Posts Tagged cross-cultural communication

Japanese smile

I teach a cross-cultural communication class in English/Japanese to Japanese college students, and I wanted to give my students an example of  “the inscrutable Oriental”, or an example of how ways to express emotion are not always the same across cultures, and therefore not always easy to “read”. I used this example:

Why is this girl smiling? Are you sure?

I used these quotes from the Internet:

  1. The mysterious Japanese smile should be understood in the context of the social situation. When a Japanese commuter misses a bus, he smiles if there are other people on the site, but he does not if he is alone…
  2. The only problem is that Japanese smile for various reasons, including when they are embarrassed, apologetic and mentioning unfortunate events. Someone who knows Japanese well can distinguish between these “types” of smiles and

Any other suggestions or examples?

(This photo comes from a rather creepy blog-post: “The Japanese have always been very particular about behavior and mannerisms: acting appropriately is very important. They have also been very innovative in their technology. Now, the appropriateness of a smile has been digitized. A Tokyo railway company introduces a smile scan for their personnel, hoping to improve their communication skills with their customers.

“Here’s how it works: A video camera captures an image of the employee’s face. The face appears on a screen, highlighted in a small frame. By measuring the curvature of the mouth, the system’s software determines whether the employee’s smile is sufficiently enthusiastic and grades it accordingly.”)


Tags: ,

In Japan, is a Tepco apology enough? – The Washington Post

The president of Tokyo Electric Power Co. came to an evacuation center here to apologize to whoever would listen. One of them was Yoshio Sato, wearing a pink trucker cap and a graphic T-shirt marked with a skeleton.

via In Japan, is a Tepco apology enough? – The Washington Post.

This post is about the Japanese habit of apologizing. Before you read further, I encourage you to read Mike Rogers’ post about how to deal with customer complaints in Japan. Then I won’t have to repeat a lot of what he says.

The article is about a confrontation between Shimizu, Tepco’s CEO, and Sato, a furious Fukushima resident who had to evacuate his home (leaving pretty much everything there) and come to an evacuation centre, all because of the Fukushima nuclear crisis.

That’s what the article is mainly about, but along the way, it drops some hints and makes some observations about Japanese culture about which I will pour my usual pearls of wisdom. Watch those pearls! Catch them as they fall! Are you ready?!? Here we go. Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , ,

Evacuation turns into chance to help victims | The Japan Times Online

More on the “fly-jin”. I don’t think this is a clear-cut, black-or-white matter, that those who “flew” were irrational cowards while those who stayed were hard-headed realists loyal to Japan, their families and their jobs. Comments below the quotes.

With so much information available and even governments disagreeing on the best course of action, many residents of the affected areas understandably became worried about the safety of staying in their homes as the nuclear crisis unfolded. Though their Sendai home is technically just outside the official evacuation area, British-born Dominic Jones chose to evacuate with his Japanese wife and two young children as soon as the British government recommended leaving the already shaken area. “They were saying that the situation on the ground was much more serious, in fact, on par with Three Mile Island. They also said its ongoing, so it might even get worse.”

It is, however, clear that because of discrepancies in the way that information is being interpreted, foreign nationals living in Japan are under a lot of pressure from family and friends overseas to leave the country.

“I found news reports conflicting,” explains one Nagano Prefecture resident, who will be called Emma for this story. She extended a holiday in Australia because of radiation worries.

U.S.-based channels like CNN were screaming ‘meltdown’ and Japanese stations remained calm and collected. Some of our friends, particularly those who have lived in Japan a long time, stopped watching CNN and sensationalized foreign news and reverted to Japanese and English updates and embassy reports due to the drama and fear-mongering of foreign channels. But for non-Japanese speakers, one problem was that Japanese channels only had limited news in English so most foreigners had to rely on overseas channels. If I had not already booked flights home, I am sure I would have experienced a lot of stress with pressure from my family and friends from home, to come home.”

via Evacuation turns into chance to help victims | The Japan Times Online.

There seem to be several factors in play here: Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Japanese way of grief

Another social/cross-cultural commentary, not a news update.

I received in the post today a cutting from the French newspaper “Le Monde”: an article by Philippe Pons in the column “Lettres d’Asie” of March 26 “Se degager des decombres”. He writes on the Japanese way of grief, and asks which is more dignified, the Japanese reserve or the Korean hysterics?

He answers that it is a false comparison: both are ways of dealing with grief. Just different.  In the face of pain, both physical and psychological, some scream out loud, others bow their heads to hide their tears.

He points to the self-control that the Japanese are exhibiting, and asks, rhetorically,  if this signifies a lack of awareness of the danger? Or perhaps a lack of information? Neither, he implies.

“Tomorrow, they will express their anger at their government’s negligence and at those responsible in TEPCO… but the priority now is to deal with the situation.”

I think this is a fair assessment. Some have asked why the Japanese don’t complain? I think Pons has pointed to the answer: they will, but now is not the right time. Now is not the time to distract or divert the attention of TEPCO or government officials. Now is the time for TEPCO and the government to work as quickly as possible to get the situation under control and prevent further injury or death.

Pons also tries to link the Japanese self-control with the Japanese sense of impermanence (he also does that here), but I’m not convinced. I think that the Japanese form of solidarity – their genuine, human concern for their neighbours – and their heightened (some might say, obsessive!) concern for what other people think, together go further to explaining their self-control than any thoughts of “falling cherry-blossom”.

Tags: , , , ,

Chivalry Japanese women would not appreciate | 世論 What Japan Thinks

Speaking of cultural differences, here’s a biggie: “chivalrous behaviour”.

Do you open the door for women in Japan? Do you force ladies to go first? Are you sure they appreciate your gallantry? If so, the results of this online poll might surprise you.

That people might have different values to us, we can accept. In theory. In practice, though, we often find ourselves piqued, if not outraged, that our values are not only not shared by others. “They must be wrong! Barbarians!!”

What? Japanese women don’t appreciate chivalry? No, they do, but not necessarily in the form most familiar to Westerners.

Are you chivalrous? Are you sure your chivalrous behaviour is appreciated?  Read the survey results and rate yourself.

To most (I hope…) Western men Ladies First and other chivalrous acts come as second nature, but in Japan what we take for granted is unusual or indeed embarassing behaviour for women to experience. This problematic chivalry was the subject of a recent survey by goo Ranking

via Chivalry Japanese women would not appreciate | 世論 What Japan Thinks.

Tags: , ,

Why are the Japanese such stoics? 2

This is a follow-up to an earlier social commentary post on the subject of Japanese stoicism in the face of the disaster.

In that post, I wrote that a key to understanding Japanese behaviour is their concern for others: what others think and the effect on others of one’s own personal behaviour.

Because of this set of values, the Japanese consider people who act on their own without consulting others as immature, childish, selfish. On the other hand, Westerners tend to see the Japanese as meek, docile, stupidly obedient to authority.  It is very difficult for Westerners and Japanese to find a middle ground on this subject.

The following opinion written by a Japanese is about those foreigners who fled Japan soon after the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis:

“Japanese people are quite forgiving and many have a “foreigner complex” whereby we don’t expect the foreigners to do simple things like learn the Japanese language. We easily forgive them when they do not understand or fit in so well. It’s even because many Japanese people themselves think that Japan has so many customs and rules that it is difficult for even us to know what to do in many cases. But, in our case, when we don’t know, as japanese it is common sense that we consult each other and, in Japan, team work is what matters. A Japanese person would never flee when others in their family are in danger. Take, for example the Fukushima 50. That the foreigners fled instantly, before any consultations or warnings from the government, show us that they don’t care about the group so they do not intend to be a part of Japanese society…  That’s okay. Hence, all the people I talked to were of the opinion that foreigners are just that; We can’t expect them to be responsible to anyone except themselves. Most of them certainly do not understand what the responsibility to us (Japanese) means

via Marketing Japan.

Mutual understanding is difficult, perhaps an impossible dream. I am reminded of Kipling’s lines:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

(From “The Ballad of East and West”. Kipling spent his early childhood in India before moving to England to complete his schooling, and was intimate with both Indian and British culture.)

Rudyard Kipling, poet, author of "The Ballad of East and West"

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Is fair sometimes unfair? – Part 2

This is a follow-up to my earlier blog-post Is fair sometimes unfair?

I was reminded of the article When Fairness Runs Foul, and of my earlier encounters with the Japanese sense of “fairness” when I read a chapter by philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand is here playing devil’s advocate – illustrating with an example of her own an opinion with which she in fact violently disagrees. (The opinion she is arguing against is not expressed by a Japanese but by a British journalist – Peregrine Worsthorne). Here is the excerpt from Ayn Rand:

This means that if a young student (named, say, Thomas Hendricks), after days and nights of conscientious study, proves that he knows the subject of medicine, and passes an exam, he is given an arbitrary privilege, an unfair advantage over a young student (named Lee Hunsacker) who spent his time in a drugged daze, listening to rock music. And if Hendricks gets a diploma and a job in a hospital, while Hunsacker does not, Hunsacker will scream that he could not help it and that he never had a chance…. Brain power? It’s determined by family life – and he couldn’t help it if Mom and Pop did not condition him to be willing to study. (Chapter 3 “An Untitled Letter”,  in Philosophy: Who Needs It? )

I cannot recall an occasion when I have heard someone protesting in Japan “fukouhei da!” or “zurui!” who has then been called on to explain or justify the accusation: in Japan, it seems the person who thus protests automatically has the high moral ground, and it is for the other party to explain and justify themselves.

Worsthorne is not Japanese, and is not making a pout, whining “It’s not fair!” like a spoilt child.  He is making a well thought-out logical argument, and he elucidates his rational basis for his claim:

The ideal of a meritocracy no longer commands such universal assent… It used to be considered manifestly unjust that a child should be given an enormous head-start in life simply because he was the son of an earl, or a member of the landed gentry. But what about a child today born of affluent, educated parents whose family life gets him off to a head-start in the educational ladder? Is he not the beneficiary of a form of hereditary privilege no less unjust than that enjoyed by the aristocracy?”… Family life is more important than school life in determining brain power… Educational qualifications are today what armorial quarterings were in feudal times. Yet access to them is almost as unfairly determined by accidents of birth as was access to the nobility.

(Ironically, Worsthorne, Wikipedia tells me, was knighted in 1991, thereby joining the aristocracy.)

The Japanese cry of “Fukouhei” is not so rationally based as Worsthorne’s, although it bears superficial resemblance to “the politics of envy”, and may sometimes be used for that purpose.

In her article, Elwood makes a brief reference to anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra and her book Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

Americans are sometimes confronted with the dilemma posed by the question “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” Naturally at times any person may find himself or herself in a quandary regarding the best answer to this query, but perhaps more Japanese are likely to choose the “happy” option more rapidly. This attitude has been termed “interactional relativism” by anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra in her classic Japanese Patterns of Behavior.

A search on Google Books brought me to Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context by Senko K. Maynard (also on I haven’t read enough of either Lebra or Maynard to understand the concepts fully, but this caught my eye:

Lebra combines this concept of interactional relativism with the concept of the “social preoccupation” of the Japanese people, and refers to the combined concepts as “social relativism”.

“Social preoccupation” indeed. Japanese people never tire of telling themselves and each other that “ningen kankei” 人間関係 or human relations, is the most stressful occupation, while at the same time complex and unavoidable. In other words, it’s a pain in the ***. Or perhaps I should quote Sartre: “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les Autres”, Huis Clos, 1944).

In other words, the Japanese cry of “unfair” is not based on an absolute ethic but on a relativist one. What is a relativist ethic? Is there such a thing?

Ayn Rand wrote that “all human knowledge is hierarchical in structure” and that philosophers “must learn to distinguish the fundamental from the derivative.” The Japanese sense of “fukouhei” is a derivative, but I’m not yet clear what the fundamental beneath that derivative is.

A favourite saying of many Japanese is “case by case”, meaning the flexibility to decide matters on different factors each time, rather than relying on an inflexible, logical, principle or moral.

I looked up “relativism”  in the Ayn Rand lexicon, but found “pragmatism” instead. Here’s an excerpt:

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate” … A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism.

So perhaps the Japanese preference for “case by case” is an example of a Japanese form of pragmatism.

Tags: , , ,

Is fair sometimes unfair?

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)

Tags: , , ,

Which Japanese people are known in New Zealand?

This might be of use in English-language or culture classes: A Japan Probe entry tells of a Japanese quiz program that asked New Zealanders which Japanese people they were familiar with.

A Japanese quiz show recently traveled to a foreign country and asked people on the street to name famous Japanese people. The top ten results were shown and quiz show participants were asked to guess what country it was.

Can you guess the ten people the New Zealanders chose? Watch the video or read the Japan Probe entry here to find out.

Tags: , ,