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Prized Japanese social values that withstand ‘Westernization’

by Edward Hoffman

NEW YORK — Japan is a fascinating and beautiful country, but its culture can be baffling to Westerners. This seems especially true for Americans, with our long history of geographic and cultural isolation from Europe and Asia.

In their quick visits to Kyoto’s majestic Buddhist temples and Tokyo’s ultramodern glitz, our tourists catch a glimpse of the old versus the new. But they get almost no real contact with Japanese people. As for those motivated by commerce, most Americans realize soon enough that guidebooks on “how to do business with the Japanese” are cliched, oversimplified and even misleading.

As a New York-based psychologist specializing in personality study, I’ve been lecturing frequently and collaborating in Japan for the past decade. As a result, seven of my books have now been translated into Japanese. Last fall I served as a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, where my wife (a third-generation Brazilian Japanese) and our two tots were comfortably housed on campus, a brisk walk from historic Ueno Park.

As time passed, I saw more clearly than ever how Japanese social etiquette and values differ from those of Westerners. I also found time to conduct a research study with over 150 Tokyo college students planning teaching or child psychology careers.

My goal? To determine the social skills they valued most in training schoolchildren: a growing international field that educators today often call “character education.” As incidents of student bullying, violence and classroom disruption have reached unprecedented levels in contemporary Japan, politicians and professionals alike are trying to reverse this alarming trend.

My survey presented 18 different social skills or “competencies,” and asked participants anonymously to identify the seven most important for schoolchildren to acquire in order of ranking from No. 1 to No. 7. I expected that Japanese education majors would answer more or less like their American counterparts, who, for over 25 years, have been taught that empathy and attentiveness to others are the most vital traits for social success starting in childhood. Because Japanese society is regarded by foreign researchers as highly collectivist, I also expected that teamwork would be a paramount social value among my Tokyo participants.

Both expectations proved completely wrong. In fact, findings surprised even my Japanese host colleagues. Why? Because they had accepted their country’s popular view that its youth have become “Westernized” or “Americanized” due to Hollywood movies, pop music and the Internet. Yet, it’s now clear that such global forces, whatever their impact, haven’t really altered basic — and long-standing — Japanese social values.

How so? In essence, here are my findings, which definitely have international relevance beyond the fields of teacher-training and character education:

(1) In Japan, the value of politeness and social manners is paramount. This is no cliche, for the trait was rated among the top seven by 82 percent of participants — surpassing even that of honesty- trustworthiness. Americans would be wise to hone their etiquette skills if planning business or other relations with Japanese. “Please,” “may I,” “excuse me,” “sorry to bother you” and “thank you” go a long way.

(2) Gratitude is another highly prized Japanese trait. Over 80 percent of my participants rated it among the top seven — and almost amazingly for Westerners — just behind politeness and trustworthiness in importance.

Among Americans generally, expressing or even feeling thankfulness is inconsequential. But not so in Japan, where its absence is a serious marker of rudeness. You’ll win few friends or business clients by failing to verbalize gratitude freely and often.

(3) The ability to apologize is a cherished Japanese social trait, rated among the top seven by 58 percent of participants, slightly behind kindness. The extent to which apologies are central to Japanese society — even embedded in its judicial system — is almost incomprehensible to most Americans.

In our culture, to apologize is typically regarded as a sign of personal weakness, whether in business or family matters. So even when we Americans know we’re in the wrong, we rarely make either public or private apologies. Carry this attitude into relations with the Japanese, and you’re doomed to failure.

(4) Friendliness was a social trait rated relatively high, among the top seven by 51 percent of participants — and ranked far above patience, fairness and empathy.

Certainly, this finding contradicts the popular Western stereotype of Japanese people as being aloof and disengaged. From my psychological perch, their reluctance to engage in quick soul-baring or intense emotionality is often misinterpreted by Americans as unfriendliness or coldness. The result? Resentment and then withdrawal.

Bear in mind that recent psychological studies show that calmness rather than excitement is associated with personal well-being among the Japanese. In their eyes, a smooth, orderly social interaction has the best seeds for growth, not one marked by exuberance, giddiness or glad-handing.

I can’t claim that my study of social traits esteemed by Tokyo’s budding teachers and psychologists ends the debate about cultural change in this complex, beautiful country. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, a great American writer with a sharp eye for human personality, rumors about the demise of Japan’s traditional values appear to be very much exaggerated.

Edward Hoffman, Ph.D., is an adjunct psychology professor at Yeshiva University and author of “Psychological Testing at Work” and other books (elhoffma@yu.edu).