The problem with an individual reflection paper is that it assumes that the author has brought some misconceptions with them. I have traveled to Japan on more than one occasion while I served in the military. My submarine sortied from Okinawa and Yokosuka several times in 2001, and I took the opportunity to play tourist. Playing tourist is vastly different from engaging others in a business setting, yet this possibly enabled me a greater breadth of interactions.
Prior to my interactions with native Japanese, I had crossed paths with those that had moved to Hawaii. The families there in Hawaii, while Americanized, were still largely traditional and blended well with native Hawaiians and other Pacific-islanders. My early interest in subject such as anime, martial arts techniques, and weaponsmithing led to early observations of the Japanese culture and traditions. My time in Hawaii led me to groups with feet planted firmly in both cultures and able to answer questions.
My own native culture can be viewed as a bit complicated. I am a soon-to-be middle-aged white male from the Midwest United States. The complicating factor is that I grew up in a small community that revolved around farming. I come from a large farming family who until the late 1980’s lived largely within a 50-mile distance from one another. Elders expected to be treated differentially. Intelligence was a quality that is and was greatly revered but actual experience counted for more. Those family members involved in farming operations had lives that revolved around the farm first and foremost.
Family members who had jobs outside of the farm used them to help support and build the farm. Loyalty was first to the immediate family, then to the extended family, and then to the farm. This farming family culture is what I grew up with. Every other interaction that I have had has been seen through glasses with this background as the filter. Personally it was a greater culture shock dealing with others joining the military than it was for me getting around Japan. The military, while tradition-oriented, is made up of individuals who have little or no experience expressing loyalty to a group larger than themselves. I had more difficulty interacting with others of my own-supposed American culture than I did with other cultures more specific to my family.
One major preconception that I began with was the assumption that the culture was more formal than my own family culture. This preconception was only partly true as in private, or small intimate groups the Japanese culture can be just as informal as any other. The trick there is learning the social and etiquette cues that allow this informality. Among extended family in Japan, there is almost always a barrier of formality extended to one’s elders. My own family culture, when a person has established themselves independently, it is common for informality to creep in. Elders can be referred to by their first names and even disagreed with in public.
The Japanese culture generally retains this barrier of formality, even among close family members. The other preconception that I had about the Japanese culture was the extent to which “gaijin” or outsiders played to their own way of acting. I had assumed that, like many other things in life, this was of a variable nature.
This assumption, meaning that while this is true generally, that matter of being an outsider can be eventually overcome. This assumption in a cultural context is absolutely and irrevocable incorrect. It can be true that individuals of the Japanese culture can accept outsiders. The situation that would create such a condition would require that those Japanese individuals were isolated away from their own culture. Passport Japan even has examples of a Hokkaido ethnic group among the Japanese called the Ainu. The book even has examples of Koreans that have lived in Japan for many generations.
These examples are referred to as “less-than-Japanese” and that they are “universally disdained” (Engel & Murakami, 1996). The cultural focus of belonging to specific groups and their hierarchy within those groups, predispose them to distrust outside groups. The mere appearance of being non-Japanese is enough to automatically place someone on the outside of the group. Contrast this concept of outsider to those of the culture of Midwest farmer, and you have one of the first real fundamental differences between the two cultures. Outsiders in a farming family community can eventually make themselves part of the local landscape and be automatically accepted at any gathering.
The commonalities between the two cultures are quite profound in my opinion. The two misconceptions that I had were an artifact that was easily derived from the fact that there are so many similarities. Both cultures values and place an emphasis on group performance. Neither group would value some hotshot individual whose actions are a detriment to the group. The groups in both of these cultures require a focus on relationships and needs to maintain the harmony between individuals. Even the concept of scheduling and adherence is very strong in both cultures. The Japanese culture may base the importance of scheduling on loyalty and duty to the group.
Meanwhile the farming community bases it on getting the work done when there is a chance, such as waking up when the sun rises. Both are showing a loyalty to the group, but perhaps for different reasons.
The formalized nature of greetings is also very similar. The styles of the two greetings are different but just as much importance is placed on the delivery and respect. This greeting may take the form of bowing in Japan, or a handshake in the Midwest. Each of these have rules that are hard to articulate to outsiders, but are just as complicated as the other.
The differences between the cultures can be startling if you are not prepared for them. The importance of seniority is placed much higher in the eyes of the Japanese than of the Midwest farmer. This importance of seniority, coupled with an unfailing politeness and refusal of disagreeing with someone to save face, diverges radically from my own. My own culture almost celebrates the practice of independent thought, and disagreeing with our seniors is seen as a right. This disagreement is entirely acceptable in our culture as we publicly disagree, discuss the context and facts, and move on to the solution of a problem.
The Japanese culture is not prepared for loud, bitter disagreements aired visibly in public. The Japanese method of disagreement is in the form of a quiet hushed discussion, but the senior in the discussion is still not publicly disagreed with (Commisceo-global, 2017). The most distinct difference between the two cultures in my opinion is the emphasis in the Midwest culture on ability. The United States in general sets great credence on individual ability and letting that ability lead them to success. This is greatly different from Japan where the shining of this ability is a detriment in two ways. The first way is that it is showing disrespect to the seniors in a group with more experience. The second way is that you would cause those seniors to lose face in front of others.
The most difficult to accept concept is the Japanese loyalty to organizations. The poor performance of an organization is seen as a personal failure. This organization loyalty with a culture of saving face creates an environment where working excessive hours is seen as a positive attribute. This culture is slowly changing in Japan as the nation has learned to its detriment the poor health results of work-life imbalances. The Japanese loyalty to organization itself is extreme enough that it makes even the thought of leaving a job for another company almost unthinkable. This self-identity intertwined in group-identity is slowly changing but is seen largely as mercenary. The connotations of mercenary have similarities with “Ronin,” samurai who sold their services to the highest bidder and had no master to keep them in line.
The truly admirable aspect of the Japanese was how they blended the traditional nature of their society with modern technology. They performed this blend while maintaining their cultural identity. The Japanese are one of the few cultures to have survived being forced open by a technologically superior force. This alone shows an adaptiveness that is rare in other world cultures.
The idea of the future possibility of working in Japan would cause me to take several actions prior to even traveling there. Among the first actions would be to invest in several dark business suits along with white button-up shirts. These clothes along with a subdued-colored tie are seen as appropriate business attire (Commisceo-global, 2017). The next item on the agenda would be the investment of high quality business cards that are written in English on one side and Japanese on the other. These business cards would not be complete without a method of maintaining them in pristine condition (Commisceo-global, 2017), so another investment in a business card holder would be required.
The receiving of business cards from others needs to be appropriately formal and treated with respect (Commisceo-global, 2017). These business cards should be placed respectfully in a business card portfolio holder in order to treat them as you would the giver of the cards. Appointments and meetings should be made and confirmed by telephone as early as possible (Commisceo-global, 2017). Above all else, I would need to make sure that I gave myself time, as very few decisions get made on the first meeting.
There is one action that I would be sure not to take, and that is to be a loud, brash American. I am personally used to being able to make decisions quickly and decisively by myself. This possibility of decision-making is not a realistic situation in most cases in Japan.
My perspective on the Japanese culture did not shift perceptively during this project. That perspective was predominately due to my prior interactions in Japan and the training given by the United States Navy. The Navy took particular care in managing the expectations of the sailors when dealing with the Japanese. They also ensured that we did not willfully offend them.
Given the state of politics and opinion revolving around US bases and Japanese citizens, both governments made deliberate efforts to minimize miscommunication.
The nation of Japan is one of the few nations in the world that I have had the opportunity to visit. The beautiful vistas and politeness in overwhelming crowds is a balance that I find myself in difficulty to accept. Cultures where individuals are polite are fairly common, but the level that the Japanese culture takes it to as a group is unique. Growing up on a farm, I have issues sometimes dealing with large crowds of people surrounding me.
My time in Japan is a delightful exception to this trouble. The inherent politeness and formality of the Japanese culture ensures that there is the possibility to get along professionally and personally. The key that I found when talking to people there was to be respectful, be polite, and to keep a good humor. The difficulty in ordering a meal from a menu drops drastically when we can laugh at our own mistakes. The smile and good-natured laugh mixed in with please “onegai”, thank you “arigato” breaks down barriers and allows communication to take place.
- Commisceo-global. (2017). Japan Guide. Retrieved September 30, 2018, from Commisceo Global: https://www.commisceo-global.com/resources/country-guides/japan-guide
- Engel, D., & Murakami, K. (1996). Passport Japan your pocket guide to Japanese business, customs & etiquette (Passport to the world). San Rafael, CA, United States: World Trade Press.