uni.liJAPAN I


3rd Blog: Social Harmony and Collectivism in Japan

The concept of an East Asian society means hierarchical structure, collectivism, self-discipline as a means to achieve social harmony. It is the famous ancient philosophical concept from China dating back to around 500 BC; Confucianism. Over the years it spread across the Far East and became the backbone of Korea, Japan and other East Asians societies. Hence it should not be new for me, as a person brought up in Hong Kong. And to the viewers from the west, Hong Kong, or the Chinese culture sphere is well inside this cultural practice. However, when I started living in Japan, I realised how much this has been lost in modern Chinese culture, especially in Hong Kong, which is famous for its competitive, utilitarianist, and adaptive character as a former British colony.

In Japan, people speak indirectly. It is so that not to hurt people's feelings but more importantly, not to break the harmony or turn the "atmosphere" into awkwardness. They seldom say no. If you invite someone to an event, they will not tell you that they are not going. Instead, they say they would like to go, but "maybe" (it is the keyword) there is some reason that makes him/her not so easy to go. The famous phrase goes "If I am available then, I will go". It translates as he/she does not want to go. When discussing a topic in a group knowing that there will be different opinions, people tend not to express their views. A lot of time they would start agreeing to each other even though they do not necessarily agree.
People seldom criticise unless you are in the position to do so, for instance, as a teacher or a boss. (Hence the Hierarchy) There is a consensus among Japanese that not to take people's word directly but instead, to play the constant guessing game. "Kuuki Yomenai" (inability to read the atmosphere) or "KY" in short is often an unfavourable trait to the Japanese. In short, they sacrifice efficiency for the sake of harmony.
At first, it was confusing for me. I could not automatically get the message behind. Sometimes I feel like I have given pressure to the Japanese who did not want to say know and went with the flow. However, as time passes, I am more used to that kind of expression and start to do it myself. 

People seem shy in Japan. For many reasons, they would not start a conversation with me. They are afraid to step into my comfort zone, or they think that would bother me too much, or they are simply afraid of speaking English. As an introverted person myself I missed a lot of chances to talk with my schoolmates, especially the younger ones. But, I felt that during the whole exchange, I became more open and I would talk to people actively more frequently.

One thing that I thought I understood enough before I went is collectivism in Japan. It does not only mean they value the interest of a group more than the individuals, for example, when one takes a decision. It goes further and deeper into the way people think and position themselves in society. You are always representing your school, your company, your family, your city or your country depending on the context. One seldom only being his or her self. I learned it the hard way. With the other exchange students, we planned a trip to Okinawa, a tropical island in the south of Japan. Since the lessons went all online and the emergency was lifted after a month of lockdown, we thought it is a good idea to bring our computer and study materials there just to change the environment and to be motivated again. We rented a place in the mountains far from the city. It was legal for us to go. Hence we thought, OK, it was still Corona time but we were trying to be considerate and safe and it was our responsibility to take the decision to go. We even reported to the school that we would go there so in case of emergencies they could find us. But the school thinks differently. They thought it is the school's responsibility if there was a Corona case brought by us to the island, and they thought that as a student in Corona time we should not have acted like this on our own. They contacted our teachers because we belonged to our lab, but the teachers from the architecture department are supposedly not related to our everyday life. We were representing our labs in the school's 
eye. We felt sorry for our teachers. Fortunately, we acted responsible and after some communication, it was settled. The school seemed confident that we would not cause trouble for them. 

Sometimes I imagine if China would have been less influenced over the last 300 years, I would have grown up in a society more like Japan. Certainly, there are pros and cons and Japan is also slowly changing in her way. Although until the end I still could not adapt hundred per cent to this culture, I think I will miss it  in the future.

Chui Chun SS 19