the part of others. Importantly, it is viewed as an acceptable voicing of discontent while other types of negative expression are often frowned upon. Kondo surveyed university students and collected 116 examples of things that might be considered zurui. It turns out that almost anything can be zurui: attractive looks, education, age, order of birth, ability, and any garden-variety good fortune.

Fuko-hei, on the other hand, is usually used in more terms of institutionalized inequality, for example, wage differences based on worker status, gender discrimination, or geographic disadvantage.

I think the authors mean “institutional inequality” not “institutionalized inequality”. My understanding of fukouhei is that it is applied to institutions or authorities when they are believed to have acted in unfair ways, which usually means giving (or giving the appearance of giving) one person or group an unfair advantage over another. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that almost any advantage is seen by Japanese as being intrinsically unfair (whether they choose to make an issue out of it or not seems to depend on whether they are personally affected by it or not and to what degree; see the examples above for “zurui” given by Viswat and Kobayashi).

The 3 kanji for fukouhei 不公平 mean literally “not”,  “public” and  “level or flat” (as in “level playing field”). Public could mean “as seen by the public” or “applied to the public” or perhaps “as applied by public institutions”.

About 18 months ago, I blogged about a discussion I had with a mature student about taking attendance in class:

I had this exchange last year with an older Japanese woman who was auditing one of my classes: I was asking why I am expected to take attendance in class, and why attendance is given such weight in Japan, pointing out that attendance was never taken at any university class I attended in the UK. I also gave the following example: a friend of mine figured out early in his first year at university that lecturers were giving out information that was already in books in the library; he therefore studied the books and didn’t go to any lectures. He passed the final exam with flying colours. The Japanese lady I told this to was outraged: it seemed to deeply offend her sense of justice – it was unfair that he should be given the same graduating certificate as the others when he had not put in the equivalent time in class!

When I gave the example, I had no notion that it might be considered an example of unfairness. So, there were two different interpretations of “fair”: my Western/British one and the Japanese one. It seems that my example fit into the category of personal initiative … rewarded even if it produced benefits that gave the seeker an edge over others; something which many Japanese would seem to regard as “unfair”, according to the research by Viswat and Kobayashi.

Can we dig deeper than this and find a basis for the different attitudes?  (To be continued)


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