Tuesday, June 29

The Ever-So-Shy Japanese

Recently, on a crowded train to Hiroshima, I sat reading a book. A lady sat down next to me after entering the train. After about 2 minutes, she placed her large purse in between us both. The purse was a boundary between her and I; between a Japanese person and a foreigner. I wasn’t sweating. I didn’t smell. I didn’t accidentally rub arms with her. A stop later, someone left from the seat in front of us. The lady stood up and sat in the empty seat. So, instead of sitting next to a gaijin (foreigner), she preferred to change seats and sit next to a Japanese person (who she didn’t know either).

Situations like this occasionally happen to us foreigners in Japan. Now, I’m not so worried about the treatment of foreigners. I’m worried about the attitude of Japanese. In a sharp contrast to Americans, the Japanese seem very nervous about talking to foreigners, strangers, and even people they see on a weekly basis. For example, Yours is a small grocery store on my island. I (and most of the residents) know all of the workers in the store. We have seen their faces a thousand times while they serve us. In America we would ask these workers, “How’s your day?” “How’s the family?” or simply talk about the weather. In fact, most Japanese grocery stores restrict their workers from using small talk with customers.

This small talk is almost absent in Japan. In America, we sometimes even use small talk with strangers waiting at a bus stop, waiting in a line, or almost anywhere. The guy next to you is wearing a Rangers shirt, so you amiably tell him he’s not welcome here. I find that one of the pleasures of living is talking to people. Discussion. Communication. It seems rather solitary to not talk to different people everyday. Is it so invasive to ask a friend, “How’s the wife and kids?” Besides uchi (inside/close friend) groups and the concept of haragei (reading others’ thoughts) it seems Japanese don’t know each other very much at all. Of course, this is only my perspective as a foreigner…but this communication seems important in an increasingly global economy.

How do Japanese businessmen accomplish global relations? They don’t speak in contradiction to their companies, especially in meetings. They follow one chosen plan of action from the start to finish (but who chooses?). During meet and greets they’re most likely either very shy, or considering the enchantment of foreigners, maybe very talkative. And then, at the after party, beer is always a saving grace that allows them to open up and ask sometimes very intrusive questions. Remember, in Japan, all is forgiven and forgotten at drinking events. Well, unless you’re a foreigner.

Japan has an exploding population (98.5% Japanese, 10th largest in the world) on a small island (the size of California, 73% mountains). The Japanese have a tight knit society…but not in the American standard. They are closed away from outsiders, then from Japanese strangers, then from people they don’t work with, and last from everyone that doesn’t reside in their own home. They have concentric rings of personal relations in which only very close to the middle (their home) do they actually open up…and even that space seems rather sad and lonely at times. (We’ll at least they’re avoiding this).

In my experience, Japanese adults usually have around two to four close friends. These are friends with which we share secrets, go out to eat, stay at home and watch a movie, and have inside jokes. In America, I have around eight close friends. It’s not uncommon for girls to have 10 or more close friends. It seems rude and almost invasive to be concerned about someone’s personal life in Japan and I’m there’s a correlation with the low friend to acquaintance ratio. I feel like I’m not an anthropologist when I have found a part of a culture with which I just can’t come to terms. But, the average Japanese person, to an extant, seems lonely, overworked and a little controlled.

A few anthropologists (Japanese and foreign) think the government has a lot to do with the inside/outside ethos as well as the views on work-ethic and personal relations. To make a metaphor, it seems each Japanese person is blocked off in their own cubicle and can only engage in the necessary business communications. Their personal life, inside jokes and fun are limited to the pictures and personal affects pinned on their wall. To be fair, this dull existence occurs in America too but not nearly to the extent it does in Japan.

To be fair, while Japan is busy worrying about not inconveniencing other people by what they say, some Americans are doing the exact opposite. After you comment on the weather, these people tell you their whole family history. They tell you about their grandchildren, show you the photos, and then almost slightly intrigue you with a story about their cat’s intestinal problems. You have to sternly cut them off just to make it home to catch some Adult Swim (is that still on tv?). Some Americans don’t know when to shut up.

Also, some Americans may spread themselves too thin with their countless friendships. My brother, for example. You need to text an invite, be on a list, and have luck on your side just to buy the dude a beer…and even he’s focusing more on the girls that just walked in and he eventually just wanders off. What the fuck! Maybe there is a happy medium between the shy/scared Japanese and the overconfident/talkative/annoying Americans.
Any thoughts?


  1. "Japan has an exploding population"? Japan's population has been in decline for years. That's why there's so much hand wringing over the low birth rate. See here (scroll down to the section on Population):


  2. See Manhattan Project. I realize that it has been 65 years, but that's really not a long time.

  3. Ok, correct, the population isn't exploding...I guess what I meant to say is that it is nonetheless crowded. But, the population has been climbing since the country opened up long ago...and is only now just peaking at the top. Japan's population has been in a very marginal decline for maybe 5 years.

    The birth rate is only one part of the equation. Japan is also aging. Cities are crowding...even suburbanization. Rural areas are fading because agriculture is decreasing.

    My point, which stands, is that Japan is still very crowded and most people live right on top of one another (so to speak). And yet, the culture has a strange sense of distancing.

    As for the bombing of Japan, I would say it definitely has had an effect on Japan's ethos. And no, you're right, it was not so long ago.

  4. Hey, Dan.

    Very interesting post. Just to play devil's advocate, I think it's easy to see the Japanese as controlled or secretive or lonely compared to more individual-centric cultures like the U.S. or Canada, but I've actually heard that we look the same way to many Arabic-speaking cultures! An outgoing person isn't necessarily less lonely; they might just be better at hiding it. I mean, lots of friends doesn't necessarily equal happiness, right? Especially if those friendships aren't sincere ones.

    And, of course, then you have to consider how the different cultures view loneliness. Do most Japanese people feel lonely or isolated from others? I have a feeling they might actually prefer their distance from others, whether for the "safety" they feel in not having to be too close to others, or for the exclusivity it provides them. Or, maybe they just don't think about it all? Maybe our ideas of loneliness are different from your average Japanese person's idea of loneliness?

    At the same time, though, the Japanese definitely earned some trade-offs for being the way they are.

    Their group-centered mentally (which has been ingrained in the country for hundreds of years) is what keeps their crime rates so low compared to other developed countries. When everyone is the same as you are, especially in such a small, crowded nation as you mentioned, it's easier to feel like a family of sorts. Well, family might be the wrong term once you start getting into "in" and "out" groups, but it's like Japan's all playing for the same home team and the rest of the world is playing for the visitors.

    Of course, at the same time, this creates the "us Japanese vs. the rest of those foreigners" attitude. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking isn't unique to Japan (hello Arizona!) but it does seem really prominent, doesn't it? I've experienced similar incidents on trains, where people would rather stand than sit next to me in the last seat. I guess we just have to look at the bright side and enjoy the extra space!

    And, let's keep our fingers crossed that as more foreigners infiltrate the country (because, really, I think that's how we're seen!) the younger generations will lose the xenophobia of their parents and make Japan a country that truly embraces internationalism, rather than just putting up the image of it.

  5. Well, I haven't read all of this because I am running out the door. But what I did read strikes something of common interest. I've wondered the same thing and it's not just Japanese. People from the UK are the same way, at least in business. Where I used to work we dealt a lot with UK businessmen because our company was being sold to them. They were very straight forward all the time...never, ever small talk. Actually, if you tried to do small talk you were basically shunned and they'd roll their eyes at you. Maybe I'll have something more interesting to say when I have more time and can actually read this.

  6. Hey Anonymous, that was a great point!


You should probably engage in some conversation.