‘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.