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).
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.
- “You and I are equals”
- American’s polite fiction is “my wife is wonderful” while Japan’s polite fiction is “my wife is not good [compared to yours]”
- In America it is safer to say that “you are good at X” than “you are better than me at X”, because the latter contradicts the polite fiction that we are equals.
- This is the fundamental American polite fiction.
- “You and I are close friends”
- Americans maintain a polite fiction that we are close, so we will be especially chummy to honored visitors. The Japanese will honor the visitor by being aloof. The Japanese polite fiction is “I am in awe of you”.
- Americans use jokes in speeches because laughing together shows that we are close friends. Since the Japanese polite fiction is “you are my superior”, they begin speeches by apologizing.
- It is extremely difficult not to act out our cultural polite fictions even when we know we shouldn’t be.
- “You and I are relaxed”
- Americans view being relaxed as normal and at attention as abnormal. So it is desirable to be relaxed. The Japanese polite fiction is “I am busy on your behalf”.
- Americans joke to relieve tension, whereas Japanese keep busy to show they understand the gravity of the situation.
- “You and I are independent”
- Unlike the Japanese, who say “Please continue to help me” on their New Year’s cards, Americans say “good luck” because their polite fiction is that “you and I are independent” and “you and I are self-reliant”.
- Because of this, requests in America can generally be refused on practically any grounds—we assume that the other person is capable of coping without us. But in Japan, the polite fiction is “I depend on you”, in this case “I am helpless without your aid”, so requests cannot easily be refused.
- Similarly, if someone/thing has a weakness, Americans do not
pity it. They say “look how well they are managing in spite of
everything”. In fact, pity is insulting because it implies that
the person cannot cope and are defeated by their weakness.
- People as individuals
- Japanese assume that “your business is my business [because we are part of the same group]” so they ask questions that seem nosey to Americans who assume that “your business is not my business unless you choose to share it with me”.
- Similarly, invitations must be declined with elaborate excuses because your friends are entitled to know your business.
- Japanese have well-lit parties because the polite fiction is “we are here as a group” so good lighting enables everyone to see each other. American parties try to invite a lot of different kinds of people and talk together as individuals, so dim, intimate lighting is better.
- The phrase “you Americans” is bothersome to Americans because it robs them of their individuality but it is natural for Japanese because it distinguishes your group.
- Being original
- Americans value being original. So plots are never given away, disco dancers never do the same thing, and tourists look for out-of-the-way unique items. The Japanese polite fiction is that “you and I think alike” so they concentrate of form rather than content. Movie preview often show the entire plot, because moviegoers concentrate on acting, effects, characters reactions, etc. Disco dancers try to be better in form than the others.
- Americans expect you to have an opinion on everything because it shows that you are thinking. “It doesn’t matter whether your opinion is right or wrong, well-informed or poorly-informed, serious or offhand, so long as you show that you are thinking about the subject.” So not having an opinion implies that you are disinterested and passive agreement implies that you are too stupid to have your own opinion.
- Ideas are separate from the person, so anyone can challenge anyone else’s ideas. (Of course “that’s wrong” is generally impolite). To Japanese, though, it is impolite to question the ideas of a superior.
- When Americans teaching in Japan challenge a student’s opinion or idea (“why do you think that way”) in order to clarify it or promote discussion the Japanese student often assumes that they somehow gave a wrong answer since you aren’t agreeing with it.
- Questions, questions!
- Americans ask a lot of questions, sometimes out of politeness, sometimes because they would like to know the answer if you happen to know it. Japanese, though, assume that you would not ask the question unless you needed the answer (because “I depend on you”)
- You can tell if an American is really interested in the answer because he will answer more than once and in different ways.
- Americans assume that questions are for information, not hints for action. So they expect the other person to ask before taking any action. Japanese assume otherwise and will helpfully respond to an American’s “hint” without asking them.
- Answer to the point!
- When Japanese answer a question they first fill in all the background knowledge and then come give the answer, so that you can make proper sense of the answer. Americans, valuing the idea, give the answer first and then fill in background as necessary or if desired.
- Conversational ballgames
- Americans converse like a tennis game: one person
suggests and idea, then other person challenges it or improves it, and
so forth. There is also the assumption that you will do you will
your best to keep the ball going. (And Americans find it
uncomfortable if you don’t) You also have to be proactive about
interjecting your idea or it won’t see action.
- Japanese conversations are like bowling: everyone gets their turn, carefully bowls their idea, and all the ideas are roughly parallel (“you and I think alike”)
- American’s like to converse while they eat (indeed, it would be impolite not too) because you can eat while the other person is talking. But Japanese would never get a chance to eat because the conversation [apparently is a collection of monologues].
- Don’t apologize
- Japanese use apologies to make things go smoother but Americans consider apologies to be an admittal of fault.
- Americans are less concerned with running smoothly than they are with “getting things moving”. They expect each side to defend themselves and through discussion a coherent picture will emerge. “Instead of using mutual apology as a social lubricant, they tend to use mutual confrontation as a social catalyst. This is sometimes called the ‘adversary system.’” (Hence “hammering out an agreement”) “Americans tend to feel that getting at the truth of a matter is much more important than smoothing things over.”
- Nobody told me!
- Sometimes “explain yourself” means “apologize” in Japan. (e.g. not realizing you needed to renew your Alien Registration form) Americans tend to give excuses as to why their behavior was acceptable. Or they do not want to give an apology because they feel that apologizing would be admitting to a fault that they did not commit. The Japanese expect a formal apology, even if it is a rather small offense—the apology is the important thing.
- “In Japan ... although of course you should feel repentant as well as express rentance, the formal expression of it is what is important. Even if you don’t feel sorry, at least you should have the decency to go through the motions. Otherwise, you are adding rudeness to your original fault. But Americans would consider this to by lying, and you would be adding dishonesty and cowardice to your original fault. Indeed, in many situations, people would feel that to insist on a formal apology would be extremely ungenerous and impolite, or even tyrannical. They feel that the content, the inner resolve ‘not to do it again,’ is much more important than form, the outward expression of apology or confession of guilt.” (p. 102)