Japanese are considered to be one of the most polite nations in the world. Are they, however, polite when it comes to Westerners? I question this because of the Japanese homogeneity and the fact that they were closed to the world, which even more strengthens the existence of a so-called West and East dichotomy, one of the most major cultural dichotomies ever known that creates a different attitude. This dichotomy was brought up mainly because of a polar difference in culture and way of thinking. As Pattberg (2013) suggests, “there are two cultural modes of humankind: the more rational, deduction-driven West, and the more intuitive, induction-driven East.” So how does East, Japan “,in particular, encounter West? Having taken inspiration from this drastic difference and outstanding politeness of the Japanese, in this brief ethnography paper, I try to analyze the attitude of Japanese towards Westerners. I show how Japanese treat Westerners in a social public place, such as cafeteria based on my analysis of two months observation and a number of interviews. The genre-form of my ethnography paper is, therefore, analysis, the general goal of which is understanding cultural realities.
My observation takes place at the school cafeteria at Komaba I campus of the University of Tokyo and is not restricted to one particular time period. I adhere not only to a sole observation but interviews as well, because observations would not give me a whole picture as I cannot elaborate on Westerners feelings and fully grasp what they personally experienced. I will work with undergraduate, graduate and exchange students. They come from New Zealand, Australia, Italy, the United Kingdom, Finland, Chile, and Russia.
This ethnography research might contribute to existing works done on the investigation of Japanese society, specifically their intercultural communication abilities.
Gathered data and analysis
During my observation, I did not just view cafeteria as a whole, but I consciously divided it into two main sites as each setting helps us gain a particular insight of certain behavior of Japanese towards Westerners. This division was, therefore, based on the site’s function and so, the distinguished sites are the lines and the eating area itself. I will discuss and analyze my findings from observations and interviews in accordance with the sites. The analysis of each site led me to explore two theories: belief in Japanese superiority and Japanese allocentrism.
In the lines, Westerners experience direct communication with the Japanese through food ordering and paying at counters. Investigation of this led me to spot Japanese superiority complex, which probably arises from the notions of difference.
My interviewees shared their experiences, which gave me a better understanding of interaction between them and the Japanese people. A total number of 8 people were interviewed. Their overall experiences in ordering food have been good enough, although they confirmed encountering unpleasant situations, which are all about the Japanese not admitting Japanese spoken by Westerners. An exchange student L.A. from New Zealand, who has been living in Tokyo for seven months says “I ordered a large size and the lady said: ‘medium’, and then I repeated myself: ‘no, large’, but she said: ‘okay, medium’.” And our conversation was entirely in Japanese. They just don’t listen to your Japanese.” Other interviewees agree with that statement as J.R. from Australia said he realized that: “Even though you speak in Japanese, they either speak English or not speak Japanese back” and this is again supported by the interviewee from the United Kingdom, J.G., “They reply to me in English. I asked for emu saizu and they asked me “medium?” M.B. from Finland also talks about how the conversation does not go in Japanese with him, despite asking in Japanese, the staff answers him in English, as if implying they do not understand what you are saying, “There have been instances where they have refused to speak in Japanese and insisted on broken English that I could hardly understand.” This shows how the Japanese simply do not accept the fact that Westerners have the capacity to speak Japanese. The theory of belief in the Japanese superiority, on which numerous pieces of work were done, could explain this phenomenon. The Japanese account themselves as a superior and unique nation and therefore, they strongly believe that no one can ever become Japanese. As Kaji, Sahoko, Hama, and Rice argue (1998, p.3), “To be Japanese, you must have a Japanese name and exclusively Japanese blood”. The phenomena of a so-called Japanese superiority is to a certain degree explained by Uchi and Soto concept, which represents the model of relationships in Japanese society. Uchi means in-group, or “ours” and Soto means out-group, or “other” and according to this distinction as Kaji et al. (1998, p.2) state, “To the Japanese, foreigners are soto most of the time” as they view the world through “we Japanese” and the rest. Consequently, I suggest that roots probably lie in the fact of existing “difference” on which Uchi and Soto concept is based on, which is especially felt by the Japanese. The idea of difference is also touched upon in the “At counters and eating space” part of the paper. Thus, due to the notions of difference the Japanese do not recognize Westerner’s Japanese. In this way, in their view, there is no nation that could ever know them and thus, a foreigner who speaks Japanese is regarded as henna gaijin (weird foreigner) (Kaji et al.”,1998, p.4). Japanese, however, do not stop at this point but go beyond by adhering to the idea that “Japanese should not be corrupted by foreign influences no matter how much Japan’s material way of life may be affected by them (Sugimoto, 2014, p.189-190). This, I argue, might be one of the reasons, why Japanese speak back in English because in this way they discourage Westerners speaking it in the first place and so, “prevent the corruption” of the Japanese language.
At counters and eating space
There have been four particular major patterns that I noticed through both observation and a series of interviews. I will first describe all the cases and then explain what could stand behind them.
1. There are different seats and tables one can find in the cafeteria. You have moveable tables, big oval tables, and a sort of benches. As a rule, Westerners tend to sit on the big oval ones. I many times observed how a Japanese would not sit on that oval table if there was a Westerner even though all of the seats would be free. When, however, an oval table was occupied by an Asian looking person, a Japanese would decide to eat there without hesitation. The same situation applies to the case of several people. It can be seen that the Japanese would prefer not to sit with Westerners. For example, a Japanese student came into the eating space and started searching for a free table. He realizes that the majority of moveable tables are occupied and so, looks at the oval table. He goes toward it but sees a Westerner silently eating on his own. He stops, looks around once more, passes by the oval table with the Westerner and sits to another oval one, which is quite occupied by the Japanese.
2. Another pattern worth mentioning was the observation of Japanese always turning around as the reaction for Westerners speaking loudly, or showing excessive emotions while having a talk, whereas they would not pay much attention to Japanese being noisy. They would do it mostly either grumbling or quite harshly as if being startled by something. In both cases, they look with judgmental eyes. Japanese did not limit themselves with only turning around and giving a judge-y look, but they also commented on such occasions. There was a group of four Westerners having lunch together. They were talking normally, but then one of them went vociferous. At first, two male Japanese students sitting next me hesitated to say anything but after one of them noticed that my laptop’s keyboard was in Russian, he understood that I was a foreigner and so probably assuming I would not understand them, made quite negative comments.
A: “ Damn… those foreigners. There are too many of them here. What on the earth did they forget here.”
B: “Indeed!”- replied the other with a fully affirmative and discontent voice.
3. The majority of respondents stated they often feel pressure when paying at counters, and this is not limited to the cafeteria. In this way, a graduate student V.E. from Russia says, “you are taking time and then they look at you with an expression: ‘for God’s sake’, whereas when a Japanese person does it, they don’t really notice.” According to an exchange student from Chile, R.B., he did not prepare his money in advance and so, could not pay at once. He felt tension from Japanese as they looked at him annoyedly, “if I were home, that would just be me not finding my money, whereas when I’m here, it is ‘oh gaijin can’t find his money’ I feel like being judged not as a person but as a representative of the whole race.” From these interviews, it again became clear that there is an inequality between the way Japanese and Westerners are treated. Another exchange student, M.W., from New Zealand had an unpleasant moment too, “ladies looked a little annoyed when it came time for me to pay… but that was definitely because I was taking ages trying to organize myself and find the right money.” It should be noted, however, that there were respondents, who deny this kind of experience. An undergraduate student, V.F., from Italy says, “I never felt this way even once. On the contrary, I notice that they always approach me with a big smile.” The reason may lie in the fact that the Japanese feel sorry for Westerners as they know that Westerners will never comprehend them and because of that, they show consideration towards Westerners, “Westerners in Japan are exonerated from following Japanese ways and even the most blatant misconduct will be forgiven on the grounds of them being a gaijin… Gaijin embodies…disdain for the ‘unruly’ Westerners, the underlying meaning being “…S/he will never be able to be Japanese…poor soul…we have to treat him/her kindly” (Kaji et al., 1998, p.4).
4. The last common case I discovered is foreigners being discussed as the Japanese do not assume Westerners know Japanese (explained in the aforementioned theory of belief in Japanese superiority). This particular pattern is seen through both observations and interviews. I always tried to sit in the place, where the Japanese would sit right next to me so that I could hear what they tend to talk about Westerners if they do at all. Mostly, I grasped their opinions on the fact that there are more and more gaijin coming to wagakuni. The way they discuss it is certainly negative as they are using gaijin instead of gaikokujin, and refer to Japan as “wagakuni”. What is more, it is not only about what they say but how they say it. During observations, I noted that when the Japanese discuss this topic, their facial expression is obnoxious and they look irritated as if talking about issues they have. My interviewees know at least some Japanese, and the majority’s level of proficiency is intermediate-upper-intermediate, which allows them to know if they are being discussed or to spot any passing comments. Respondents had enough stories to share regarding these issues, “an old man muttered something in Japanese along the lines of ‘stupid foreigners, stupid fools’, “ an old woman at Shibuya crossing shouting about internationalism being a threat”, “the staff saying “The one in 309 is English, but he’s not as dumb as they usually are and he can speak Japanese, so be careful”’, “when my friends and I walked to the ticket machine to pay for ramen shop, the Japanese said, ‘oh look at that. Look at those foreigners’ faces’ in Japanese”, “ a Japanese man said, ‘I hate foreigners’ when I went into the bathroom”.
Now that all the patterns are defined, I would like to refer to a theory related to allocentrism introduced by Lebra(1983) that I think explains them. Allocentrism is having one’s attention and actions focused on others rather than on oneself, which relates to Japanese as according Lebra(1983), “…the Japanese tend to be more aware of others than, for instance, those who have not socialized in the Judeo-Christian theistic tradition” (p.193). This allocentrism results in exposure sensitivity as one is preoccupied of what others might think and therefore is easily embarrassed. Exposure sensitivity, as Lebra believes, drives Japanese to self-represent themselves perfectly in any situation which accounts for the reason of their numerous codes and rules (p.197). In this way, being highly concerned about order, the Japanese avoid disturbing it as much as possible. When it comes to Westerners, however, it is exactly the opposite – they conflict with the Japanese values. While Japanese are allocentric, Westerners are their counterparts as they are idiocentric and the difference of this psychological dimension creates certain tensions. This again ties in with the notions of difference mentioned earlier. Allocentrism, therefore, is another example of how the sensitivity to difference is manifested in the Japanese society as stemming from allocentrism the Japanese are more aware of the difference between them and Westerners. In this way, Japanese would prefer not to sit with them, give judge-y looks as Westerners tend to violate Japanese norms, and Westerners feel pressurized at counters as M.W. suggested earlier, “definitely because I was taking ages trying to organize myself and find the right money.”
Conclusion and further research
In this short ethnographic research paper, I investigated the attitude of the Japanese towards Westerners trough three methods of data collection: field observation, interview and the use of secondary sources. Field observation and interviews complement each other in providing evidence of real behavior and experiences. In the course of observations and interviews, I noted five main patterns in the behavior of Japanese people towards Westerners. Specifically, Japanese people prefer not to respond in Japanese even when the Westerner is a fluent Japanese speaker, they do not want to sit with or near them in public spaces, they disapprove Westerners’ expressing their emotions freely, trivial mistakes of Westerners are judged harshly which makes Westerners feel pressurized to present a perfect front, and they pass comments on the rowdiness and general attitude of Westerners. I analyzed these general observations through two concepts: the allocentrism of Japanese people and an inherent feeling of superiority, the origins of which come from the notions of difference. This prompted me to the conclusion that the Japanese are ethnocentric as they have a well pronounced yet covert superiority complex and they view Westerners in the lens of their own culture and so, react somewhat condescendingly.
It has to be said, however, that my study focus was confined to the university setting as well as people that have some kind of connection to the University of Tokyo. Another limitation of this study is an insufficient number of interviewees, which could not provide comprehensive and high validity results. To address both of these limitations and therefore, undermine any subjectivity, it is pressing to augment the number of interviewees and ensure that they come from different backgrounds. To further improve the credibility and accurateness of this ethnographic paper, it is crucial to make the same observation in other venues, which would broaden the scope and therefore, give a better insight on the issue.
Kaji, S., Hama, N., & Rice J. (1998). The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Japanese. Retrieved from https://books.google.co.jp/books?hl=ru&lr=&id=e6gmBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT4&dq=Xenophobe%27s+Guide+to+the+Japanese:+Sahoko+Kaji:&ots=vKCD02nzoS&sig=LsKixr8HXZpwdUhkEpq7G6w_Iwg&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=Xenophobe’s%20Guide%20to%20the%20Japanese%3A%20Sahoko%20Kaji%3A&f=false
Lebra, T. S. (1983). Shame and Guilt: A Psychocultural View of the Japanese Self. Cambridge, England: Society for Psychological Anthropology.
Pattberg, T.(2013). The East-West Dichotomy. Beijing: Foreign Language Press. Retrieved from https://www.pattberg.org/the-east-west-dichotomy-book/
Sugimoto, Yoshio (2014). An Introduction to Japanese Society. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.kz/books?id=92enBAAAQBAJ&pg=PT211&dq=japanese%20ethnocentrism%20academic&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiOhdvImc3fAhXhlIsKHb3LDUYQ6AEIMTAC#v=onepage&q=japanese%20ethnocentrism%20academic&f=false