MODA Blog

A Japanese State of Mind

A Japanese State of Mind

This summer, I visited Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo in Japan. Though an outsider might think I would blend in because of my East Asian heritage, I fit in a lot less than any Westerner might think, with my casual tan, exposed shoulders and legs, and most of all: my individualist attitude.

As a child, I was very shy and considerate, and tended to sacrifice my own well-being for that of others. I would let everyone else choose a cupcake before I did, or only rant behind closed doors if a slacking group member forced me to do all the work, or pretend to laugh at someone else’s jokes for hours even if I thought they were terrible.

I honestly had no problem with being this way. Seeing others happy made me happy. But American cultural influences eventually pressured me into becoming the person I am today: talkative, aggressive, and maybe even a little bit selfish. Or, in our cultural context, confident and capable.

I don’t regret my changes. They were necessary to thrive in the culture I live in. But when I travelled to Japan, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of wistful regret.

In Tokyo, we boarded a train with only a few seats left. I dashed towards one of the last vacancies but saw a woman headed towards the same spot. We were each about four feet away, and as I saw her I slowed a little—but I was definitely going to try to sit there. Without even making eye contact, she noticed my intentions, turned around, and went to look for a different seat.

I sat down with a bit of guilt. Sure, someone would have gotten the seat eventually, but even my small aggression seemed so out-of-place in the face of her consideration. Her action mirrored the sort of way I thought as a kid.

In Japan, the most common way to refuse something politely roughly translates to “That’s a little…hmm,” and looking reluctant. In America, a more direct “no, thanks” takes the lead. My laywoman’s theory is that Japanese culture puts more relatively thought into the possibility of putting someone else into a discomforting situation than one’s own desires, so a lack of eager acceptance is easily interpreted as refusal. On the other hand, an ambiguous answer in America can be interpreted as having no preference, and so the will of the individual who proposes the situation dominates; therefore, a direct “no” is required to indicate a rejection.

In fact, in a 2002 cross-cultural study of participants looking at faces and rating intensity of emotion, Americans would judge intense expressions as being exaggerated. Japanese participants, on the other hand, would interpret subtle expressions as having stronger actual levels of emotions than were visible in the face (Matsumoto, 2002). This is a fine example of the differences in the ways we think about other people in individualist versus collectivist cultures.

That is not to say that these are the only way of thought in each country, but they seem to be the commonly accepted ones. In an individualist society, we have to stick up for ourselves and make firm decisions because there is a smaller chance that any other person is willing to help us to the extent that someone in a collectivist society would. Since more other people are competing to gain the advantage for themselves, we also have to favor ourselves more. In a collectivist country like Japan where the well-being of the community is valued over that of the individual, there is an increased level of consideration or extension of empathy to others in expectation that that will be returned to you.

Just some food for thought.

Resources:

Matsumoto, D. Consolacion, T., Yamada, H., Suzuki, R., Franklin, B., Paul, S., Ray, R., & Uchida, H. (2002). American-Japanese cultural differences in judgements of emotional expressions of different intensities. Cognition and Emotion, 16, 721-747. doi:10.1080/02699930143000608

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