今日は! Enchantée! Nice to meet you! Schön dich zu sehen!
My prospective teacher in my school I´m going to attend in Yokohama clarified me one day the fundamental cultural difference between Japan and Europe. He said: “Europe is an individualism society. Japan thinks in crowds.” That is basically everything you have to know before coming to Japan. Forget the bunches of tourist brochures and the must-see sightseeing destinations. You will come along with these two sentences if you know how to handle them well.
It sounds very simple but that is what´s noticable in every company you will be here, whether on the train, in restaurants, schools, convenience stores and other places where you get in connection with people. You will notice it in conversations and actions as Japanese will always apologize for leaving the lift before you, never (!) jump the queue or mainly let the other go first. They consider themselves as a part of a big honourable circle that has to be treated respect- and careful. The great basis of social japanese codes of practise is to maintain the balance of Wa 和, meaning Harmony. That old Asian concept basically demands that the group´s belongings have to be over your personal interests.
“Wa has to be valued.” -Shotokutaishi, Japanese Prince
Here the single person always will first regard the conditions of the group before striving for their own wishes. Their biggest anxieties are to disturb the harmony and rules or to interfere with somebody´s plans.
That all might sound a little weird for an European whose ambitions are always a bit more single-handed. We consider us naturally more as individualists who are independent from others. Some of “us” may consider society as the ones above and are more likely to stand out from the crowd. We´d like to develop on our own as self-sufficient (Please keep in mind that that´s now ALL generalization!). To be only a little part of the puzzle is not urgently that what Westerners dream of.
But do not forget that Japanese behaviours have developed for huge amounts of centuries and that they don´t exist without reason. To explain that we have to have a little glance into Japanese geography.
You wouldn´t have expected it so far but most of Japan´s landscapes are just mountains. Yes, that´s right, about 80% of all the surface is covered by elevations. As there it´s not that easy to live in, that areas are sparely populated only by some farmers. So you have to imagine that enormous number of people (about 130 millions) into only 20% of the Japanese surface. To portray this in a picture: Take about half the U.S. population, crunch it into California (ca. Japan´s area size) and then minimize the surface to about 20% of it. Then you roughly have Japanese dimensions.
So maybe now you can imagine that it is important to take care of each other in Japan just because of the density of people living here. To organize and to handle that demands huge efforts of administration rules and also the willingness of people to pay attention to the other´s interests. The millions have to get along with each other. Otherwise that huge social building just could not exist. So these being-part-of-the-group lifestyle might seem strange for a Westerner but on the other hand it´s very important to keep the public in harmony and safety. Just by experiencing the underground in the rush hours, being into those immense crowds on the train, when you cannot fall over because everyone stands so tight, makes you realize what it means to be part of such a gigantic community.
And Japan is used to it. The Japanese folks are used to the rush hours, the endless queues and the big assemblies of people they´re walking through. If I´ve got an overlook over the city´s skyscrapers or walk through one of Tokyo´s districts, everyone with its own character and subworld, I sometimes marvel how it´s possible to provide for that gigantic population. Just how to feed all that masses must be a huge effort to manage. So it is kind of understandable why there are employers for everything and everyone in Japan: People how work as guides, as waiters or who just direct the way you have to go next. That may be annoying at first sight but it is absolutely necessary. I often think of all the people living their lives next to each other, door beside door, and kind of admire that such a fireproofed society is possible.
Of course that all has it´s disadvantages, too. If there is anything you can´t be in Tokyo, it´s being alone. There is always someone next to you, probably a stranger. You always have to keep up that friendly face and you´re rarely undisturbed. If you come home exhausted after a long workday, you must expect to be shut in a big crowd or that you have to wait at the cash desk. That´s something all the people here have to be prepared for. You´re always in public.
That can be very irritating. Especially if you´d grown up in the countryside (like me) where you´re sometimes lucky to meet someone anyway, it can occur a real culture-shock (after the initial euphoria dropped). I stuck in that shock after some time but I simply got more or less used to it. But my little hometown and Tokyo are simply different universes!
There´s another thing that justifies the importance of Wa: The climate. The conditions are extreme here in Japan for various reasons I´m shure you already know (and I don´t want to bore you with). There are about 1.500 earthquakes every year, not to mention all the whirlwinds.
Currently, as I´m writing this post now, there is a taifun passing over Tokyo. It´s kind of strange how normal everyone behaves.
Earthquakes and tsunamis, taifuns and eruptions are the other components the Japanese population has to get along with. There are often strong winds and gales racing through the streets, branches are flying around, the raindrops fall horizontal on your face. Sometimes trains cancel and hundreds of people stuck at the stations. Misty weather comes as fast as it goes, you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. And the next day the sun is shining. Everything is clean, no rubbish is lying around and employers go to work as nothing would have happened. Crazy world.
So I suppose individuality is a relative term here. It´s not that you can´t be self-sufficient in Japan, but it´s just more difficult to stand out of the crowd here than in Europe, as there we do not have that strong feeling of homogeneity. But for good reasons as I´ve shown you already.
So that was a long one, but it´s been important to go a little deeper if you want to understand Japanese structures of community. It´s just a completely other way of thinking how society works. Thank you for reading and leave a comment if you want to!
いってらっしゃい! -Have a good journey! -À tout à l´heure! -Halt die Ohren steif (love that expression)!
The one who wanna have a full passport