What is the most important aspect in Japanese culture? Reading the Air?

  • 3523
  • 1
  • 1
  • English 
Sep 11, 2010 19:04
"What is the most important aspect in Japanese culture?", a French lady asked me. Ummm, what is that? I didn't have an immediate answer to this question.

The next day, I asked her back, "Then, what would you answer if I ask you, 'What is the most important aspect in French culture?'"

She and her husband said they have an answer of theirs, respectively. She answered, "It's freedom. Being as we want." Her husband said, "Mine is the same." They said it is deeply related to their civil revolution.

OK, then what is ours? A senior Japanese professor answered on behalf of Japanese people, "Probably, it's to care other people."

Yes, I came up with the same answer as well. People in Japan cares other people. However, it is not what Western people guess from the phrase.

The "care" is deeply connected to our culture, where individualism, and probably individual itself, has not yet established. Because we live in islands, separated from the continent by sea, chance of encountering aliens was relatively low. This "isolated" environment helped us to develop non-verbal communications, conversation without speech. Basically, speaking loud what you think has been considered to be NOT elegant or polite.

Nowadays, this cultural aspect can be seen in the prevalent phrase, 'reading the air' 空気を読む. Apparently, the air means atmosphere, but perhaps hundreds of unwritten rules, more precisely. In that country, every person is strongly required to "read the air" by other people. If he or she fails, i.e. says something which is not suitable to the flow of conversation or does something which is just not supposed, then he or she should be teased or blamed by other people. Mura-hachi-bu 村八分 is a word describing this awful state quite well.

This illustrates how strong the desire of being a member of a group is in Japan. Sub-conciously, virtually every Japanese is scared of being out of a group. That's why he or she must obey loads of unwritten rules in a group or community. Hayao Kawai 河合隼雄, one of the most famous psychologist, explained this using a metaphor of Great Mother. Briefly, he thought that Japanese are like kids, who are afraid of being abandoned by their mother. In this case, their family is a group. The mother is invisible, Great Mother. This belief is stored in collective unconsciousness of Japanese (Kawai studied Jung's psychology).

Japanese may have much more "I have to do"s than Europeans, especially unwritten ones. I didn't know this before I started living in UK.At that time I was quite skeptical of the benefit of European individualism. However, I found it gives us freedom. Ummm, now I can't see the point of Great Mother way of thinking, "reading the air."