East-West Cultural Differences in Basic Life Stance
Steve McCarty (Professor, Kagawa Junior College)
Westerners in Japan often conclude that Japanese people take an Us vs. Them attitude in international or intercultural relations. Speaking generally of cultural differences as degrees of emphasis, let us start with the basic stance of what people are identifying with and where they see the borders between inside and outside. Each person has a basic life stance toward others or their world, and a remarkable diversity of cultural as well as individual differences can be discerned.
A Western ideal expressed by Martin Buber as I-Thou accords the other with respect and equal status. Regardless of how often the circumstances make that possible, the basic stance toward the world or the other is individualistic, and a self-realization process is assumed to make such collegial relationships possible. In transactional analysis, "I'm OK, you're OK" expresses that American ideal. Despite appearances of uniformity in East Asia, it is actually more difficult for them to see others as equal. In such a hierarchical or vertical society ("tateshakai"), age, sex, worldly position and other factors enter a mental abacus and result in finely calibrated differences in status. Tense 'crossed transactions' sometimes occur where both negotiators feel they are of higher status. But such a source of conflict is usually concealed by a deliberate emphasis on similarities and exhortations to group solidarity.
Withholding judgments about Us vs. Them, the Japanese stance could be seen as We-They. From ancient times in East and Southeast Asian cultures, complex and collective agriculture, especially rice paddy cultivation, affected their culture. Individual desires and alternative lifestyles tended to be seen as threatening the necessary group cohesion if not survival. Even today, the self-realization process, as a natural unfolding of individual potential, is somewhat nipped in the bud in Japan. Because individuation, the process of becoming an independent individual, starts out with teenage rebellion, and that immature selfishness can last. A freewheeling society, on the other hand, allows for some excesses while individuals grow to maturity. So if Japan is like a field of bonsai trees, Western society is like a meadow with beautiful flowers but many more weeds.
As it is a matter of emphasis among human possibilities, it should not be surprising that Westerners exhibit many group-oriented behaviors regarding sports teams, school affiliations, and so forth. Less obvious is that Japanese people tend to live a sort of double life, We-They on the surface for face relationships, and more individualistic in private or when close acquaintances encourage it. Because there is a sort of taboo against expressing many natural sentiments, a veil of secrecy must be maintained to protect one's inner world. Most Japanese people could be considered excellent actors and actresses, neither overacting like some Hollywood stars nor underacting and letting their private world show.
If asked to express themselves, Japanese people may feel put on the spot, lacking experience of socially approved self-expression. A foreign teacher may ask questions to individual students, and not like it when they first look left and right. But they may identify with the other students and see themselves representing their group, but feel punished because they were singled out by the outsider. It is a no-win situation to them, because they either feel foolish if their answer is incorrect or fear that a correct answer crosses them over to the teacher's side of the We-Other divide. Their group affiliation with their friends is placed at risk if which side one is on is questioned, not a matter of I-Teacher in that public situation. So, for example, a student who speaks any fluent English in class is sometimes called a foreigner.
It is just an illusion to think that everyone lives in the same world, since the "world" is really within us, our perceived world, world view or, in German, Weltanshauung. Moreover, as C. G. Jung wrote, we see our unknown face in the world (or as the world). When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir recently said that the U.S. is "afraid of its own shadow," he probably did not mean that Americans are 'chicken.' But at the very least, U.S. policies have cast their own long shadow, resulting in increasing terrorist threats. In depth psychology the shadow represents the dark side of oneself that the individual cannot consciously acknowledge.
Now if it is clear that people live in the world that they are constantly creating, projected from their mostly unconscious minds, then it becomes possible to live in a variety of worlds according to cultural and individual differences. One's main basic stance could possibly be not interpersonal but, say, I-Nature for a naturalist or We-Nature for an isolated community. I-Universe could be a philosophical stance of trying to grasp, or be, the meaning of existence. And in a mystical experience such as satori in Zen, the stance seems to be reversed and one's humble existence is now seen as if from the point of view of the universe. Otherwise how could the Basho haiku be meaningful? The frog jumps into the water; splash. But the frog can represent someone meditating, with the splash signaling the end of the previous stance of the subject "I" as opposed to the object of a supposed outside world. But Zen can be regimented and the opposite of liberating if it reinforces cultural characteristics such the code of the samurai, or if one just follows the master. Once in a Tibetan Buddhist center a Westerner asked the monk if it was a new moon or full moon ceremony and the latter said, "uh, new moon." I took him to an open window where the full moon was shining and told him, "look, see for yourself."
In more practical terms, the variety of basic stances may explain why Japanese people pay for tours abroad but seldom seem to look at the scenery except with their cameras. It could be because they do not live in the world of nature but rather in a social world. The photos are less for themselves than to show their group back home, and to chat with others besides their own spouse in the tour bus is more enjoyable than the scenery, because they live in a social reality.
Since extroverts outnumber introverts in the West as well, a basic I-You stance is just as indicative of living in a social reality as a We-They stance. Japanese introverts may feel particularly burdened by having to constantly perform according to unspoken expectations. They might curse their fate of having been born the eldest son or daughter, for example, because of their traditional family roles. Introverts in the West are under less pressure to conform, and can have a rich inner world that gives them more to say than extroverts, as Jung said. The wide variety of basic orientations to life allows for both cross-cultural misunderstandings and individual incompatibilities.
There also exist natural differences between males and females, with the latter more sociable in many cultures. Daniel Goleman's "EQ" points to man's long history as a hunter, while women honed their interpersonal communication skills in larger groups at the home base. East Asians, however, have a long history oriented more to agriculture than hunting, so it may be no coincidence that Japanese men as well as women generally seem to have a high EQ and the social skills to perform in any given organizational role.
The scope for self-development in Japan tends to be confined to activities like reading or collecting that make few waves with the political power structure. With few outlets for self-expression, acquisitiveness and envy can be powerful motivators. Individuals tend to feel that they need accessories such as a nice car, certain clothes or popular gadgets like mobile phones before they can feel comfortable facing their peers. Their self does not seem to be enough, but that is true to some extent in the West as well. Acquisitiveness can extend even to information, where individuals thirst to collect all the information they can, whether it leads to knowledge and wisdom or not. A hapless Mainichi newsman who brought a lethal souvenir out of Iraq may have suffered from acquisitiveness. But Gomi, whose name means five flavors -- not garbage, as many foreigners with a smattering of Japanese vocabulary have said -- more likely wanted to increase his popularity back in Japan with the unusual souvenir. What seems like rampant materialism in Japan can actually be rather socially symbolic.
Another formulation of diversity in basic stances is that individuals are oriented to things, people or ideas. This is culture-neutral, but it has been seen that one of those can be symbolic of another. As Hajime Nakamura explained, Indian thought is highly abstract like Western thought, but gets more concretistic in East Asia and most of all in Japan. For example, only nature symbolism appears in haiku poetry, not metaphysical or obviously self-conscious philosophizing. Yet individual differences can be seen in terms of things, people or ideas. One person can remember Plato's concepts from decades ago but forgets who did what, when and where. Another person, living in a social world, remembers details of people's relationships that someone oriented to ideas or collecting things would never notice.
There is often a social dimension where it is not obvious, which blurs the categories and cultural differences. Furthermore, there are universally human characteristics as well as ones unique to certain cultures or individuals. The recent SARS scare seemed to reinforce the Japanese view that troubles come into their harmonious world from the outside, from foreigners. But consider that two American children playing together sometimes say a third child has "cooties" (i.e., disease-transmitting lice). The purpose may be to exclude the unneeded playmate and bolster the special friendship of the in-group. Anthropologists find that a primitive fear of contagion serves indirectly to mark the boundaries defining the group. And children, as Jung said, recapitulate evolution. For all who are insecure in their identity, without an "other" as a foil, it becomes less clear what "we" are. This phenomenon can even be seen in historically close cultures like Koreans and Japanese when they accentuate their differences.
This brings us back to the Us vs. Them stance that exasperates foreigners in Japan, who want to be treated as individuals, not categorically or even as a representative of a nation or culture. Arising from a basic We-They stance of collective identity, in this view Us vs. Them is the defensive posture that blocks threats to the group and reinforces the sense of solidarity among its members. Just as people need skin to both keep themselves in and keep out infections and so forth, people also need boundary markers to distinguish inside from outside (the "uchi" and "soto" in Japanese psychology). So in that sense calling foreigners "gaijin" (literally outsider, as "gai"="soto") may seem meaningless, but it does serve a purpose when spoken in front of someone's peer group. Why deny them even that?
So not only is there a variety of basic stances vis-a-vis others, but the deeper one looks, the more complex things actually are. Both the Western I-Thou and the Japanese We-They (in the domain of face relationships) are based on mutual respect, a mixture of trust and caution, consideration for others and of the consequences of one's actions. But the West allows for freer self-expression while Eastern societies emphasize consideration. Takeo Doi's "amae" books have encouraged the misunderstanding that Japanese have a psychology of dependency. Actually, East Asian adults of all generations are fiercely self-reliant and abhor depending on others. Perhaps that reflects their individuality (at the "honne" or "ura" levels) hidden from everyday view in social life (the "tatemae" or "omote" levels).
To understand cultural differences calls for considerable study and tolerance. To go further and see the same situation through both Japanese and Western eyes marks the beginning of East-West biculturalism, where, after Kipling, the twain shall meet.