Thursday, July 03, 2008

Two Years living in Japan

On July 14th, 2008 Orlando and I have been living in Japan two full years. I felt the uncontrollable urge to actually write this down because I could not believe it myself. As a result I needed to keep some type of record that confirms that “Yes this is not a dream”. This is my way of remembering that we lived trough it and have flourished personally as a result.
In general our lives in Japan are pretty normal (hence why I have not written in this blog for a while). Our jobs and surrounding are different but we are the same wacky kids at the core. We are already used to all the bright lights with kanji symbols and nothing really shocks us anymore. Oh look another wacky “Engrish” sign that has horrible spelling or simply can’t be understood. At first I would laugh until I dropped but now I simply appreciate the fact that they tried to translate the information into English in the first place!!! Oh look another temple or shrine – wooooopy duuu. I definitely think our acceptance of weird things has increased greatly in the last few years to the point that we just ignore the girls dressed in full doll costume walking along the streets.
The one aspect that has changed in our two years here is our understanding of the Japanese people. Simply interacting with them on a daily basis gives you a glimpse into the real Japanese culture. I have come to realize that even though a person speaks English that does not mean that they truly understand your weird western ways (or any of my “unique” humor while we are on that subject). In essence the person is talking to you in English but their behavior and complete thought process is 100% Japanese. The only exception to this rule is if someone had lived in a western country for a few years and had integrated themselves culturally in the process. I have only met a hand full of people who meet this requirement. The majority of the people learn English in special language schools after work and the most fluent ones have gone on some type of exchange (6 months to a year) in an English speaking country at some point in their lives.
As a result of this phenomenon, I have learned to read behind the English words being spoken and look for the true Japanese meaning behind it. A perfect example of this is the use of the word yes (“hai” in Japanese). Once you explain a situation and the next steps that need to be taken to solve an issue the probability of obtaining a “hai” at the end from your Japanese colleague is 100%. The trick is to see that this “hai” does not mean that “yes I will take the actions you suggested” it really means that “yes I heard your concern”. After the situation is “heard” it needs to be discussed in extreme details with everyone and their bosses and their respective superiors until everyone agrees on the correct course of action to take. This is done (after way too many meetings) in order to make sure that there is a group consensus and that the action does not affect any individual or group negatively, therefore my patience level has increased 1000% since living in Japan. According to Wikipedia:

“There is a prescribed and orderly feel to the Japanese cultural and social norms. The goal of the Japanese system is the establishment and maintenance of “wa”, or harmony. On the surface, this aspiration for harmony is respectable, but it is also possible that the pursuit of harmony may cause problems as well. The result of such a uniform viewpoint can lead to the stigmatization of even slightest deviance. ”

At first it was frustrating, now it is just the way things are. I think it took me a while to really understand the “rules of the game” but once you do, everything goes allot smoother.

Another aspect of “the game” that I have been working on understanding lately is how to distinguish between the Japanese’s “honne" and “tatemae”. According to good old trusty Wikipedia:

Honne (本音) refers to a person's true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one's position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one's closest friends.
Tatemae (建前), literally "façade," is the behavior and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one's position and circumstances and these may or may not match one's honne.
Honne and tatemae are arguably a cultural necessity resulting from a large number of people living in a comparatively small island nation. For this reason, the Japanese tend to go to great lengths to avoid conflict, especially within the context of large groups.”

Being able to tell if a person is telling you what they really think or what they perceive you want to hear in order to avoid conflict is extremely tricky. In essence if you have established a relationship of trust with an individual they will tell you their honne, in private. If there are other people present (especially if the other person is the most senior in the group) the situation completely changes, everyone suddenly begging acting super formal and really quiet. Even the language changes!!! In Japanese there are 3 different verbs for almost EVERYTHING!!! It all depends if the person you’re talking to is you junior, equal or senior. But the kicker is they all mean the same thing!!! That is an easy way of telling that everyone has their tatemae on. In other less formal situations you have to simply rely on your instincts to know which side of the person you’re dealing with at that moment, it’s hard but not impossible.
You might be thinking that is must be hard to figure these things out but if you ask usually you will get an honest answer out of a good friend. Off course if your in Japan make sure you ask in the right environment (basically anywhere outside of the office). Every culture is unique in their own way, and I’m sure there are allot more social aspects of Japan that we have not experienced, but fortunately we still have another year to figure them out.

If you want to see people who have REALLY emerged themselves in the Japanese culture check out this article: