‘Shikiru’ with the Japanese mind (II)

Katwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands (6 min. read).

Living in Japan as a foreigner is always quite an adventure. It doesn’t matter how long you have been living here, the sense of curiosity, admiration, and at times even perplexity seem to never cease.

Beyond the distance and the language, it’s a culture that barely resembles anything I’ve seen or experienced before. Different is the adjective often used by foreigners when confronted with the question of how it is to live in Japan; right before highlighting certain patterns and social behaviors that stand out from what we may consider “normal”.

It requires a serious mental effort to put in words how a society, as complex as the Japanese, actually works as a whole. Finding the cause or understanding the historical background that led to certain behaviors is not something we do; we simply give a perspective based on our own personal experience. And that’s ok, but sometimes not enough for the ones listening to fully understand the nuances of what you are trying to convey. A 5-min bar conversation is sometimes simply not enough. Because of this, I’ve created this series.

This is the second part of a set of blog posts through which I’m attempting to describe my experience living in Japan, as well as to bring people closer to and to educate myself a bit more on some of the different hues Japanese society is tinted with. If you just landed here and haven’t read part I, I would highly encourage you to pause and take a look at it first. However, if you just want to keep reading, I’ve made each part self-contained; so you should be good to go.

I dubbed this set of posts “the shikiru series” as a reference to the ritual of demoralization of the opponent that sumo wrestlers go through right before the bout. This is exactly how I feel most of the time when attempting to put in words what has been for me to live in Japan for the last year and a half. Disheartened, I give up before the conversation hasn’t even started. This series is the result of a conscious effort to describe those aspects of the Japanese culture I’ve found to be more distinctive, admirable, and challenging at times. Assisted by the Japanese lexicon, I’ll walk you through my adventures living in and traveling through the land of the rising sun.

In part I of this series I presented the art of giving, or omotenashi, and explained how it is one of the features that has characterized almost every interaction I’ve had with Japanese people, something I will always remember and try to replicate in my personal relationships. In this second part, things may start to turn a little bit more complicated. Today I’m writing about aimai, the concept of ambiguity so widely installed both within Japanese culture and language.   

Aimai (曖昧) — when harmony drives me crazy

This might be one of the aspects of Japanese culture I still have a hard time dealing with and probably it is also one of the most difficult to explain. Aimai literally means ambiguous, vague, or unclear. I believe most students of Japanese language would agree with me if I say that often aimai is synonym of scratching foreheads and sighs of exasperation. The first thing we should understand right off the bat is that Japanese language is meant to be ambiguous and indirect. While most western cultures value clarity and encourage directness to avoid misunderstandings, in Japan is almost considered a virtue and in most cases expected of you to express yourself concisely and indirectly. Let me explain.

Japan is a country that has been largely isolated from the rest of the world for long periods of time. During the Tokugata Shogunate in the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese were kept from leaving the country for over 200 years. Beside isolationist policies, Japan is also a geographically isolated country. If to this we add that only 30% of Japan is considered inhabitable (about 95% of the population in Japan is concentrated in just about 30% of the country’s territory) then we are facing a case where survivability might be a direct consequence of coexistence and common understanding. For the different communities to thrive, Japanese had to work together both to make sure they were making the most out of the limited resources available but also to avoid internal conflicts that could potentially bring people against each other. And so, the concept of harmony, or wa (和), within groups of people was born, which implanted within Japanese DNA a need for maintaining the group’s values and ideals over one’s personal interests – a need that, for what I can tell, still persists.

In order to maintain and promote the values and ideals tying a group of people together, the language must be cautious and contained. Most people will tell you that Japanese language is more about what you don’t say than what you say, since words and mostly silences — what in Japanese is referred to as chinmoku (沈黙) — carry enough meaning if chosen wisely.  This degree of conciseness has given rise to a level of ambiguity in what is said that even between Japanese oftentimes leads to misunderstandings.

A great example of the problematic regarding aimai that a foreigner could experience in everyday life in Japan can be found in the fantastic book The Japanese Mind: Understanding contemporary Japanese culture” on which this series is based:

[…] when a person is visiting someone’s house in Japan and it becomes times for supper, people will often say, ‘Won’t you dine with us?’ But this is not really an invitation; rather it is a subtle hint that it is time to go home. To those from other countries, this may seem confusing, but for the Japanese, it is a natural way to interact socially. So the correct response to ‘Won’t you dine with us?’ is ‘Thank you very much, but I am not hungry’.

Japanese believe one’s opinion shouldn’t be openly expressed – deru kui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる), “the nail that sticks will be hammered down”. Speaking openly about one’s feelings and opinions is considered childish and impolite, since, as some authors pointed out, “to express oneself distinctly carries the assumption that one’s partner knows nothing”. In this regard, aimai could be considered as a positive aspect of Japanese style of communication that favors the creation of bonds, facilitates communication, and eases understanding among people while keeping focus and ties within a group.

Although I would partly agree with this statement, in my experience, aimai wares a hidden face — an evil mask that turns agreement, cooperation and peacefulness into their alter ego: alienation, disaffection and resentment.

The need that I believe most Japanese have to fit within certain groups of people, or to the very least the need not to disrupt the group’s harmony, leads to personal opinions to be withheld and individual feelings to be dimmed in benefit sometimes not of the group’s well-being but of the desires and personal interests of the group’s authority. This, combined with the strong consciousness of social hierarchy that resides within Japanese society, makes it common for large groups of people, often within companies and working teams, to be misled by inefficiencies, mistargeted strategies, and selfish motives. People evolve lacking the capacity to fully express themselves, to develop critical thinking, and to improvise when the situation so requires. Aspects that nicely ties to the concept of kata ni hamatta, which I will talk about in part 3 (you’ll have to wait for that).

Harmony is a a double-edge sword. There are times when issues need to be raised and conflicts have to be addressed. Cooperation and agreement are propped by how we, as a group of individuals, solve common problems, not by force of listening to those that speak louder. I wish most of us, Japanese included, were capable of expressing ourselves freely and openly in a regular basis. Harmony might actually be reached faster this way, maybe not within a group but surely within ourselves.


‘Shikiru’ with the Japanese mind (I)

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*Shikiri (仕切り) is a ritual in sumo fights in which the two wrestlers crouching with their fists on the ground stare intensively at each other’s eyes right before the bout begins in an attempt to demoralize the opponent and win the crowd’s support. Shikiru is the verb form meaning ‘toeing the mark’.

Sendai, Japan (8 min. read).

It’s 10 am.

I’m sitting in the waiting room of place called ハローワーク (“hello work”). Hello Work is a public institution that guides people through the minutiae of job hunting. The waiting room is located in an open space littered with rows of numbered computers and small desks where the job-seekers are called to meet with their assistants. Despite the size of the place, overall, it is incredibly quiet. From where I stand, a slight mumble and a soothing melody is all that can be heard. To my right, a man has fallen asleep in what seems a futile attempt to send an email from one of those old computers. On the other side, sitting right next to me is another man completely immersed in a manga (Japanese comic book) — I wish I could read them too. A kid proudly wearing an Anpanman’s t-shirt is constantly staring at me without setting free his mom’s blouse. As a foreigner, I find it amusing how you always get that bewildered look from kids. Every now and then he turns back to his mom, probably tired of me making silly faces, who is too involved trying to sleep a newborn in a baby carrier to pay her older boy any attention. I have also noticed a police officer walking the floor every five minutes or so. He thoroughly looks through every corner of the room while making quick gestures with his hands; almost like reassuring himself that indeed the spot is cleared.

Every once in a while I stop looking around as a recurring thought flashes through my mind — Japan, what a different country this is.


I’ve been living in northern Japan for almost a year and a half. Throughout this time, a recurrent question arises among friends and family.  A question I always have a particularly hard time answering. It often takes the form of ‘how’s Japan?’, ‘how’s living there?’, or the always puzzled ‘Japan, huh?’. I’d bet though that what some people really want to know is whether the Japanese are as eccentric and bizarre as dictated by their preconceptions of this too often misinterpreted ancient culture. They would like to know whether the Japanese really work until exhaustion, whether they all watch anime and read manga, or whether one can actually buy used underwear from vending machines and enslave a robot to do the laundry.

Aside from stereotypes, which mostly distorts any culture they refer to, the reason it’s hard for me to answer these questions lies in a personal language deficiency. It is not that I find it specially difficult to spot those distinctive characteristics that make Japanese culture unique. But it is in the explanation of the reasons and nuances that make those characteristics so exceptionally defined when I find myself in the lack of the right words.

This time and at my own pace (which usually implies taking way longer than initially anticipated) I’ve decided to make an effort to find a way in which I can describe to others, those who may have never traveled to Japan or those have never had a single interaction with Japanese culture before, what’s being like for me to venture into the land of the rising sun.

As it so often happens, I find myself committing to this new endeavour while reading a fantastic book called “The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture” by Roger J. Davis and Osamu Ikeno.  In this book students from the University of Ehime put together a list of Japanese words and expressions, explaining not only their meaning but the historical and cultural context in which they were coined and their implications on today’s social landscape. A highly recommended read to anyone that wants to get a grasp of how hard sometimes is to explain and how easy is to misunderstand the implications of certain aspects of Japanese culture.

Following the structure and the idea behind this book, I’ve decided to make use of the Japanese lexicon by selecting a few words and expressions, some of which are part of this book, in an attempt to describe in a short series of blog posts my experience wrestling with the Japanese mindset.

It goes without saying that first, I’m no expert in Japanese culture whatsoever. I’m just a mere observer. And second, it isn’t my intention to label all Japanese people under the same few categories or words. Japanese, just as any other culture, is a complex conglomerate of people of all different types, with likes and dislikes, traditions, manners, and dialects that change from one region to another. My sole intention with this series is to provide a glimpse into what my impressions are of those defining features I find so admirable and representative, and challenging sometimes, of the part of Japanese culture I’ve been faced with for the last 18 months. I apologize in advance if you are Japanese, or someone living in Japan, and you don’t find yourself, or your experience, faithfully represented by what you’re about to read. So, without extending this intro any longer, here it is the first entry of what I’ve dubbed the shikiru series. Enjoy!

Omotenashi  (おもてなし) – the art of giving without expecting anything in return.

Long has been written about omotenashi and its foundations within the roots of Japanese culture and customs. One simply has to google the word to find hundreds upon hundreds of articles describing what in simple terms could be referred to as hospitality, treatment, or service.

Even without knowing the word, omotenashi is one of the first things foreigners notice upon arriving in Japan and often one of the first things they point out when they try to describe their experience through Nippon lands — maybe just right after mentioning the lack of public trash cans, the fact that there is people, lots of people, everywhere, and the Japanese addiction for queuing and pachinko slots (although the number of users seems to have decreased considerably over the last decade).

The truth is that omotenashi has deeper implications in Japanese than that of a cordial and delightful service. Hospitality is an act of generosity that can be found shaped into many different forms all over the world. In Japan, however, the channels through which hospitality is offered are extended well beyond what we would consider to be sufficient. To understand the far-reaching implications of Japanese hospitality, one would only have to look at the well-known saying ‘the customer is always right’, which in Japanese takes the form of the proverb お客様は神様 (“okyakusama wa kamisama”), literally meaning ‘the customer is god’.

Usually people refer to omotenashi in the context of Japan’s extraordinary customer service. Manifestations of this sense of lavish, almost overwhelming hospitality can be experienced from the always smiling faces and constant bowing of hotel employees, the careful treatment and attention to detail of shop assistants, to the fact that they will run to you apologizing even when you were the one spilling tea over the recently restored, hundred-year old tatami mat (…本当にごめんね!).

The people who know me often hear me saying that Japan is one the places where I find it easier to live, which is the way I’ve found to say that Japan has, from my point of view, the highest quality of life of all the places I’ve ever been. The reason I say this is that, as I pointed out before, omotenashi can be found well beyond services and good manners. One will experience it, for instance, in architecture and urbanism, with buildings and public areas specifically designed to favor a more pleasant stay or an effortless passage. Optic centers will dispose of eyeglasses cleaning stations in front of the stores free for anyone to use. Spotless public toilets are always in sight. Vending machines with hot drinks in winter and cold drinks in summer (no underwear that I know of) are found literally everywhere. Bags and umbrella holders are thoughtfully placed in ATMs and bus seats, which you don’t realize you need them until you have them. And the list goes on and on.

For me, however, where omotenashi has really showed up is in personal relationships. It is in my daily encounters with the Japanese when I can feel the profuse generosity I believe the word omotenashi entails. I can think of at least a dozen times where they have gone above and beyond to solve any problem I was having or to just make my lack of problems even more enjoyable. I’m still have to find someone who answers my call for help with ‘今ちょと忙しい…’, “sorry I’m too busy now”. Omotenashi is the main cause of the embarrassment my wife and I feel when we’re incapable of finding ways to give back all the kindness, the warmth, the joy, and the unselfish treatment we always receive when we’re invited to a Japanese house.

Japan is one in a few list of countries where, either due to social obligation or personal morality, other’s well-being is always looked after over one’s own. Omotenashi is definitely one of the things I will always remember about the Japanese and something I will always bear in mind through my interactions with other people.

Welcome

Wherever you are coming from, however you got here, make yourself at home. 

This my sacred spot—a place I use to practice an affordable version of cognitive self-therapy. Here I attempt to articulate feelings and emotions, to explore and give shape to ideas, to challenge my own beliefs. 

You will find that things around here are kept deliberately simple. 

There is no grandiose plan for this site outside maintaining my own sanity. So don’t expect routine, much less structure. 

Sometimes I write in English, otras veces en español.

Sometimes I write three posts in a month. Sometimes months go by without a post. 

Sometimes posts are long and vivid. Sometimes I briefly long for vivid thoughts. 

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Welcome to The Foreigner,

David R.