Saturday, February 28, 2009

Japanese Stereotypes - American Stereotypes

I’m convinced that people teaching English in Japan are now the de-facto western “cultural commentators” on all things Japanese. It’s interesting that we never hear about Japanese culture from an American businessman or a Christian missionary, for example, who may also understand Japan quite well…English teacher Amy Chavez writes about Japanese stereotypes in The Japan Times Online:

“Japanese people tend to think every Western-looking person is American (or if they don't, they tend to think foreigners are distinguishable by nationality — imagine over 50 identifiable nationalities!”

Okay. Very true statement. But is seems to imply some Japanese cultural backwardness. Are we to assume that Amy can tell the difference between white Americans, Germans, Canadians or South Africans? Maybe Amy’s point is that Japanese people should simply see white people and say “white people.”

I’d also have to assume that Amy has trouble distinguishing between Koreans, Japanese and Chinese based on appearance alone. We in the west solve this by saying, “Asian people”, Japanese people solve their issue by saying “American people.”

This alone, is not a Japanese issue. While traveling in South America, this writer learned that all white people were also “Americans.” So we must understand some universality to this issue. While being seen as an American in Japan can be an advantage (foreigners in Japan get away with a lot), this is decidedly not an advantage in Latin America. One Scandinavian chap wrote on his backpack, “I am not an American. I’m Norwegian.” So goes the cause of a common humanity!

“Japanese people still say to me: ‘What do you eat for breakfast, bread?’ As if we sat down every morning to a large pile of bread on a plate.”

On the surface, this is a simpleton question. Yet it the question must also be understood in the negative, as in: “So you don’t eat Japanese rice and miso soup every morning?” Which, by and large, is the norm for Japanese people.

It must also be understood that when you don’t speak a language well, you tend to stick to safe, easy questions. There are also some Japan etiquette and Japanese behavior customs here; the Japanese often ask about safe topics to create a pleasant, surface-level conversation. This is being polite in Japan.

Yet the writer appears to be searching for some Utopian civilization where everyone thinks of human persons in the particular, and never succumbs to the temptation to talk about humanity in generalities. Japanese people, like their counterparts in America, Uganda and Bolivia, all rely on stereotypes to a certain extent.

Amy writes:

“The fact is, that although ‘stereo types’ should be limited to Panasonic and Sony, they are still very much alive, even in the Japanese classroom. And I was shocked to find myself teaching them!”

Shocked! Ah, don’t be. You’re human and so are the Japanese people…As a teacher if you have fun with your Japanese students, they’ll have fun with you. This may be a teaching English in Japan stereotype, but I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Japanese Women in Western Women’s Minds

Anyone who has spent much time around Japanese women will agree they are on the whole practical, bright, curious and open-minded. Despite these realities, however, many western feminists continue to project a sense of victim hood on Japanese women.

A recent blog entry entitled “Women in Japan: Conversation Remembered” on the site is a classic example of the tendency among women in the west to insist that Japanese women are victims, because Japanese feminism doesn't seek the ends that western feminism does.

The writer tells us about Ayuko, who she worked with at an English school in Japan; we can presume she teaches English in Japan. She writes:

“I couldn't help doing a bit of western-tradition feminist indoctrination from time to time, which I now somewhat regret.”

And poor Ayuko thought she was just chatting with an English teacher! But then the writer continues:

“The more time I spend in this country, the more I see that whenever Japan gets around to having a major feminist revolution it's going to have to happen Japanese-style.”

I suppose this will be a disappointment to Gloria Steinem, but then again as long as the end in Japan is western feminism, the means can be Japanese.

Yet our western feminist was dedicated to bringing enlightenment to young Ayuko and she saw her progress:

“Still, there were a few fun lightbulb moments when Ayuko noticed close-to-home examples of things I liked ranting about.”

Our hero understands that Japanese culture is full of sexist, and patriarchal families who see it as their duty to turn Japanese women into obedient wall flowers. She was onto this error in Japanese cultural thinking and was determined to correct it:

“(Ayuko) was always saying, "We are told that..." … Well look would seem that, contrary to the common wisdom, humans want to want what they want after all. I don't think she had even noticed the gap between what "we are told" and her own experience.”

The lesson is clear. What we are told (i.e. Japanese tradition, education, Japanese history) is false, while what we experience (our feelings) are always an infallible guide.

But our feminist hero soon discovered the real tragedy that afflicted Ayoku – she wanted to get married:

“Ayuko herself…was husband-hunting. When I asked her why she felt the need to go get married if she had a nice boyfriend she enjoyed spending time with, she said, "Actually, I don't like working!"

Marriage, oh no! I recently blogged about a British female Buddhist priest in Japan, which addressed some of the issues of marriage from a western feminist point-of-view.

Now if our young Japanese women simply wanted to get married to quit her job, this is certainly problematic. Yet here is where we must deal with a fact that western women (since about 1968) have found unacceptable, and that is that most women in the world believe that their main vocation is to get married and have children! It’s important to stress that Ayuko and Japanese women like her are normal – they are not oppressed or victims.

Now, having said that, there is real discrimination against Japanese women in the Japanese workplace that needs to be remedied; but the answer is not to convince Japanese women that their authentic desire for motherhood and marriage is problematic. In the area of Japanese women and jobs in Japan, our feminist writer captures the situation quite well:

“I couldn't blame Ayuko for the way she felt about work, though, as her full-time salary provided only spending money (she lived with her parents, at age 28-nothing unusual in Japan, but had she wanted to move out her salary wouldn't have supported it). Upon graduating college, she had gotten a good salaried position that looked to be a lifetime job, but when the company started doing badly she had to leave, and now she was fatalistically certain that as a female nearing 30, it was impossible for her to land a second good job.”

She is quite right. Japanese companies view women over 30 as women who will soon get pregnant and "leave" the company. This is foolish. Japanese women who wish to return to their companies, should be allowed to do so.

Japanese culture and Japanese society is out of whack, not doubt; and Japanese men need to step up to the plate and become better husbands and fathers. Yet it is rather condescending to think that western-style feminism is the answer to a complex Japanese cultural problem. We now see that American women in the west are finding that the choice between careers and motherhood/marriage is a false one.

Japanese women, I suspect, reject this choice.

While Japanese business should allow “older” women to work and Japanese mothers to return to work after pregnancy if they choose, I still believe that careers are not primarily what Japanese women (or Asian, Indian, African, Middle Eastern or Latin American women) want – they want respect and support to be wives and mothers first and foremost. And right now Japanese women can't even find proper OB/GYN care in Japan, which is a real hardship.

In this area Japan and Japanese culture have a long way to go. Let's see if a Japanese solution to a Japanese problem arises.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

British Woman is Japanese Buddhist Priest

We often hear about Japanese racism. The Japanese, because of their homogeneous culture, are both fascinating and repulsive to the west. Many westerns are drawn to Japanese traditional culture in the abstract, but in reality they want to impose a strictly western view of life on the Japanese cultural tradition, with certain feminist, multicultural overtones. And so we come to the tale of a British woman who became a Japanese Buddhist priest.

A recent article in The Japan Times Online describes her journey:

“Victoria Yoshimura, 38, from Peterborough, England, started her life in Japan like many foreigners. Twenty-two years old, two weeks out of university, she came over on the JET language program.”

The JET Japan program, if you didn’t know, is a Japanese government program that recruits recent college grads to teach English in Japan at the jr. high level. It’s a pretty cushy gig to teach English abroad with government help, decent pay and not many teaching hours. If you want to teach English overseas, JET Japan is a nice deal.

She wanted to teach English and probably learn Japanese. I respect that. Yoshimura then began dating a Japanese man, which is somewhat unusual. In Japan, Japanese dating usually means western men with Japanese women. The feeling among western women is that Japanese men are unromantic, unfaithful and somewhat intimidated by western women. She says of her now husband:

"Junsho was the first Japanese guy to talk to me normally, and not treat me like a freak; he taught me all the saucy, rude words I know in Japanese."

Her comment reveals something quite true about the Japanese cultural attitudes and their dealings with foreigners. Many Japanese do think of foreigners as freaks, meaning people who are vastly different from the social norm, and the norm in Japan is the Japanese way of doing things.

They dated, and it turned out that her boyfriend was “the 17th generation in the family of priests for Shonenji, the 430-year-old temple nestled in this rural town of Miyazaki Prefecture.” It turns out for the two or three people who actually care about Japanese Buddhism in the area – Japan religion these days is about as healthy as the world economy – were against the marriage. Despite what may be common in Southern California and London, Japanese Buddhism and Zen is not seen as something white people do.

I’m assuming that she wasn’t Buddhist at the time. You’d think if Buddhism means something to her boyfriend, he’d strive to find a Japanese Buddhist wife, but love is love, of course. Yet it’s predictable that her western feminist consciousness would be aroused by this opposition:

"Sometimes I wonder whether all the opposition to our marriage actually pushed me into it further. I wanted to prove them all wrong."

Feminism in Japan is not typically about pushing for equality in the sense that “I want to do everything that men do.” That’s not the goal (this is foreign to Asian culture in general). Japanese women simply want emotional and financial support for being wives and mothers and the ability to work after giving birth. Japanese women, on the whole, understand that they are smarter, more practical, more open and stronger than Japanese men.

She married her Japanese boyfriend and eventually had children, which brought up the issue of “interracial children” in Japan. While the Japanese have a great admiration for western people, they are a bit squeamish about Japanese children who have a mixed racial background. "Some of the community even warned that our children would be deformed," she said, which is a pretty accurate sentiment.

But then the writer of this article, Kris Kosaka, who is probably a Japanese American writer, gets back to the mission of the article, which is to conduct a western feminist critique of Japanese cultural life:

“She was expected to settle down to life as a mother and temple accessory, fading to the background in demure contentment in this happily ever-after.”

Of course! Nothing could be more oppressive than to be a wife, mother and behind-the-scenes supporter of her Japanese Buddhist husband. The article goes on:

“Only that fairy tale did not fit Yoshimura. ‘I'm the kind of personality type who sees a 'Wet Paint. Don't Touch' sign, and I have to go up and touch it, just to make sure for myself.’ Yoshimura again challenged expectations.”

Ah, yes, we have a rebel. A British woman comes into the den of Japanese traditional culture and “challenges” a culture thousands of years old. In its on way, this is a subtle form of western racism that presumes that the Japanese way of doing things is a real drag for women.

From my understanding, being the wife of a Japanese Buddhist temple priest in Japan is kind of like being the First Lady in the U.S. It is a challenging, busy life with many social and religious obligations, requiring social acumen, tact and intelligence. There are many Japanese women who would hesitate to marry a Japanese Buddhist priest precisely because of these challenges. But I digress.

Yoshimura the says: "Motherhood is great, but I was losing myself, and my brain cells were rusting." Ah yes, “The Sex and the City” view of life. As much as our British hero wants to explore the exotic far-east and traditional Japanese culture, it must in the end bow to western feminist realities.

And then, in what can only be understood as a repudiation (or at least a misunderstanding) of marriage, she says: “I realized it was important to make my own roots, separate to those of my husband. I needed to be happy here because I like it here, not because I like him."

My understanding is that marriage is not about “doing my own thing,” but about sacrificing for my spouse. I wonder if that’s why half of marriages fail in the west, and divorce in Japan is still rare.

She eventually becomes a Japanese Buddhist priest – just like her husband. She said, "Suddenly everything became clearer once I started to learn why things were so, instead of following like a lemming."

Again, to simply be a mother, wife and English teacher in Japan wasn’t enough, one had to be equal to her Japanese husband. What we see is that, instead of living in Japanese culture and accommodating its differences, she had to “change it” as if she was some agitator.

Go here to read the full article on the British Japanese Buddhist priest.

You can also go to to check out a classic book on Zen and Japanese Buddhist culture in Japan: Zen and Japanese Culture

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How to Buy a Japan Rail Pass

So you want to travel to Japan? Okay then, you better get ready to give up the idea of a rental car and settle instead for public transportation. Just like in Europe, trains are the only way to travel in Japan, and the Japan Rail Pass is “the way” to get the best travel value during your stay.

Japan Rail operates the Japan rail system and they offer a discount pass that can only be purchased outside of Japan. Japanese citizens living in Japan are not allowed to buy the Japan railway pass. The only ones who can purchases the JR Pass are people who:

• are entering Japan on a non-Japanese passport with "Temporary Visitor" entry status or Japanese citizens who live abroad, and are either permanent residents of another country or have a foreign spouse.

The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass is a discounted ticket that allows visitors “unlimited rail travel throughout Japan over a 7, 14 or 21 consecutive day period.” And the best way to take advantage of the pass is to make the most of your Japan travel time.

Once you’ve got your fourteen day Japan railway pass, for example, it doesn’t matter whether you visit 10 cities or two – the price remains the same. So the best way to use the Japan Rail pass is to travel like crazy! Make as many trips to as many places as possible: Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Osaka – see them all!

The JR Pass also means that you can travel on Japan’s bullet trains, which are know in Japan as shinkansen; this will save you many hours and provide you with a few kicks.

The key to the buying the Japan Rail Pass is to purchase the exchange voucher from a distributor in your home country. Don’t wait until you get to Japan to buy a JR Pass, because they won’t let you. Go to the Japan Rail Pass website to find a distributor in your area.

When you arrive in Japan – most likely Narita Airport, you can exchange your JR Pass voucher for a rail pass at a Japan Rail Pass exchange office. Good luck!

Tokyo, Japan Travel Facts

Tell someone you're going to Tokyo, Japan and they always say, "Oh, I want to go to go there someday!" It's strange. Even people who've never been outside of Michigan, have dreams of visiting Japan for some reason. And while there are other cities that are more interesting than Tokyo - like Kyoto - you've got to deal with Tokyo if you want to understand Japan.

Here's a few facts about enjoying your stay in Tokyo. And remember that Japan Tokyo travel is best undertaken in the Spring and the Fall when you avoid Japan's extreme weather. Here's some facts to ponder when you go on your Japanese adventures in Tokyo:

  • Remember as you walk through Tokyo that nearly the entire city was destroyed during World War II; then imagine that up until 1940, most of Tokyo was made of wood!
  • Hotels in Tokyo, Japan are expensive - no surprise there - but they are also small, clean and orderly
  • If you get lost in Tokyo, asking someone a question in English to Japanese people might not always work - try some Japanese from a phrasebook first, then Japanese people might feel comfortable to try their grammar school English with you
  • Tokyo Japan attractions include the Tokyo tower, Tokyo Dome (baseball) Imperial palace and Shinkjuku
  • Don't strain yourself looking for a girl in a kimono - it's a rare occurrence to spot one - except when a Japanese women is going to a wedding or some other super-formal occasion
  • Flights to Tokyo, Japan arrive at Narita Airport; from there you can catch a one-hour train ride into Tokyo. One great tip is to buy a Japan Rail pass before you come to Japan; the pass allows you to ride the Tokyo subways and all of Japan's trains for a discounted price. It's definitely worth it, and this discount is only available to foreigners or Japanese citizens who have an American green card, for example.
  • Remember to be adventurous: the Japanese love to go abroad, so they understand what it's like to be a tourist. Don't worry about appearing foolish in Tokyo, Japan, just try to have fun

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Japanese Cherry Blossom Time

As winter fades and spring looms, the Japanese people prepare for the japanese cherry blossom season and all the joy and hope that it brings to the Japanese soul.

It's hard to do justice to the deep feelings that the cherry blossom trees in japan engender in the people who live there. In may ways, it's an interior reminder to the Japanese people of how important nature and Japanese traditional culture is to them and their children. And because you could argue there are no Japanese religions practiced anymore, the appreciation of nature is a kind of neo-pagan spiritual practice for the Japanese.

On a purely visible level, the pink blossoms of the japan cherry blossom are stunning, particularly when the japanese cherry blossom trees are lined up along a river as they so often are in Japan. To look down a row of such elegant colorful trees is enough to stir anyone's heart; yet for the Japanese people, this annual display is more about interior appreciation than the stimulation of the senses.

The cherry blossom in japan reminds people that though the country is now a very urban, technological place, the heart of Japan remains very much in tune with nature, much like the Haiku poets of old - like Basho - who wrote so beautifully of nature.

And while you'll see Japanese people setting up their tarps under the japan cherry blossom to sit with friends and drink, don't forget that it is not simply a sensual activity for the Japanese people, but also a profoundly culture act that is deeply embedded in the Japanese spirit and nation.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Drugs in Japanese Culture

Until recently there wasn't much talk about drugs in Japanese culture, because there weren't any drugs in Japan to talk about. Recently, however, there's been a spat of news stories involving Japanese college students getting caught with marijuana. Now this would be laughable as a news story in London or Los Angeles, but in Japan it's a worthy news subject.

In Japan, unlike most of the west, there are no distinctions made between heroin and marijuana, for example. In Japan, both of these drugs are illegal and therefore taboo. In many ways this is a far saner attitude than in America where marijuana is illegal, but is seen as benign by most of the culture and some in government - and so people ignore the law.

I can only speculate why pot is now making an appearance in Japanese culture. My guess is that Japanese students who go abroad to Australia, America and Europe are exposed to it and pick up the message that it is a "cool" and harmless thing to do.

Being an island nation, Japan has historically been able to control much of what comes in an out of Japan. We see this when it comes to immigration, narcotics and even guns. This is not to ignore the fact that the Japanese mafia (yakuza) has been dealing with drugs and guns for years, but most Japanese aren't touched by the underworld.

Japanese culture generally condones sloppiness and excess when it comes to alcohol use. Even the most mild-mannered Japanese businessman (salaryman) is allowed to get crazy and make a fool of himself when he is drinking. I can only image the absolute tawdriness of Japanese people who are under the influence of illegal drugs.

I wonder if drug use in Japaneses society will produce a generational split along the lines of the 1960s in America, when the college kids of that generation decided that illegal drug use was a private affair and no state or Church was going to tell them anything different.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ten Reasons it's Great to be a Foreigner in Japan

I don’t care what anyone says, but being a foreigner in Japan is a real kick. It’s not always easy being the object of attention – at least in small Japanese towns – but it’s better than being anonymous in Pennsylvania! So here’s my list of the top ten reasons it’s great to be a foreigner in Japan.

In no particular order, here we go:

  1. Low Expectations. No matter what you do, the Japanese will be impressed. Call it the benefit of low expectations. The Japanese people are tough on themselves, but forgiving with foreigners. If you can use chopsticks and eat miso soup, they’ll be impressed!
  2. Different, but First World. Let’s be honest, you can get quite a thrill from being in some far-flung third-world country like Mongolia, but at the end of the day you’re still in Mongolia! In Japan you get all the thrill of being in a very different place, but with lots of clean bathrooms.
  3. Japanese Food. Enough said.
  4. Same, Same. Japan is culturally homogeneous. You can go from one end to the other and people all kind of “think Japanese,” which means that once you get things figured out, you’re good to go anywhere.
  5. Smoking. If you’re a smoker, Japan is still a free country.
  6. Women and Drinking. If you’re a woman, and you like to have a few drinks, the Japanese will think nothing of it. There is no such idea of a women being a “lush.”

    Lonely Planet's Japan Guide is a sound resource for people preparing for a trip to Japan:
  7. Bamboo. This is a personal preference, but I think bamboo groves are the best. To fly by endless groves of bamboo in a bullet train is a perfect merger of technology and nature.
  8. Hot Springs. Public baths, either outside or inside, which the Japanese call onsen. This is one of the genteel and civilized customs of Japanese culture.
  9. Ego Boost. If you happen to be a western man who is reasonably attractive, you will find that both Japanese men and women will give you a lot of attention and compliments. I once had a male Japanese taxi driver (all of them are male actually) tell my wife how handsome I was.
  10. Beer Vending Machines. I actually don’t drink, but I think the idea that an adult can buy a beer from a vending machine at 2 a.m. or even 11 a.m., is another sign of a mature civilization

Friday, February 13, 2009

Panasonic Workers to Buy Company Products

So do you think the global recession is affecting Japan yet? Well, Panasonic of Japan has announced that it will "ask" 10,000 of its Japanese employees to buy Panasonic products.

Let's make one thing clear, when a Japanese company asks its employees to do something, it's an order. So you can expect quite a boost in Panasonic flat-screens for a while, yet is this really the way to make the company profitable?

Panasonic is an old-line Japanese place where company loyalty is not questioned. What must be said, however, is that this is most likely being done in place of massive layoffs. For if there is one thing that the Japanese absolutely despise, it's layoffs. I think they'd rater give up their salary than be told they have to clean off their desk and go home.

This aversion to layoffs is certainly an admirable part of Japanese culture; there is a kind of paternal care that Japanese companies exercise in Japan. Many people in America, for example, have learned that your employer will dump you the minute the profits start dropping.

Japan's Cities Don’t Explain Low Birth Rate

Several times on this blog we’ve looked at the unprecedented low birth rate in Japan. The reality of a future where Japanese people may be as rare as spotted owls is beginning to make some news, and writer Rowan Hopper recently had his go at the problem in The Japan Times Online.

The article is titled “City Ecology Explains Japan's Low Birthrate,” and Hopper’s main point is that the Japanese habitation in large cities is the main reason for this decline.

Apparently Mr. Hopper has never heard of places like Mexico City, Bombay or the growing Muslim metropolises in the Middle East. Even in a tiny urban slice of chaotic land like Gaza, the Palestinian people have no problem producing plenty of children.

Hopper, like the Japanese people, puts his faith entirely in science. Science, he reasons, must be able to tell us everything. So he puts on his biological wonder suit and explains:

“This difference is explained by what is called the metabolic theory of ecology. Bigger animals have a bigger network of blood vessels that are used to deliver resources to their cells. So the efficiency of resource delivery is less in big animals. But it's not just in big animals.”

Huh? He then compares cities to big organisms that consume lots of energy, are inefficient and, as a result, produce less “products,” i.e., children.

Okay then, so how are we supposed to convince Japanese women to have more babies and solve this problem? Hopper writes:

“If we and our cities become more efficient in terms of energy use, the scientists predict, we'll have more children. That might be the only way that Japan can survive in anything like the form we know and love.”

Oh, I see! If we have lots of hybrid cars in Tokyo and we do a better job of retrofitting Japanese municipal buildings with solar panels, Japanese women will suddenly rethink the whole baby game. Got it!

Hopper’s idea is puzzling at best. What he fails to understand is that the number one factor for declining populations in the world is religion and traditional values. Declining birth rates are occurring in secular, first-world places like Europe, Canada and Japan (the U.S.’s birth rate is helped by Latin American immigrants).

Muslims, whether they live in the Arabian Desert or London, are having lots of babies. The Arab world, where religion is part of the fabric of society, has no problem with birth rates. In Africa and India where traditional morality and beliefs survive, you don’t see any population decline.

We also see that devout Christians, wherever they live, tend to have more children than their secular neighbors.

This global reality of demographics and religion is chronicled in the recent book by Mark Steyn called America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.

In Japan, where there is absolutely no evidence of any belief, faith or religion in Japanese culture any more, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Japanese have decided to live for today only - and let’s face it - children are a lot of hard work and a drain on “resources,” to use the language of scientists.

Regardless of whether one sees religion as a force of good in the world, its believers generally have a sense of hope (in an afterlife) and this sense of optimism for the future generally manifests itself in the form of children and the investment in their future success.

The Japanese people need more hope and less of a reliance on silliness like “the metabolic theory of ecology.”

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Japanese Women and Feminism

When one thinks of Japan, feminism isn’t the first thing that normally pops into your mind, but if Japanese state minister has her way, Japanese women will soon resemble the girls of Sex and the City…She recently published her thoughts on Japan and feminism in The Japanese Times Online.

While Noda makes important points about the difficulty that Japanese women have returning to the workplace after giving birth - and is courageous to talk about her experiences with infertility and miscarriage (not usually discussed in Japan) - she is wrong to look to western feminism as a model for Japanese women.

Noda writes:

“Family diversity should be the norm everywhere. Every person has the right to create the family he or she would like. I am single but hope to have a child in the future. If I find a partner, wonderful; and if not, I would still want to have a child. According to Japanese law, though, I would have difficulty adopting, and surrogate motherhood is also outside the legal framework.”

Statistics in the United States prove that children who are raised by one parent have a tougher go of it in life. This is a fact. Japanese women, for the most part, understand that if they desire children, they must first find a husband. The idea that you can have a child without a husband is selfishness, not authentic feminism.

As things stand when it comes to procreation, Japanese women are on strike – and for good reason. Reproductive health in Japan is terrible, with very few OB/GYNs, very little day care support and Japanese husbands who believe they have no responsibility to be in their children’s lives (they spend all their time at work, and then attend after-work drinking parties with co-workers). The result has been a frightening drop in Japanese births; right now the Japanese are having children well below the replacement rate.

Japanese women – unlike many western women – are not postponing marriage and children because they want to pursue professional careers, have “freedom” or participate in sexual relationships out of marriage. Many Japanese women postpone marriage and children because their know their husbands will be absent, there is lousy female medical care and they will never be able to return to work.

Noda is right to criticize this, but the answer is not Japanese women taking matters into their own hands with IVF treatments, surrogate mothers and casual sexual relations with men. The answer is to demand that Japanese men embrace their manhood – to challenge them to be men and to put their wives and children before their careers and social status. In addition, the Japanese government must make it easier for Japanese couples to have children; they can do this by giving tax breaks to companies who allow their employees to have more family time at home.

In her piece, Noda made one other point – entirely unrelated to Japanese women – which is worth commenting on. On the Japanese nation she wrote:

“A nation's strength is not measured in its military capabilities but in its environmental power. That's Japan's strength: We are the world leader in environmentally sound energy sources, from hybrid cars to solar power. Our nuclear power plant development is the most advanced in the world, because we have been constantly developing new technologies.”

This is a common Japanese view point, which ignores the fact they have been under the military umbrella of the United States military for 60 years. Instead of having to prepare for a North Korean attack on their own, they have been able to focus exclusively on their domestic economy.

Like a spoiled adolescent who lives at home and doesn’t realize the sacrifices his father makes to pay the rent, many Japanese people have rather na├»ve ideas about the reality of geo-politics. My guess is that a parking lot of hybrid Toyotas won’t be much help against North Korean ballistic missiles.

Noda’s comment also reflects the Japanese attitude concerning war, which comes from a half-reading of Japanese history. Because Japanese people were the victims of two atomic bombs, they see themselves as eternal martyrs for peace. Yet they conveniently ignore the decades of Japanese war and aggression that lead to the U.S. assault on Japan.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Japanese Continue to Teach English Wrong Way

In this blog we’ve documented the strange reality of the English language in Japan, whereby the Japanese study English for years, but don’t know how to actually use it or speak it. It seems to be part of a disconnect in Japanese culture, which is as much about procedures as it is about philosophy.

Gregory Clark, vice president, Akita International University in Japan recently had some interesting thoughts on the failure of Japanese schools to properly teach English.

He mentions the fact that although Japanese children get about six years of English instruction in the public schools, they lag well behind countries like Korea, which do a better job of preparing their students.

The real problem - and Mr. Clark nails it - is that the people teaching English in Japanese high schools are Japanese teachers who can’t speak a lick of English. They might be able to diagram a sentence, but they can’t order a beer in New York City to save their life. Mr. Clark comments:

“Japan seems not to want to realize the harm caused by having young students spend six years listening to bad English. Some say that if the world is happy with Indian or Singapore English then it should accept Japanese English. But these other varieties of English are standarized and fluent. Listening to them is no harder (sometimes easier even) than listening to the accents and dialects of British English.”

He writes that Japanese English (Japlish):

“is a hodgepodge of accents and pronunciations thrown together and spoken haltingly. It is hard on both the ear and the patience. More importantly, most Japlish speakers find it very hard to process English spoken at normal speed. Normal conversation is almost impossible.”

He also believes that Japanese students aren’t as motivated as their Chinese and Korean peers, because English isn’t as necessary to get ahead in Japan.

Yet I think he is really onto something when he critiques the manner in which Japanese people understand knowledge and learning. The Japanese people have a long history, and they learn it exclusively as a list of dates and facts. Many Japanese people know when a certain Japanese battle happened in 1656, but they have no idea how it fits into the political, social and philosophical whole of Japanese culture and history.

Mr. Clark states:

“Language learning is not like math or history — the mere accumulation of facts and data. With language the memory operates at two levels. One is what I call conscious memorization — mastering enough of the grammar, vocabulary, etc., to be able to translate and put sentences together. But at some stage the language has to be moved to the subconscious and that can only happen with strong motivation and good learning techniques — repetition, realistic conversation, good listening materials and so on. Only at this subconscious level can you retain vocabulary and speak the language naturally.”

He believes that learning English should be moved to the university level; interesting idea, but then again you will run into the resort atmosphere of most Japanese universities, where everyone is taking a break from crazy Japanese school entrance exams .

Mr. Clark has a real understanding of the problems of English and learning in Japanese culture. Undoubtedly it will take much more than bureaucratic reforms to convince a rather isolated and coddled Japanese generation that real life require sacrifices, and that Japan’s wealth today has little to do with its future place in the world.

Mr. Clark’s complete article on Japan and English learning is well worth a read.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Japan and School Exams

You think the American SAT's are stressful? Think again. In Japan, where you go to jr. high school, high school and college makes all the difference for your future, and the school exams are your ticket into these institutions.

In America, going to prestigious Andover Academy and then Yale, for example, can boost your career prospects without a doubt; but going to Average Joe High School and then some random state college will not prevent you for being successful, as long as you're smart and hard working. The Japanese, on the other hand, don't put much trust in the meritocracy; it's all about the brand in Japanese culture.

February is the month of school entrance exams in Japan and Japanese mothers are doing their best to completely flip out and make sure everyone is appropriately stressed out. Japan Today quoted a Japanese mother who said:

“I have told my child not to attend PE class since January. I can’t believe the school lets kids wear T-shirts and shorts for PE in winter. My child has been studying at prep school six days a week and for 10 hours a day in weekend. I don’t want him to catch a cold on the day of the exam.”

Kids wearing shorts during PE class? What outrage!!...But seriously when you believe that the brand - i.e. the school - is all that matters, then you'll get a little crazy about that sort of thing.

The pressure that's put on Japanese children must also be understood in the light of Japan's declining birth rate. Most Japanese families have one, or two kids at the most. So all the pressure to succeed is draped on one child in Japanese culture. This is also seen in China as a consequence of the shameful "one child policy" of the Chinese communist government.

This concern of form over matter reaches its apotheosis with Japanese universities, which are amazingly hard to get into (another killer Japanese school exam), but almost impossible to fail out of, because they expect nothing from university students (the thinking has been, "Why not relax in college? You'll soon become a salaryman and have to work 90 hours a week for the rest of your life").

The Japanese mother, in the above quote, mentioned "prep school" which is also known as a juku school, which can be translated as "cram school." While the public schools at least pretend to educate children, the cram schools get right to the heart of the matter; they understand that in Japanese culture the school test is everything.

Nobuyasu Morigami from the Japanese Morigami Education Institute, had some kind words for the parents and children who fail the Japanese school exams, but you'd have to think this is not how Japanese families take the news:

“Even if their children fail the exams, parents should not show their disappointment. What is important is to encourage children to go on to any school positively by telling them they can change their lives by themselves, even though they might not be able to go to their first choice school. Failing an exam is not the end of their lives.”

One of the sad effects of this testing pressure is Japanese teenage suicides, which Mr. Morigami may be alluding to in his comment. In my humble opinion, the absence of any kind of faith or religious conviction in Japan (particularly the personal God of the Christian Jewish tradition) is a big factor in the despair and disappointment of Japanese youth.

Mr. Morigami says, "They can change their lives by themselves." In the absence of a "higher power" for the Japanese, so much of the burden of life falls squarely on the Japanese people to solve things "by themselves." During the 20th century we saw what happens when nations eschew faith and rely dogmatically on atheistic forms of philosophy that see "the self" as the only resource one can count on.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Japanese Business Culture and Etiquette

Japanese business culture is a complex world for a western businessman to navigate on his own. While each business culture has its own etiquette, business in Japan can prove quite frustrating for your average American business man.

It should first be noted that the idea of a meritocracy (the best and brightest get promoted) has not been a big winner in Japanese business culture. The reason is that seniority still determines who runs the show. Now while there is much to be said for the value of experience, there is also the potential that a Japanese Bill Gates is toiling in the mail room when he should be heading the board room.

Here is a reference book at on Japanese business culture: Japanese Business Culture and Practices: A Guide to Twenty-First Century Japanese Business

There's been much written about the Japanese businessmen who don't like to give the American c.e.o. a clear 'yes' or 'no' answer, causing all kinds of cross-cultural problems, but the bigger issue revolves around an old Japanese proverb: "The Nail that Sticks up Gets Shot Down."

The above proverb is the key to understanding both Japanese culture as a whole, and Japanese business culture in particular. There's no question the Japanese are hard working, yet they work within their allotted, approved and institutionally-grounded work spheres. While this has helped the Japanese make excellent cars, it hasn't allowed them to foster the kind of business culture that produced a Microsoft or a Google.

One of worst things a Japanese junior executive can do at a business meeting is to draw attention to himself and his personal opinions. This is a quick way to end up in the dog house.

English teachers in Japan have experienced the same thing: ask a question to Japanese class and even though a few might know the answer, they don't raise their hands for fear of being seen as a show off or for fear of being wrong; mistakes in Japanese culture are not easily forgiven.

While it's difficult to speak in generalities (although I often do this on the blog), the Japanese business culture is about everyone on the team being on the same page, and the proper channels being respected. This characterization, of course, is much like the business culture of other countries, yet the Japanese live with a great fear of being "different" and being on the wrong side of the group consensus.

Because Japan is so homogeneous and Japanese culture is rather uniform in its broad strokes, the Japanese often can "read each other" to such an extent that they often don't need a drawn out discussion to know where the major players stand. This makes it very easy for the group to appreciate that the V.P. of Sales, for example, wants to ink the deal with the American distributor now. And despite misgivings that the junior sales people might feel, they downplay them because they understand - almost without any discussion - that this is the decision that must be made.

Before signing that same distribution deal, a group of American salesmen will have to hash things out together, and there may be individuals who are "on record" for opposing the deal. The V.P. will note the opposition, appreciate the frankness of his staff, yet decide that the deal will go forward. There was no real consensus, but the American V.P. made an executive decision and there's no hard feelings.

This is not how things normally go down in Japanese business culture; before a meeting takes place, it's likely that the participants know the outcome before any "discussion" takes place.

If you lived on one of four small islands in very crowded cities like the Japanese do, accommodation and "harmony" might begin to look far more attractive than self assertiveness and independence.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Whaling and the Japanese

The Japanese continue to get into trouble with environmentalists over whaling. Recently there have been more conflicts in the Antarctica between Japanese whaling ships and environmentalist activists who the Japanese consider to be eco-terrorists.

The Japanese have been catching whales under an international law that allows for the taking of whales for research. Now while the Japanese claim this is for research, it's obvious they are catching whales only for food. Eating whale meat in Japan is a venerable tradition; it is an element of Japanese cuisine that is bound up with Japanese culture and highly prized by the Japanese people.

These environmentalists, much like extreme activists the world over, have long since abandoned reason and logic in favor of law breaking, vandalism and terror. Japanese fisherman, having the temerity to kill large sea animals without the permission of Green Peace, are now the targets of "green pirates."

Extreme environmentalists now pursue Japanese whalers as if they were Somali pirates: ramming ships, climbing on board and in the recent attacks, tossing rancid butter and cans of paint at the Japanese whalers. Some one might ask: is this really something that the world needs to worry about right now? Is Japan whaling this important?

It's a sure bet that many of the environmentalists who are attacking Japan for whaling, are the very same folks who are real vocal about protecting native rights, traditions and cultural practices of non-white persons. Well how about Japanese cultural rights? The Japanese have been on those islands for thousands of years and whaling is part of their native tradition.

It seems that western environmentalists only support "diverse" "cultural" practices that they approve of; which doesn't seem to be an honest effort at authentic diversity. And typical of totalitarian impulses the world over, the environmentalists use violence and force to get what they want.

For the Japanese part, they should not claim they are doing research when they are not; if the Japanese want to catch a number of whales for food, they should make the case on cultural and traditional grounds. This would help them retain the moral high ground, because their opposition understands this as some kind of "whale genocide," and they are prepared to get real violent.

As one environmentalist extremist said regarding the Japanese whaling ships:
“I will not allow them to kill a whale while we’re here, and they know that,” he said. “I’ll literally rip their harpoon off their deck if I have to.”

It seems that Captain Ahab has jumped ship and now is clicking his peg leg around the stern of a Green Peace clipper.