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In our time of global aggression we could learn from the ‘Land of Sorry’

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

Back in 1991, I was offered a tenured position at a university in Kyoto. Needless to say, this was a big step for me and my family, who were all looking forward to settling into Kyoto life.

I went to the home of the professor friend who had first proposed me for a position. It was done and dusted. Or so I had thought.

We were about to leave in a taxi to meet the president for the handshake, when the phone rang. My friend came back into the living room with an exceedingly glum expression on his face.

“The whole thing’s off,” he said. “There’s no job. I’m really, really sorry.”

“What?”

I was flabbergasted.

“One person on the committee filed a strong objection to you.” (I subsequently found out he hadn’t liked an article I wrote. If that was a criterion for hiring, I wouldn’t get a job anywhere!)

“But I thought it was decided. We’re on our way to see the president, for god’s sake.”

“Yes, I know. But this is Japan. Everybody has to be happy about it.”

I wanted to ask him how one person could contradict the decision of so many. What about my family’s plans?

I could do nothing about it. Reading the mood in that living room, I ended up apologizing to my friend for causing him so much trouble in taking on my case. Though clearly the victim in the affair, it behooved me to protect his sensibility and take some blame for having applied for the position in the first place (at his insistence, I might add).

What had taken place in the inner workings of the university?

Of course it was the very Japanese principle of decision by consensus at work. The professors had to live with the guy who objected to my joining the staff, whereas I was not, as yet, a member of the circle. I was the expendable one. There was little thought for “justice” in this, or the consequences to me and my family. My goose was cooked, and the harmony of the group — the mood, the atmosphere or, to use the trendy word of today’s society, the “air” — ruled the roost.

This form of collective behavior is admirably explained in a book published last year by Nihon Keizai Shimbun Publishers, “Sumimasen no Kuni” (“The Land of Sumimasen”), — sumimasen means “I’m sorry.”

Author Hiroaki Enomoto is a psychologist with wide experience in academia and on-the-ground research. He explains the psychology behind the Japanese notion of “collective addiction” in a way that clarifies why the university in Kyoto chose to honor one man’s objection enough to alter the decision.

“The important thing (to Japanese),” he writes, “is not whether something is the correct thing to do or not, it’s whether there is an unpleasant awkwardness in the group or not. Care must be taken to keep up appearances for each and every person and make sure no one’s feelings are hurt, even at the cost of logical consistency.”

For “no one’s feelings” read “no one’s feelings in the group.” The feelings of the outsider — me in the case of the Kyoto job — are extraneous.

Enomoto also analyzes the Japanese behavior of deference and reticence from many angles in what he calls “the Japanese mode of communication.”

He covers the double standard of hiding one’s true thoughts and feelings and saying what one thinks others want to hear; of the Japanese tendency to apologize even when one is not at fault; and of the inability of many Japanese to take responsibility for their actions and the way they smother responsibility with vague platitudes.

“We Japanese are not good at asserting ourselves,” he writes, “because … we have a brake in our mind stopping us from expressing an opinion.”

This brake, he explains in the book, is installed in the consciousness of Japanese when they are children. Children are socialized not to put themselves forward at the expense of others and to take into account the opinions of others with the same consideration they give their own.

Japanese take refuge in ambiguity as a matter of social decorum and politesse. They would rather preserve the harmony of the moment than risk social fissure for the sake of self-expression.

“Our idea of the good child,” he writes, “is different from that in the United States.” There, he asserts, demonstrating your independence in the form of an opinion marks an ideal form of behavior. “In Japan, we try to guess, without speaking, what the other person is thinking, and others are doing the same with us.”

He quotes some of the young people he has interviewed for the book.

“I don’t like being surrounded by people who just go around speaking their mind all the time,” said one.

“I can’t follow what people say when they feel free to selfishly assert themselves,” says another.

In fact, Enomoto interviewed some 150 young people, finding them “typical” in most every way. Here are some of their thoughts on how to get along with others.

“I don’t feel like telling my friends how I feel. I’d worry about how they would feel if they didn’t understand me.”

“It’s really hard to be explicit about how you feel. I mean, if you say what’s really on your mind, maybe people will not like it and then the whole mood will be ruined.”

“A difference of opinion can spoil a relationship that has taken so long to build up.”

This is all well, good and pleasantly harmonious; and we have all seen many manifestations of such attitudes and actions among Japanese. But Enomoto’s book suffers from two major faults.

First, virtually all of his comparisons of behavior are with a supposed American model. This model presents Americans as forthright, self-assertive and admiring of social debate. Naturally, in comparison with this monolithic supposition, Japanese people come out looking demure and withdrawn. But, this form of exclusive Japanese-American stereotypical analysis is hackneyed, outmoded and biased.

The second fault lies with his references to allegedly unique Japanese traits. Many of them are illustrated with examples from the distant past, including, among others, quotes from ancient Japanese literature and from “Botchan,” a novel by Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). If one is writing about Japan today, one should look to the works of contemporary Japanese authors as a more accurate guide.

The young people he has interviewed seem unanimous on the subject of self-expression. I have found, however, that young Japanese people can be very forthcoming, if approached in a non-confrontational manner. Yes, when you ask in class if there are any questions, you may have to wait until the Grand Canyon fills up to get an answer. But, if you call on students in a friendly manner, they will generally come up with direct and pertinent questions or comments. They just don’t like to volunteer an answer. Such behavior strikes Japanese as pushy. They can be drawn out of their reticence if you approach them on their own territory.

I do approve, however, of Enomoto’s thesis in this thought-provoking book: that Japanese should not be forced to behave like brash Westerners in the interests of globalization or whatever.

Perhaps in our era of aggressive confrontation and global bullying, a bit of deference and studied modesty will help us get along with others unlike ourselves.

“Japanese ambiguity and leniency can be very useful in fostering coexistence among world value systems,” writes Enomoto in “The Land of Sumimasen.” “They might help bring together different cultures and close the gap between oneself and others.”

Sorry, but I really agree with this.