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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Comment (February 5, 2003)

How to Hear Japanese Debate their Place in the World

Steve McCarty (Professor, Kagawa Junior College, Japan)

In the Commentary (1/29/'03) "Comment on Japanese Aversion to Open Debate," Prof. Takahiro Miyao simply pointed to GLOCOM as countering a stereotype of "silent, smiling and sleeping" Japanese at international forums. GLOCOM features "Japanese leaders," but it promotes dialogue with others, and in the academic search for truth, non-Japanese may even speak for Japan at this think tank.

The fact that Prof. Miyao and other Japanese who do express themselves in English forums are sharply rebutted as well as outnumbered is part of the problem. While not enough Japanese speak for their country, the ones who do try to explain Japan face the accumulated frustration of non-Japanese, who sometimes deny the cultural differences because they cannot be pinpointed in words.

Take the case of Japanese silent at international forums. A Westerner who is not part of the established group might want to make his presence known by speaking out. Often the motivation particularly of male discourse seems to be to assert one's status, or one-upmanship to show that one knows better. This would be gauche in Japan, however, even for men, and one might be shunned. So it is not easy for Japanese people to respond to such discourse verbally and in a foreign language. It would be customary in Japan for someone to quietly listen until they gain some tenure in a group. Therefore the way to get Japanese people actively involved more quickly is to invite them to play an organizational role. Although they may still prefer to remain behind the scenes, it becomes possible to find out their perspectives.

Tominaga, Shintaro was also rebutted for trying to explain Japan's communication style in terms of 'kuuki' in "NBR'S JAPAN FORUM (SOC) Japan's place in the world," 29 Jan to 02 Feb 2003 posts. Whether 'kuuki' (air) or 'mizu' (water), as I have also heard, both point to unspoken context, and Japan's culture has been classified as high-context. So again, Japanese people in new environments will not just look before they leap but take time to grasp the context, especially in terms of the human relationships involved, before risking entry into another group and committing themselves. If non-Japanese can reciprocate with some intercultural sensitivity, then quality, not showy but reliable working relationships can well result.

The above comments are general and so miss the true diversity here in Japan. But to discuss unspoken cultural differences is not at all to mystify the issue as scientifically ungraspable, but rather to suggest directions for better intercultural communication and understanding. For experience shows that the whole role of expressed language itself is different between Japan and, say, the U.S. in general. With the more important meanings reserved for actions and gestures in Japan, and an East Asian cultural heritage including Buddhism regarding the self itself, words just do not play the role of expressing oneself and one's meaning nearly so much as in the West. There are very different weights in interpreting the verbal and non-verbal dimensions, along with different commonsense expectations about the role of the individual in the world, and so forth. So there cannot help but be much that is incommensurate and therefore often exasperating on both sides of the cultural divide because of the contrasting communication styles.

One irony is that non-Japanese want to hear from the horse's mouth, but put too much pressure on the relatively few Japanese who are willing to engage in dialogue. They may even have to answer for past generations. So the frustration I mentioned is hardly a welcome mat to gain the first-hand explanations non-Japanese want from Japanese. In any intercultural communication, both sides have to go halfway in mutual respect, with an open mind and--even if exasperated--with patience!

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