In order to understand the way Japanese Inc. works you would have to study
the gears and lubricant of the system. You would have to be in the system
for a long time. Even people who are Japanese by birth and grow up in other
cultures but do not grow up in Japan can have a hard time fitting in. It's
not something as shallow as the color of your skin (like in some parts of
the US); it's much deeper than that.
The complexities of the language and social beings in this California-sized
country are linked up tighter than Hillary's lips at the high school reunion
In order to understand this better I will explore a metaphor I heard one JET
use to describe this phenomena we call Japan Inc.
((As with all generalizations-and this is one-this means it's my take on
this day in my life based on my experiences up to this point. Watching the
American and Japanese press nowadays, I think there are too many people out
there that think everything everyone says is a permanent state of whatever.
My tiny porous gray matter rattles around in here and once in a while two
wires spark together and on that lucky occasion I have to write it down
before it drops back into the soup. Grab a spoon or hit delete.))
OK, let's examine three culture's greetings to compare the difference here:
Italian, American and Japanese. The Italians greet each other by hugging
and a kiss on the cheeks. Hardy back or shoulder-slaps accompany loud
greetings of how they missed each other and how they feel about being back
together. It consummates with an invitation to eat together. Breaking bread
together is important in almost all cultures I have seen.
Americans greet each other by a handshake. I know there are hugs, but for
the most part the standard greeting is a brisk hand shake, look 'em in the
eye, and a hardy "how ya doing Bob/Nick/Ted/Jimbo?" "Gee, swell
Ron/Howard/Dirk/Rick. How's the kids?" And on and one until one passes
out or someone gets a "critical" phone call or has an "appointment."
Oddly, it is the cramped life-style Japanese that use the most space when
greeting. I have a kitchen so small you merely have to face the other
direction to be in the living room, yet the cultural greeting here is a
four-foot gap, no eye contact, and a polite bow. If you say something it's
"Hajimemashite" or "Dooze Yooroshiku." The first means, "This is the first
time" and the other means "Nice to meet you, I am honored, pleased, please
be kind to me and you look great in those shoes." Or something like that.
When translating Japanese I am not translating per say, I'm explaining
meaning, since the culture is so radically different ideas and concepts
represented by words do not corresponding words or concepts.
((To the Inuit of the far north there are many words for snow. Some snow is
good for travel; some types of snow are good for hunting, walking, fishing,
weather indicators or seasonal trends. In Arabic and some other
middle-eastern languages there are several words for sand. Some is good for
travel, for weather, for wind, for trends, for water detection, etc. The
translation would be "snow" or "sand". The explanation would be a paragraph.
We have to understand that we actually THINK different, not only talk
Ok, so you've said hello. What does this mean Jim? And why are telling me?
This greeting is the key to what is going on here.
Imagine an iceberg. Encarta says they may be as much as 90% bigger under
the surface as they are above. It hides the bulk of it's mass under the
surface. This is much like our personalities and interaction with others.
Hold on, stay with me here. The Italian iceberg with it's hugging and
kissing, volume and hand-gestures would be mostly exposed. Showing your
emotions is truly healthy and they accept an argument or show to pleasure as
a normal event.
The "American" iceberg would be bobbing about halfway in and out. Our yoga,
latte, coffee-talk, breakfast at Tiffany's support groups and "Mars and
Venus" take on things sumo wrestles with caveman theory and
everything-liberation cum-celebration to the point of a cross cultural
primordial fear of exposing our true feelings on the ground of offending
someone and ending up in a media-blitz law suit about who said what to who's
poodle who now needs counseling and you owe me a million dollars in
reparations. In unguarded moments we hail hugs and fraternity-size jokes
about everyone but ourselves and ultimately it actually about us and that's
why it's funny. It sounds like I'm being cynical. I'm not. I'm being
The Japanese iceberg would be more like the real-life icebergs where most of
the emotion is covered up and not exposed. They don't look you in the eye,
they don't tell you great job, nice to meet you, get lost, no, that was fun,
let's do lunch or say hi to the kids for me. Those are emotions and
strictly forbidden outside of the Enkai. We all have the emotions and
feelings; we just keep different amount above or below the surface.
This language has developed to accommodate for the hidden feelings. The way
of thinking has too. As an American I need to hear input once in a while.
Nice job, try it this way next time, tough crowd, or whatever. The Japanese
way (as a generalization) is to predict the feelings you have and
accommodate for them. They anticipate what you feel because you are not
going to tell them. The ladies bring you tea, (maybe you were thirsty), the
men welcome you the store with a loud yell (maybe you were looking for a
clerk). Emotional outbursts like, "Wow, that was great party last night!"
Would be (and was when I did it) mortifying. No one looked. If you drop a
plate in the states, everyone looks. Here they specifically do not look.
NOT looking is an action. NOT looking situations; I didn't hear that, that
girl is pretty, the boss is talking, it didn't happen, what are you talking
about, I don't understand you, nice to meet you.
To them Americans seem outspoken, loud, obnoxious, weak (on account of
loving their wives and/or admitting it), standing too close, smelling like
pork, touchy-feely, and emotionally weak. My iceberg is showing, for shame
for shame. That's like walking around with my zipper down.
I came to Japan by invitation from the Japanese Embassy to help them learn
about western culture. I am the one being internationalized. Sometimes I
think the wrong party is paying for this.
I wanted to be brief, but I rambled. If you are not asleep and still
reading, I'm closing up shortly. In all the THEY and THEM or cultural
generalizations are dangerous. If you were organizing a one-week trip to
the US, what city would you choose to have your friends see "America?" In
New York they will either see wonderful plays and buildings or get mugged
and go home thinking all of America is one way or the other. In LA will
they see only smog or will they see Harrison Ford and think there are movie
stars walking all over the place? It would take years to get a feel for
America and you'd have to born there to love it for what it is and isn't.
Same here. I'm only here living, eating, working, earning and spending for
That's just the tip of the iceberg.
Ouch, that was bad, but I had to do it.