Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Japan. Show all posts

Sacred Interiors — Full and Empty

December 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Different Games, Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other by Haru Yamada. It’s been sitting on my shelf for a while, but I just now started reading it and came across this.

This contrast between the Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist viewpoints is probably what prompted my mother to look up at the domed ceiling of a Catholic church in Florence painted with cherubs and scenes of men and women in heaven and hell, and say, “I guess the idea is to fill your mind with sacred thoughts, not to empty it.”

Okaasan (Mom) nailed it.

(Ceiling of the Duomo in Florence — Brunelleschi, 1436.
Click on an image to enlarge.)

 (Tenryuji in Kyoto. Originally built in 1339.)

I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say, “I’ll Have to Get Back to You on That.”

August 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen was in a colleague’s office when the phone rang. It was a man in the department asking the colleague to serve on a committee. She ran through the list of things she was already burdened with — thesis supervision, an overloaded teaching schedule, other committees. “There’s no way I could responsibly join another committee. Of course, if you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it, but honestly, I don’t see how I could add it to what’s already on my plate.”

When the conversation had ended and she had hung up the phone, she turned to Tannen. “I can’t believe it. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he put me on the committee anyway.”*

The problem, as Tannen sees it, is not that the man was inconsiderate but that the two people were speaking in different “conversational styles.” He was listening in a “direct” style; she was speaking in a more “indirect” style. The only “No” he would hear was a direct one – simple and without qualification or exception.

It’s as though they were speaking different languages. Language is a part of culture, and cultures have different ideas about directness. When I was in Japan long ago, people would sometimes comment on how “frank” Americans were. At the time I took it as a compliment. Only much later did I realize that what they meant was that Americans, including me, will just barge in and tell you what they think or what they want with not a thought to anyone else’s feelings or preferences. They are too obtuse to consider the harmony within the group.

Japanese culture and language are indirect. There are countless stories of Americans doing business in Japan thinking that they had been told “yes” when the Japanese had thought they had clearly told the Americans “no.” The Japanese, with their comment about frankness, were telling me to be more sensitive and circumspect. But they were saying it indirectly, and I just didn’t hear.

Even within our own frank culture, getting to No is hard. We all are reluctant to give an unequivocal No. “Not really,” is often as close as we get. But there’s a gender difference. Men are more comfortable with the direct style than are women, especially when it comes to accentuating the negative. Women are more indirect. Tannen’s overburdened colleague thought she was being direct, and maybe she was — for a woman. A better example comes from a McSweeney’s list last week.

Nelles-Sager’s list includes, in part:
1. “Hmm… maybe.”
2. “We should look that up.”
3. “Totally.”
7. “Yeah, for sure, I mean, actually, it’s [right answer], but you’re right that it could be [wrong answer] if it wasn’t [right answer].”
8. “It’s possible.”
In many situations, gender overlaps with another variable that affects directness — power. In saying  “no” to someone higher in power, it’s probably better to be less direct.  Alternatively, those in power may take care not to be too harshly direct to those below them. Nelles-Sager doesn’t mention it, but three years earlier, McSweeney’s had another list : “Ways Teachers Avoid Saying ‘No.’” At least one entry — “I suppose it’s possible” — is identical to one of Nelles-Sager’s. Others include “I see where you’re coming from” and “I guess that’s an interpretation.”

The general point may be that when we are thinking about the feelings of others, we use the indirect style. The reason may be based in culture, gender, or power. It may even be a matter of personality, as illustrated by the passage that I cribbed the title of this post from.

The truth was that Pinchuck had not felt comfortable in the shoes but he could never bring himself to say no to a salesman. “I want to be liked,” he admitted to Blanche. “Once I bought a live wildebeest because I couldn't say no.” (Note: O.F. Krumgold has written a brilliant paper about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I'll get back to you.” This corroborates his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic, much the same as the ability to sit through operetta.)

 — Woody Allen, “By Destiny Denied”


* This anecdote appears in Tannen’s recent book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.

In Japan, Butthead Is a Really Smart Detective

May 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

When my son was still a toddler, someone gave us a copy of Everyone Poops by Taru Gomi. It took a refreshingly good-humored approach to the topic.

Was this typically Japanese? I remembered that when I was in Japan decades earlier, the government had tried to get Japanese men to stop the practice of public urination. It was not uncommon to see a man, back turned discreetly, peeing at the roadside. The government’s concern was not the effect on sanitation but on tourism. They were afraid that Western visitors would be turned off.

Some Westerners might have a similar reaction to today’s high-speed-train version – instead of an “Occupied” sign on the door of the toilet compartment, there’s a window. Even without reading, passengers can see if someone is using the urinal. Cultural anthropologist Dave Barry explains:

[On the train] there are men’s rooms with with urinals and convenient windows on the doors so that people walking past in the corridors can look in, apparently to determine whether the room is occupied. I found this out by accident when I went into one of these rooms and closed the door behind me, without noticing the window. I was facing the wall, engaging in standard rest-room activities, when I happened to glance around, assuming that I would see a nice, solid, totally opaque door, and instead-YIKES I saw three schoolgirls about eighteen inches away, causing me to whirl back toward the wall and become grateful that I was wearing dark pants, if you catch my drift. [Dave Barry Does Japan, 2010]


And now Japan has fiction in the spirit of Everyone Poops – Oshiri Tantei, (tr. The Butt Detective), currently the most popular children’s book series in Japan. This Japanese answer to Nate the Great has a head that looks like a butt, with an eye on each cheek. Like any detective, Oshiri Tantei gets a call, finds the clues, uses Sherlock-like logic to solve the crime, and tracks down the bad guys. The story usually ends with him confronting the criminal and blowing him away – not with his gat/roscoe/heater, but with a fart. The title of each book begins with “Pu Pu” (fart, fart), e.g., Pu Pu, The Riddle of the Disappearing Lunch Box. Here’s a 40-second promo for the books.

For a full story – a jewel heist – go here . (Spoiler alert, the diamond was heisted by three snakes.)

Maybe the Japanese do have a generally more accepting and less fraught view of children and excretory functions. This cartoon video for kids gives an idea of how the Japanese approach potty training. It seems remarkably similar in tone to Everyone Poops and Oshiri Tantei.

Tea and Teaching

July 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This is a picture of a young American in Japan being instructed in the proper way to drink the thick, green ceremonial tea.

At the time, he was newly on the faculty of a high school in a small town in the Japan alps. The other people in the photo were also teachers in the school. Teachers teaching tea to a teacher.

The picture was taken at Korakuen in Okayama, one of the stops on the shokuin ryoko (職員旅行)or faculty trip. It’s an annual event at many schools in Japan, and I was reminded of it by Elizabeth Green’s article about math teaching in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (here), excerpted from her new book,  Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone.  The link from the shokuin ryoko to what’s happening in math class is culture, a difference in how Japanese and Americans think about individuals and groups.

Green’s article focuses on a Japanese math teacher, Akihiko Takahashi, who was inspired by new ideas for teaching elementary-school math, ideas which had been developed in the US.  But while the new methods had flourished in Japan, back in the US, teachers were not learning them, at least not well enough to make good use of them.

The difference seems to be that in Japan, teachers teach teachers to teach.

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. . . . American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. . . .  Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

It seems like an obvious idea, but if “lesson study” has worked so well in Japan, why has US education has not been able or willing to incorporate it?  The answer, I think, is that if your think of groups as primary and individuals as secondary, jugyokenkyu comes easily. But if you think that individuals come first, jugyokenkyu might be a problem.

The Japanese traditionally have stronger expectations of group loyalty. A group is not just a coalition formed for a specific purpose; it is something more permanent and encompassing.  Compared with Americans, Japanese think of themselves and others more as parts of a group, less as individuals.  They feel an obligation to work as a group for the success of that group.  In schools, the more experienced teachers will work to improve the performance of the less effective teachers, who in turn are obligated to improve themselves.  Both are acting for the interests of the group.  A good group nurtures its individual members to become better teachers.

In the US, we would find that kind of group orientation much too confining and encroaching on our individuality. But more than that, we tend to think about teaching (and most other work) as an individual matter.  Some people do it well, others are less effective.  Rather than a good group making for better teachers, having lots of good individual teachers makes for better group results. 

Even in our differences, we share that focus on individuals. Right now in the US, debates and lawsuits pit charter schools against public schools.  The sides are especially contentious about the role of teachers’ unions.  Defenders say that unions protect teachers so they can be assured of autonomy and remain relatively free from arbitrary and exploitative demands from administrators. Charter supporters say that schools will be more effective if we get rid of unions. That way, the schools can fire the bad teachers and give merit pay increases to the good ones. 

Both these approaches see the teaching staff as a collection of individuals, some more talented than others.  Neither conceives of the school as a real group – as people who mutually regulate and affect one another’s behavior. 

American workers would probably find that kind of real group relationship to be an abridgement of individuality.  We want to be able to choose who we get involved with.   Or to put it another way, how many American schools have a shokuin ryoko? In America, people are free to separate their work relationships from the rest of their lives.  But in Japan, the people you work with also the people you go drinking with after work.  And comes shokuin ryoko time, they are also the people you go on vacation with.*

Not all teachers go – most, in fact, do not – but enough do volunteer to make up a critical mass.  In the trip illustrated above, out of a faculty of about fifty, perhaps a dozen signed up.  But the actual number is less important than the recognized principle: the shokuin ryoko is part of the institution, and teachers feel a collective obligation to make it a success, just as they feel a collective obligation to make their colleagues’ teaching more effective.

* Private-sector firms may have a similar trip for employees – the shain ryoko.

Mixi Messages and Wa

February 18, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I spent a few months in Japan many, many years ago, the Japanese often told me that Americans were “frank.” At first, I took this as a compliment. Only later did it dawn on me that what they were really saying was that Americans tended to shoot off their mouths, saying whatever they thought, without much regard for how it would affect others. Americans seemed more interested in expressing their own individual opinions and quite willing, in the process, to trash the overall harmony within the group, what the Japanese call “wa.”

Sportswriter Robert Whiting’s 1989 book You Gotta Have Wa is about Wa in Japanese baseball. (The title is an allusion to the song “You Gotta Have Heart,” from the baseball-themed musical Damn Yankees.) Whiting describes the difficulties that arose when American baseball players who couldn’t quite stay in the majors wound up in Japan. Like good Americans, they would see their main task as playing well, getting hits, etc. But they would ignore or even resent a task that most Japanese would take for granted — becoming and being a member of the team, especially in the sense of subordinating their own preferences and accomplishments to the overall Wa of the group.

I myself unwittingly committed these cultural gaffes, one of them so egregious that it’s a wonder I wasn’t immediately ostracized if not executed.

I remembered this distant past again with some embarrassment when I read in Wired Online about MySpace moving into Japan, where the popular site is Mixi. Rupert Murdoch, whose NewsCorp owns MySpace (and a lot of other media), has never been shy about expanding his empire, and since November MySpace has run a Japanese site.

The differences between the MySpace and Mixi reflect the broader cultural difference between individualism and Wa. The name says it all: MySpace “is about me, me, me, and look at me and look at me and look at me,” says an American media executive in Japan. “In Mixi, it's not all about me. It's all about us.” In fact, American parents are surprised and often dismayed by how much personal information teenagers will put up on their MySpace pages for any stranger to see, and by the way kids will use the Internet for nastiness and character assassination.

But Mixi messages tend to be more supportive. It also is based more on groups than individuals. To join, you need an introduction from someone who is already a member, and communication remains centered among clusters of friends or people who share interests. It’s more a way to maintain relations among a group than a way of meeting new people or expressing yourself.

I checked the home pages for the two sites today. MySpace is very in-your-face. Someone in a photo on the cover of Nylon (screaming bold yellow typeface) seems to be screaming and sticking her tongue right into the camera. Just above, “Meet Sal” shows a very confrontational Sal, and then there's Jonathon in battle gear, and over on the right of the screen “cool new people” being cool by acting wild and crazy.

The Mixi login page shows a girl sitting in a field of grass, quietly reading a book, as her friend walks up to her. Both girls are dressed conventionally, and we see them from a distance. The words, not in garish yellow but almost blending in to the blue summer sky, say, “community entertainment.”

It will be interesting to see what happens with MySpace in Japan. Will the medium itself shape the content? Will it speed the development of a more individualistic and less group-oriented culture among Japanese youth, a change which has been slowly evolving in any case? Or will the culture reshape the site and make it more typically Japanese?