Polite Fictions is the result of observations by Nancy Sakamoto, an American woman who married a Japanese man. It is published in Japan, for Japanese, but is written mostly in English. The premise is that a culture’s interpersonal communications a dependant on the cultural values, in that communication is designed to make the other person look good in the light of those values. These values are the “polite fictions”, because the communication patterns assume that each person is adhering to these values, whether or not they actually are and regardless of the person’s opinion of the other.

The first section of the book lays out the fundamental values of American culture: all people are equals, we want to be close friends with everyone, being relaxed regardless of the (possibly stressful) circumstances is best, and we are independent of each other. Of course, these values are very contradictory to Japanese values: all people are not equals, we are only close to those we know, vigorous work shows we understand the gravity of the task, and we are dependant on each other. The social ramifications of these values are a logical extension of the values. Americans expect to treat and be treated equally, whereas Japanese assume inferiority in conversation. To Americans it seems that the Japanese have no self-worth. To Japanese, the Americans seem presumptuous. Similarly, Americans try to be relaxed because it shows that they are in control of the situation. By contrast, the Japanese rarely appear relaxed because that would show that they do not place any importance on the task to be done.

Having outlined the polite fictions of cultural conversation with copious examples, Sakamoto discusses some of the secondary values resulting from the culture’s primary values. Americans expect to be treated as individuals and value originality because it shows your individuality. The Japanese are primarily members of a group, so they act in harmony with the group as much as possible. A corollary of this is that Americans are fairly direct in their conversation, as it is the idea that is important. The outward form is much more important for Japanese. A particularly revealing example comes in the form of a television drama where the daily newspaper reveals that a girl in a television drama who had been struggling with illness will die in the upcoming episode. To Americans this is unthinkable because it is the plot, or storytelling idea, that is important, but to the Japanese the event is less important than how the characters in the drama react to it.

Sakamoto closes the book with a sort of how-to of certain cultural communications. Because Americans are value information, they ask a lot of questions, both for information and to show that they are interested. Unfortunately, since the Japanese are dependant on each other, questions are not lightly asked, as it will likely trouble the receiver to find an answer (or initiate an action), so the American’s questions will be a source of some stress. Similarly troublesome is the issue of apologies. Americans defend their opinions until they are no longer tenable, so when someone does not defend themselves but issues an apology, they are admitting that they are wrong. In Japan, apologies are a social lubricant and are not admission of guilt. Thus Americans find it hard to make the necessary apologies if they feel they have done no wrong but the Japanese will unwittingly (and incorrectly) admit their  guilt in the eyes of Americans.

The discussion on conversation is a good illustration of the cultural values at work. American conversation aims to find new ideas and so the conversationalists will challenge each other until a clear and hopefully new picture has emerged. Japanese conversation has none of this disruptive competition; in an orderly fashion each person gets their turn to speak, and everyone speaks on the same topic, although presumably with a slightly different angle.

Sakamoto has written down some excellent observations of the cultural values of America and Japan. Unfortunately, she never quite recognizes the cultural values themselves, only the “polite fictions” that cultural interactions must maintain, which precludes some interesting discussions. In particular, the issue of discovering truth is fairly essential to American eyes. But truth tends to disturb group harmony and it appears to be less important in Sakamoto’s discussion of Japanese values. Yet covering up truth leads to problems. So is the American value more “right” or is there a compensating Japanese value? Regardless, though, the insights that Sakamoto has are invaluable and are illustrated with concrete examples. Definitely a must read by any American interacting with the Japanese (and, of course, vice-versa).
Review: 9.5
Very readable, well-chosen examples, and very coherent. The material is cogent yet concise and contains an unusual insight. However, a lack of discussion of the underlying social values limits the scope of the book and does not give the reader tools to discover further polite fictions. Still, the book is very practical and eminently useful.