I have been wanting to write a post about this for a long time now, and I ended up making it a very long post!
I stayed in a Japanese community for 8 months until last March. This is my 7th year to live in the UK. Before joining the community last summer, I hardly had any contact with Japanese people, except for one or two acquaintances.
Today I wanted to share what I have been reflecting inside me since last summer. It’s about the difference of culture, mentality and social rules in Japan and in the west. At times it caused intense feelings, uncertainty and frustration in me. But it has also brought me an understanding, acceptance, appreciation, and a comfort.
I don’t feel I can contain everything in this one blog post, so today I am just going to focus on the Japanese group mentality and the harmony that it brings.
As soon as I started to live in the community, I noticed in me this strange feeling arising. Being helped by Japanese language itself, I was trying not to express my opinions or felt uncomfortable doing it. It seemed like everyone is SO aware of what others think, to the extent that stopped them from saying what they thought. Yes, in Japan, the ‘I’ don’t exist as strongly as in the west. You are conditioned to care about ‘what others think’ much more than in the west, in a good way and not so in a good way. The harmony of the group has the top priority and you should not disturb it by being assertive or strong in your opinions. This Japanese characteristic is one of the reasons that they work fantastic in groups.
People don’t tell you about this rule verbally, but there is this certain unspoken atmosphere that everyone lives in or tries to live in. I encountered so many occasions when my friends were not expressing themselves even though they had some opinions on things, which to me were very precious…At the time I took it that they were afraid of expressing themselves, which was true to a certain extent, and straightaway I took the attitude as ‘being weak’ or ‘coward’.
In the western culture prior to staying in the community, I got so used to say what I thought and have my own opinions on various things. This ‘I’ mentality had been strongly ingrained in me that it was almost impossible to understand the people who shared the very same origin as me, and who seemed so hesitant to express what they think. I got frustrated, to see them not communicating in the way I was used to. But strangely, I noticed the very same quality inside me, too. I tried not to look at it, but it kept coming up as if it was wanting my attention.
Towards the end of the 8 months, I started feel differently. I decided to see if there was something beyond the ‘weakness’ in this culture. Looking back in 2009, I came to the UK holding almost a rebellious feeling towards Japanese society. I didn’t like the fact that people were living the life others’ want. I hated that there was a set social dogma of ‘a happy life’. I couldn’t bear the reality in which people did what they were told to do, not what they really wanted, or they didn’t even seem to have it. To me everyone seemed busy trying to fit in a box to fulfil the expectation of the society or parents. In my mind this conformity was the direct cause of unhappiness, and did never serve me at all. So I swayed to the other end and decided to look at a different world. In the UK I felt so free expressing myself, having opinions, being different and to see people around me different, too. Coming to the UK helped me discover this freedom and unshakeable happiness of being who I was, which I know will never go away.
But I couldn’t conclude it there. Why? Simply because I truly loved being with the people in the Japanese community…it was just nice to be around them. It made me feel very comfortable and I could see the seed of kindness expanded within the community every day. Their kindness was at times smothering, but I decided to accept the way they were and appreciate it instead. I knew it’s time to correct my perception towards Japan. Being assertive is not necessarily being strong. Having your opinion doesn’t always mean you are intelligent. Not saying your opinions has nothing to do with being weak or coward. Since I decided to change my perception, abundant appreciation started to flow in my heart. I started to be aware of their authenticity, consideration for others, compassion and I was filled with gratitude. I even had moments of overwhelming bliss, feeling that I couldn’t be more fortunate.
I feel now that, in admiring your own individuality, it is necessary to have the access to your self-expression. I value the ability to think, contemplate and find your own opinions. I admit that this is more difficult in the Japanese society, and I do not support its conformity fully. But what struck me during the 8 months was the beauty of people who constantly cared about the harmony among people. I realized how essential it was and saw how the external harmony brought an internal harmony, too. I see it like this; there is a trust that you will always receive what you need, even if you don’t ask for it. You care about others, and others care you back. There isn’t much need to be assertive or have opinions to express yourself to be noticed. In fact, in the west I have had many occasions when I felt I had to almost fight for the opportunity to speak, to be noticed. This is something I had never felt in Japan. People just know you are there, and you are included. Even though Japanese people are not expressive in the same way as western people are, individual uniqueness is expressed and perceived in a different way. I saw it and its beauty in the community.
The way my Japanese friends are shows me how strong they are. They may be smiling to anyone and might come across as they are coward or not intelligent. But it’s not true. I see the genuine strength, intelligence and kindness in it. These people who can be selfless, be considerate of others and smile to whomever they encounter are not even bothered about the individual-ness.
Nowadays I find myself being more appreciative of Japan which has such a different culture from the west. I feel easier to be in the company of Japanese people, and I know now that the mentality plays an essential part in the function of the Japanese society-the society which operates under the unspoken rules that are too unfamiliar and mysterious in the west. This understanding and the whole experience in the community released the entangled knot that had been formed in my mind since early 20s, and this was what I had to face.
The company of my Japanese friends comforts me like nothing else. This was something I had forgotten for a while and rediscovered. There are certain Japanese qualities in me that can only be shared with Japanese people and will never be understood in the west. At the same time, here in the UK I feel an all-inclusive acceptance which embraces the part of me as a human, not as a nationality. This gives me a peace at the depth of my being, or my soul. The longer I live in the UK, the sense of being a Japanese is left behind or has become unimportant. Nationality doesn’t define who somebody is, and maybe it can only blind us from who the person actually is.
Japan is not a place where I feel my inner quality can blossom, at least for now. And I am very grateful for the life I have now in this country where I feel more resonance with this diverse culture, and above all, the life 🙂