As a by-product of the major theme in Japanese education and life in general, that everyone is in a group and all members are equal, modesty and a disinclination to stand out is a most admired characteristic. When called upon to perform a task well within their capability, a Japanese person is likely to self-effacingly exclaim an inability to do it, then proceed with every endeavour to complete the task. This tendency toward self-deprecation is usually most marked in environments involving competition with Western people, unintentionally sounding as though the Japanese competitor has accepted the inevitability of defeat even before commencing. When giving a gift, they will always play down its worth or value, as being less substantial than deserved by the recipient, even though the item is probably more valuable than the occasion warrants.
Politeness is part of the ritual of social interaction, but is genuine. Warmth and kindness are also commonly shown to visitors. Whilst in business people are usually out to secure an edge and benefit whenever possible, and a dog-eat-dog atmosphere can pervade business dealings, once a deal is struck, and in any dealings in the wider community, honesty and trustworthiness are traits considered to be a matter of honour and an integral part of human relationships.
Fads in fashion and pop culture come and go, new products are embraced rapidly, but many long-held habits continue. The prospect of reintroducing daylight saving, tried out then abandoned in the late 1940s, creates in many a feeling of apprehension, of stepping into the unknown, despite its proven financial and social benefits. Similarly there is no perceived reason to dispense with use of the old calendar system, which has each year numbered according to the year of the current Emperor’s reign. These instances indicate a degree of conservatism and sentimentality in the Japanese personal makeup, a dislike of giving up the old. Another trait is emotionalism, unabashedly displayed on occasions such as sports victories, weddings and family farewells, when uncontrolled weeping by adults is not an uncommon sight.
Because of a lack of contact with people of other nations from an early age, combined with their ingrained tendency for humility and lack of confidence in their English language ability, many Japanese appear shy and withdrawn when in contact with foreigners.
International travel in any way other than a group, whether by the busload or just two or three, isn’t common, however none of this should be taken to mean the Japanese don’t like, or aren’t interested in, meeting people of other countries. Some younger Japanese succumb to their irrepressible urge to experience other cultures by going and living overseas for as long as their visa will permit. Hence, in parts of Australia, the USA, Canada and elsewhere sub-cultures of Japanese surfies, musicians and the like can be found living lives impossible in their home country. The rigid employment system in Japan precludes people from taking an extended break unless they quit their job, so usually the only Japanese to be found living overseas for an extended time are university graduates and employees of Japanese companies.
There continue to be some who have an aversion to outsiders in Japan, and sometimes a shop, hot springs or restaurant, and landlords, may indicate non-Japanese are less than welcome. However these incidents are the exception, perhaps the result of a lack of knowledge or understanding of peoples of other nations. In some cases these attitudes are a carry-over from the decades of the first half of the 20th century, when Japan was a colonial power in Asia, and much of the populace developed a sense of superiority over, and some arrogance toward, other Asian peoples, and at least equality with the West.
Still today there is a recognisable sense in Japan of being different from the rest of Asia and more comparable with the developed West. Being a highly adaptable people, from the pinnacle of regional power in the early 1940s to a desperate predicament at the end of World War II, and given little option by the Occupation Forces, all except the remaining extreme nationalists quickly took on an attitude of humility and peace loving. Then, as economic power was re-gained through the 1960s into the 80s, a degree of arrogance emerged again, especially among business men and bureaucrats. However Japan’s fall from economic grace since has seen many a smirk wiped off these faces.
Economically, whilst Japan is inextricably linked with the USA, it’s now more tied to its neighbouring region than ever before, a trend that is likely to continue as the world economy moves more in the direction of regional trading blocs. An increasing number of Japanese are acquiring an interest in their Asian neighbours too. So whilst the country rightly feels some degree of equality with the West has been earned and is warranted, and that it’s rightly placed alongside all other world powers, there is also an acknowledgment that it’s part of Asia and has an important economic role to play there.