The process of modernisation and industrialisation, along with the import of external ideas that swept through Japan after its opening in the 1860s, substantially changed the face of the country. Yet many of the themes, beliefs, ideas and modes of behaviour that developed and controlled life over the hundreds of years before then continue to be of relevance. This ongoing presence of centuries-old ways of thinking, behaving and going about everyday life, like a web of tentacles reaching into everyone’s lives, is an integral part of life in Japan. The two streams, the new superimposed on the old, combine to create the paradox that is modern-day Japan. An awareness of some of these ‘societal concepts’ helps provide an insight into the ebb and flow of relations between people, in both a social and business context.
There is no industrialised land more homogenous than Japan, a country that lived through 260 years of self-imposed isolation from 1600, that has never been invaded, and is an island. Whilst 99% of the population is Japanese, it can be seen that rather than all being similar the nation is made up of numerous distinct sub-groupings.
Prominent among them are the country’s indigenous people, the Ainu, who mostly reside in Hokkaido, and who like other indigenous peoples have in the past been subjected to various forms of persecution, including forcible assimilation. Formerly known as Ezo, Hokkaido was incorporated into the rest of Japan in 1869. The last decades of the 20th century saw living conditions of the Ainu improve to a level comparable with the general population, and persecution largely disappear, but they still strongly assert their cultural and historical difference from the rest of the country.
A similar situation occurs in Okinawa, which was formerly the largest island within the Ryūkyū kingdom, encompassing a large area of ocean and small islands to the south of the mainland. Becoming known as Okinawa after it was taken over by Japan in 1879, it has its own unique cultural background, clearly still identifiable through cuisine, music and artifacts, along with a reputation for world-leading longevity. In the past Okinawans also were subjected to persecution by the mainland. The US military bases there, set up after the end of World War II, have housed more troops than all their other military locations in Japan combined, but are set to be dispersed around Japan from 2014.
Japan’s colonising exploits, including bringing other nationals to Japan, have also formed racial sub-groups, largely from Taiwan, China and Korea. Japanese law does not permit any of these people, including children born in Japan, to automatically acquire Japanese citizenship and nor is dual citizenship allowed, and whilst some undertake the lengthy process of gaining citizenship, most choose to retain the nationality they acquired at birth from their parents. For practical purposes, they often use Japanese names, however as passports are in the country of their nationality, not birth, a second set of names must be retained. For Japanese citizenship, a Japanese name must be taken legally, which is a good enough reason for many to not change nationality.
People of these other nationalities comprise a little over 1% of the population, about 1.3 million people, half of whom are Korean, and the great majority of whom have lived in the country most or all their lives. Marriage within these sub-groupings is still more common than outside with a Japanese, so dilution of the purity of blood within these groups is minimal. However most of these people, certainly all the younger ones, are exactly the same as if they were Japanese, having been born and raised there, and often unable to speak the language of their parents’ country.
The most clearly recognised minority group within Japanese society is the burakumin, the class of peasants who worked in abattoirs and the tanning industry. Because of their association with what was considered dirty work, and dealing in death, these people were shunned by others, and even today some families refuse to allow children to marry into a family with a burakumin background. During the 20th century the government improved the living standards of burakumin, bringing their many communities into the mainstream of society, however discrimination can persist, with some companies continuing to refuse to employ people of burakumin ancestry.
A further factor diminishing the homogeneity of the Japanese is how the country was populated on a regional basis. Coming to Japan from different geographical sources, the original inhabitants remained where they settled, a practice largely continued over the millennia by their ancestors. The 20th century saw an unprecedented scattering around the country, but most people stayed put, so specific physical features particular to individual regions, along with language, cuisine and some social habits, are still discernible.
Thus on the one hand, present-day society can be seen to be made up of a number of groupings: two main ethnic sub-groupings, the ainu and Okinawans, retaining local dialects and cuisine, successfully keeping their distinct cultures alive; the burakumin, now largely accepted after four centuries as social outcasts; a small pool of non-Japanese Asian (mostly Korean) residents with a tendency against inter-racial marriage, often sending their children to their own schools after hours; and a significant proportion of the rest of the population still living in areas their ancestors originally settled, and hence still possessing some resemblance to those original settlers.
On the other hand, the country has a long history of little or no external travel and, apart from the forced entry of citizens of countries colonised by Japan in the first half of the 20th century, no history of immigration since the first waves that populated the country.
This first set of factors might justify questioning the Japanese as a homogenous race. However, in reality these differences present as merely variations on a theme, the theme being an overwhelming impression that Japan as a nation is like one big family, and any differences are like those between siblings.
The pressure for conformity tends to lead to typical Japanese behaviour and appearances among all these groups, reinforcing and maintaining the impression of homogeneity. Apart from the less than .5% of the population that is of Caucasian birth, and the few residents from the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East, the remaining 99.5% are all Asian, dress and behave according to the same social and fashion influences, and all speak the same language. There can thus be no denying that, as a general principle and with the glossing over of a number of minor variations, Japan is a highly homogenous nation.
The main building block forming the foundation of social activity and behaviour in Japan is the way all work and play is undertaken on a group basis, with fairly strict conformity to established group rules. The role of the group is more forceful and pervasive in Japan than elsewhere due to the length of the country’s isolation, and the lack of any discernible outside threat, which enabled communities and villages to progress and refine their functions and activities to an advanced level.
Everyone is a member of any number of groups, connected with their family, school, work, a hobby or sport, or the neighbourhood, and allegiance to each group is a cornerstone of their daily lives. The smallest group will comprise two, such as the bozozoku (disaffected youths who steal motorbikes and go on uncontrolled joy rides along main suburban roads through the night) motorbike rider and his passenger.
The ultimate group is the nation as a whole, of which everyone is a member. For a largely homogenous race, it is only natural the Japanese think of themselves as one big family, an attitude continually reinforced by the government and media.
As a result, for example, people who have lived overseas for an extended period might be considered to have foregone their Japanese nation group membership, especially if they indicate they preferred their life overseas, and appear to have undergone any kind of psychological or physical transformation. To ensure quick acceptance back into the neighbourhood (the local group), they will discard Western influences, such as clothes and hairstyles (including beards for men), and resume the normal Japanese appearance. Men who showed their wife the usual Western signs of respect by opening car doors and standing back to allow her to enter a room first, will likely drop these practices.
For children living overseas who intend returning to Japan, it’s essential they continue their Japanese studies, so as to easily fit in to the education system back home. For this purpose they will attend schools teaching the normal Japanese curriculum, or at least a part-time Japanese school.
The nation-family ethos is invariably exemplified at times of natural disaster, such as earthquakes and flooding and landslides caused by typhoons. People will openly weep when viewing these scenes of devastation, as if it were their own family members suffering. In a sense, being Japanese, those affected are family members.
The word for foreigner, gaikokujin, usually abbreviated to gaijin, means outsider, someone outside the national family group, and the term can sometimes be heard in use near a person obviously a foreigner. Despite the meaning and usage of this word, it’s common for non-Japanese people to be accepted into groups, such as arising from work or a homestay. By participating in the activities of a group, regularly having contact with group members, and proving oneself to be a worthwhile person, a foreigner can gain full acceptance into the group and develop long-lasting friendships.
Japan rarely accepts refugees, yet smatterings of different nationalities, both Western and Eastern (Pakistanis, Iranians and other Muslims) do successfully make Japan their home, usually gaining permanent residency through marriage. Unless long-held xenophobic attitudes can be eased, Japan will increasingly be at an economic disadvantage, as with its low birth rate just to maintain current population levels will require 600,000 immigrants a year. But with an unwillingness to allow a dilution of the purity of the race, such an inward human flow is unlikely. With the population now in gradual decline, this issue presents a huge challenge.
Japan being a small land mass, of which only a part is habitable, there’s a sense that each person’s existence is dependent on the goodwill of others, whether they be family, friends, colleagues, neighbours or class mates. As a consequence, everyone strives to get on well with each other, and avoid any action that might cause inconvenience. In a cramped living environment, it’s better not to rock the boat, for doing so in virtually any circumstance will be bound to affect others.
When a person has antagonistic or negative feelings toward another, so as to maintain balance and harmony, wa, these feelings will be suppressed, or at least not shown. Instead an accommodating, agreeable attitude will be conveyed, in a manner known as tatemae. Of course people might still retain their true feelings, honne, and possibly express them to a third party, such as a friend, whose confidence they know can be depended on, but others would never learn of these feelings.
Everyone strives to achieve and maintain decorum, a sense of harmony in all aspects of human dealings. This need to maintain wa is often alluded to when office workers explain why they don’t take their allotted annual leave. To take more than five days, and be the only one doing so, is bound to cause inconvenience, something each person in turn is loathe to do. Even after taking a short break, it’s common for the returning worker to bring colleagues a gift, as thanks for their forbearance and apology for their suffering during the absence. It’s also the reason why people rarely take legal action to right a wrong or resolve a dispute.
Yet Japanese society is highly competitive, beginning for some children with entrance exams to the more prestigious kindergartens, plus subsequent levels of schooling. Pressure to succeed can be great, creating potential for conflict and disagreement. Against this backdrop the group ethic, necessitating allegiance to the group and not the broader community, also creates divergent stresses and strains in society. An example is the way government departments compete fiercely among themselves in turf wars, fighting over which department is responsible for a particular topic or area of activity.
But in any given situation, the actions of all parties involved are affected, curtailed or controlled by the ever-present urge to avoid or minimise conflict and to maintain a sense of harmony. People are out to get the best result for themselves, their group or company, but with a desire to keep the environment harmonious an integral component of the interaction process.