The weft and warp of Japanese society

One of the best characterizations of the fundamental differences between living in Japan, and living in America, that I’ve heard, came from Diet Member Kikawada Hitoshi-sensei. I was working with his office for 3 weeks, and during my welcome dinner the conversation turned to our two culture’s approach to information flow and communication. Of everyone at the table, he was the only other person to have spent significant time in the United States (he did his Master’s degree at the University of Maryland).


Kikawada Hitoshi sensei and his staff

He thought for a minute, and then explained to his staff that when he was a student in the US he always had to check his bank account to make sure that the bank hadn’t made a mistake. That sometimes they did make mistakes, and if that happened, it was his responsibility to find it and make sure it got corrected. He said he’d found several errors in his account during his time in the US.

His staff were shocked.

But I imagine, if you’re American, your response to the above scenario was something along the lines of, “Oh well, yeah. That happens. I wish it wasn’t that way, but …no one is perfect.”

Whereas in Japan, perfection is expected. Institutions are trustworthy. You don’t have to question the bank. The trains run on time. If someone says something, they have a good reason. Being able to count on things going according to plan is …incredibly relaxing. But for an American, it is sometimes completely disorienting. Because the flip side to trusting your institutions, is that information is doled out sparingly. Often, for the benefit of the peace-of-mind of the consumer/citizen, the details are glossed over. It’s covered! Why are you worried?

We’re worried, because in America, you need to be in charge of all the information, all the time. The responsibility lies with you. You the citizen; you the consumer; you the litigant. You must know what is happening with all things even remotely in your sphere. It is what we expect.

So when you pluck someone from the American way of doing things, and plop them in the middle of a society that trusts their institutions, it’s not just another culture, it’s like learning how to breathe underwater.

Where. Is. My. Information.

I mean, it’s awesome. It’s just very, very confusing.


So, if we were to compare the social fabric of America and Japan, America might be considered a loosely knit sweater; Japan, a tightly woven silk. There are gaps between the threads of the American sweater; it might be a little lumpy; it’s a little uneven; but it wears well after many washings, and keeps you warm. A snag is an isolated problem with a few threads, and can be easily mended.

Processed with Snapseed.

On the other hand, the Japanese silk is strong, even, and beautiful. The fabric drapes elegantly, each thread perfectly in line with the next. There is symmetry and balance. But a snag, a disruption, an irregularity, has far-reaching consequences to the overall fabric. No one wants to be the snag.

This is all to say that there is an inter-dependence in Japan that doesn’t exist on the same level in America. Our loosely-knit society allows for irregularities, departures from the norm, and quite a bit of chaos.

During another conversation, much more recently, I was asked if Americans trusted their government. My initial reaction was a half scoff, half snort. (snoff?) But the answer, I think, is both yes and no.

I think we, at least more often than not, still trust the intent upon which our institutions are built. We (want to) believe the foundation is still solid. But we are skeptics. And we are very skeptical of the structures build on top of these foundations. We are skeptical of our fellow citizens, and our leaders. We don’t necessarily trust them. So we challenge them. All the time. This is part of who we are. The sweater has to be made of sturdy stuff because it is being yanked and pulled and twisted into all sorts of contortions, every single day. And we have a great faith that it won’t disintegrate in our hands. That we can’t actually pull it apart. That this is currently being tested, is morbidly, horrifyingly, fascinating.

IMG_4907To be able to speak about Japan in this context is way beyond my level of expertise, but I do think the weave of society, the fabric itself, is designed differently. There is a subtlety and uniform understanding about certain things. The trust in institutions isn’t flawless, but it’s close. This shared concept of the way things should be would all start to unravel if too many new ideas were introduced all at once. If too many threads of varying thickness and strength came into the weave, it would introduce too much uncertainty, and the beautiful, lofty, serene (if customer)/ insanely stressful (if employee) way of life would start to falter. I think this is why many Japanese citizens are not overly enthusiastic about welcoming large numbers of immigrants. Too many mismatched pieces of thread. Too much potential for their whole approach to life to break down.

I don’t know what the right answer is, or if there even is one, …but I get it. I understand the fear, and the wish to preserve the social fabric as it is.


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