the nikku

reflecting on ESL/EFL and its relation to faith

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Striking differences

One great thing about the book The Sword and the Chrysanthemum was that it verbalized some of the differences between Japanese and American culture that are usually only implied.

1) According to the author, Ruth Benedict, the Japanese place just as much faith in hierarchy as Americans put in freedom. An interesting reversal! In Japan there were never any revolutions. No French Revolution, no American Revolution, no Industrial Revolution. There were rebellions, but never any vast and sweeping over throw of the government.

How is this possible? Unlike the European feudal system, in the Japanese feudal system each member is responsible for looking after and bettering the other members from their station in the hierarchy. In fact Japanese businesses, schools, and even families are setup in a careful hierarchy. The average Japanese person can believe in hierarchy because they have been intimately involved in the working hierarchies of family and school since they were very young.

2) In America we pride ourselves on owing nothing to anyone - pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. The Japanese recognize the mutual indebtedness life incurs. A Japanese person owes loyalty to the Emperor and to their parents simply because they exist. This sense of owing loyalty is not as strong as any loyalty in the American sense, and the nearest American concept we can compare it to is that serious idea of repaying debt. And like American debt, this loyalty increases overtime.

A Japanese person also owes a smaller loyalty to any business, social, or extended family relationship. And they also owe respect to themselves - to keep their name clean, and to act in a proper manner. It has been said that an American hero is one who breaks rules, but a Japanese hero is one who keeps up in repaying his loyalties.

3) Japan is a shame culture, and America is a guilt culture. The difference seems small, but makes drastic changes in culture. In America we act on moral absolutes - there are actions that are right at all times, and some that are wrong at all times. We rely on a man's internal guilt to keep him acting correctly. In Japan a person actions rightly according to the relationship and situation. A certain act maybe correct in some situations, but not others. And if a Japanese man does not act correctly, his looked down upon by his peers. He has not kept his name clean, and he must work doubly hard to reclaim his honor.

4) We usually consider physical desires evil. However in Japan physical desires are good, and worthy of cultivation, as long as they remain in their proper place. The most common physical pleasures are: a hot bath, sleeping, eating, romance, sex, and intoxication. These are all good things when enjoyed in their minor place in life.

5) In America we generally believe a person is created evil, but the Japanese believe a person is created good. It is only the stresses and challenges of daily life that "dirty" the person. This is why keeping ones name clean is such an important task.

The major task of Japanese life is fulfilling obligations. And from their point of view "the pursuit of happiness" is an immoral and rude goal. Happiness is a recreation that should be enjoyed when it can. However, the pursuit of personal happiness has a very small place in life.

If you keep these differences in mind, many of the oddities about Japan don't seem so odd. I can't wait to go to Japan.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need to hang out this weekend. I was thinking about biking. Let me know if you are down.


6/28/2006 11:17 AM  

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