December 16, 2008

Cultural and Historical Roots of the Japanese Way of Life

The power the land of the rising sun currently enjoys embodies a paradox, which might indicate that there are no ‘right’ models for modernisation.

The power the land of the rising sun currently enjoys embodies a paradox, which might indicate that there are no ‘right’ models for modernisation.


Rein Raud

Cultural and Historical Roots of the Japanese Way of Life

The power the land of the rising sun currently enjoys embodies a paradox, which might indicate that there are no ‘right’ models for modernisation.

Japan is a remarkable country in many respects. Despite the fact that Japanese culture historically developed in a dialogue with the main land and was strongly influenced by it, despite the fact that the technological surge and the accompanying economic success of the last decades are not altogether based on Japanese scientific discoveries, Japan is the first country where people who do not speak an Indo-European language and do not use the Latin alphabet have managed to successfully conclude a modernisation of the entire country and even surpassed many achievements of the West in their development. For a long time now, Japan has therefore been an attractive role model for other non-Western countries and Asian countries in particular. On the other hand, the war crimes committed by Japanese forces during World War II cloud Japan’s relations with some of its neighbours to the present day.
Japan’s progress is even more remarkable as several social and cultural factors, such as the domination of groups over individuals, rigid hierarchies and the ritualistic character of social decision-making processes, which should not be compatible with the basic principles of a modern society at least according to Max Weber’s critique of Confucianism, have paradoxically accelerated, not decelerated Japan’s development. Even though political analysts often presume by default that human nature is the same all over the world and that societies can thus be built on similar fundamental principles, one cannot understand Japan without being aware of the most significant cultural differences between it and the West. This, however, does not mean that I accept the basic postulate of Japan’s uniqueness, emphasised by Japanese nationalists repeatedly and in various forms, as Japan shares many of its cultural features with other Asian countries and, after all, every culture in the world is unique in its own way.
Ten inner selves of a Japanese
Many components of the Japanese social order are clearly reflected in the structure of the Japanese language, the grammar of which strikes a European studying it as being deceptively easy at first glance. The reason is that there are several important linguistic categories in the Japanese language, the development of which have not reached the same level in Western languages, and Westerners cannot therefore appreciate the complexity of these categories. Similarly to Finno-Ugric languages, Japanese does not have grammatical gender; in addition, singular and plural forms are differentiated only in exceptional cases. However, when speaking Japanese, the level and direction of the activity referred to must be considered very carefully: a courteous conversationalist always positions himself at a lower level than his interlocutor; people and even things close to his co-speaker are also at a higher level. At the same time, social hierarchy and age must also be taken into account, as seniors are placed at a higher level.
There are several levels: in a conversation between two men of equal status, both of them would position the other at a slightly higher level, whereas their bosses would be located at another level above theirs, because each speaker would position his own boss at a higher level and their relationship would be incorporated into the conversation. Moreover, almost every activity has a direction that is determined by the fact of in whose interests the activity is carried out (the job of a shoemaker is not to mend my shoes, but to give me his shoe-mending). At the same time, one has to take into account whether an activity starts at a low level and is directed upwards or at a high level and is carried out downwards. When learning Japanese, many Westerners think that the word kudasai used as an imperative translates as ‘please’, even though its literal meaning is ‘lower’: ‘lower me your newspaper’ or ‘lower me your seat-taking’ (i.e. ‘please take a seat’).
People who operate in this communication system usually focus their attention on ‘polite language’, whereas the role of ‘impolite language’ is just as important: not a single utterance is considered neutral and every conversationalist must determine the relationship between his co-speakers, the topic and the persons under discussion with respect to himself and the others, because the use of overly polite phrases is also impolite – such use is considered ironic. As in very many Asian languages, there is no unambiguous and neutral system of personal pronouns in Japanese. Whatever version of ‘I’ a Japanese might choose out of the ten or so options open to him, his choice automatically refers to his own and his co-speaker’s status and age, to the situation at hand and sometimes even to his own character, for example to his willingness to communicate, if he prefers to use a slightly less formal word to refer to himself in a clearly formal setting.
It is obvious from the above that one must be socially competent and excel in context sensitivity in order to use Japanese in a culturally correct way. Most native speakers acquire these competencies as they grow up in their cultural environment. Language constantly reminds the Japanese that none of them has an independent and context-free inner self that could communicate with the outside world as it pleases. This permanent reminder is reinforced by the Buddhist schools of thought, which urge everyone to break free of the illusionary self. For Buddhists, Western individualism together with the Judeo-Christian belief system, which is based on the immortality and uniqueness of every soul, is just the convulsive clinging to a temporary and illusionary self that has emerged at the crossroads of accidental processes and will eventually disappear – similarly to a man who assumes a particular role in every conversation, which he disregards after saying goodbye, only to take up yet another role in another context.
The roots of group mentality
In Japan, spiritual Buddhist ideals translate into very distinctive traditions and institutional practices that suppress those who stand out from the mass, while supporting those who want to melt into the mass and be like others. One cannot speak, if one does not perceive the social context; and in order to do that, one has to know one’s place in a group and in a hierarchy. Being compelled by Confucianist principles of social order, the rulers who were in power during the Edo period (1600-1868) divided the population of the country into groups located at strictly separated levels, as a result of which, for example, a whole group could be punished for a crime committed by one group member even though other members had nothing to do with it. This made people cautious about their closest companions and neighbours and at the same time built solidarity between group members, as it was clear that in order to carry out some shady deals or anti-establishment activities, one really had to rely on one’s group members.
Actually, the roots of group mentality can be traced back much further through history: Japanese society was clan-based even before the establishment of the state, whereas a mainland-type of state only emerged during the 7th and 8th century as a result of a long-sought compromise between strong clans and the imperial central power. As soon as a state was established, power slipped from the hands of the emperor and was transferred to the strong clans who ruled the state in the name of and instead of the emperor. It happened quite often that the offices these clans had established for the management of their own familial affairs even issued orders of nationwide importance to further their aims. The highbrow aristocracy soon lost its influence and the warrior clans seized power. However, the system remained the same: the emperor was still a ‘centre point of no effect’, a symbolic name, who did not rule the state (admittedly, there were some short-lived exceptions), while one clan or another exercised real power. There were times when the centre was stronger or weaker, but its very existence always depended on the clans.
Later on, the Japanese modernisation movement led to the abolishment of the dictatorship of warriors, as if putting the emperor back in his place, but the new imperial institution was still dominated by new clans. These new clans gradually transformed themselves into political parties, business groups (keiretsu) and interlinked corporations, which included banks, foreign trading companies, heavy industry and supermarket chains. As always, every clan tries to keep its business inside the clan – it would be infra dig to ask for a loan from another keiretsu’s bank or to let someone else’s keiretsu win a public tender for construction works. Today, the relationship between the central government, i.e. the state apparatus, and contemporary clans is quite similar to that of the bygone warrior dictators and powerful samurai clans. In a way, the central government helps to find the right balance between various interest groups. At the same time, an official can often have quite straightforward relations with specific corporations; such relations would result in charges of corruption in the West, whereas they are regarded as common knowledge in Japan and are even tolerated up to a certain point.
Traditions and responsibility
Clans and corporations have an additional similar feature – lifelong membership. When samurais dominated in Japan, one of the most despised social categories was that of the so-called rí´nin (‘drifter’, a masterless samurai). A rí´nin was someone whose master had died, but who himself had managed to stay alive during fighting, which meant that he had not done everything in his power to save the reputation of his master and his clan.
Until recently, the same kind of lifelong devotion was expected from employees: one was born into a corporation and one departed from it only to rest in a graveyard, because if someone left his home corporation, for example, for higher pay, he was a potential traitor who should not be trusted. And if one’s home corporation was not doing well, all its members, including the employees, were to blame, as they had not been diligent enough, had not thought their company’s business affairs through thoroughly and had not worked as much overtime as they should have done.
This approach is based on the Japanese interpretation of Confucianism: according to Chinese social theories, a family whose members are connected by blood is the basic unit in society, while enormous value is attributed to respecting one’s elders. Japanese Confucianist thinkers, however, have transferred this relationship to all figures of authority. A distant relative in another city might even have a lower status in the general familial hierarchy than a servant or nanny who has no blood ties with the family, but has lived with it for a long time. In earlier times, families often carried out cross-adoptions of children: a family head whose occupation was passed down from generation to generation adopted a suitable boy to learn his trade, made the boy a member of the family and allowed him to bear the surname of the clan; while his own children who were not interested in his occupation or talented enough to learn it were adopted by another clan. In addition, arranged marriages were regularly used to gain a son-in-law who could be taken in by the bride’s family in order to mould him into a new head of the clan.
Many worlds and many models
It should be clear from the above that the Japanese have managed to retain very many important aspects of their traditional way of life during modernisation. Against this background, several Japanologists have asked the question whether Japan is actually a modern Western state – some say it practises feudalism in disguise and others point to Communism. This topic was most popular during the period when the US-Japan trade balance turned negative for the US and various Western analysts claimed that Japan had achieved success through cheating, as it had simply ignored ‘good modernisation practice’.
Critics of the Japanese (or wider Asian) model of society can indeed put forward some very convincing arguments against, for example, its corporate culture that makes employees devote practically all their time and energy to the service of their company and, as a result, exhausts them; the more so as the number of people who burn themselves out and die from stress is depressingly high. On the other hand, familial companies provide such support to people, the lack of which is often felt in Western society, as these companies are founded on more egalitarian principles. While in a US company the salary of a top executive is on average 50 times larger than that of a newly-hired person, in a Japanese company the respective salaries differ only five times. Moreover, an operational hierarchical system can boost the self-esteem of employees in a way unknown to those who, despite the fact that they have a job, are constantly on the lookout for a chance to climb higher up the career ladder and to do it more quickly.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that the paradoxical complementarity of the Japanese cultural and social order on the one hand, and the (post)modern paradigm on the other, might indicate that there is no ‘right’ or compulsory model for modernisation and that Hegelian and Marxist historicism, according to which all states must go through the same processes in more or less the same order, could be outdated.

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