Copyright, 1991 Etsuko Ueda All rights reserved.

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What follows is my account of what happens when Japanese and Americans meet.

During the last decade or so, the American public witnessed a huge increase in media coverage of Japan as US/Japan economic relations became critical to the US economy. Now, hardly a day goes by without hearing something about Japan on the news. People from all walks of life in both countries are drawn to deal directly with the strangers from across the Pacific. Yet there is a certain uneasiness on both sides. The strain of trade friction and the adversarial relation between the counties in the past, do not help, either. However, it is also true that skirmishing on the diplomatic front, and the media coverage of it do not reflect the good will ordinary people on both sides are ready to extend, despite the difficulties.

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To know your "enemy"

Generally speaking, the Japanese know far better about American language and culture, than Americans do the Japanese. "If you know your enemy and yourself, victory is ensured" is the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu's teaching, which the Japanese have embraced for centuries. Although they somehow managed to forget this teaching during the Pacific war, they regained their senses upon seeing towering General McArthur and his men on the battleship Missouri and resumed their quest to catch up with the western nations. For the most part the learning took place indirectly through imported goods, technologies, movies, and books. However, as their direct encounter with Westerners, primarily Americans, increased, it became clear that yet another kind of learning is required.

Living in an island nation, the Japanese have had to learn foreign languages mainly from books. It served well in learning foreign ideas and technologies, but serves poorly in preparing for two-way communication. To supplement their English education many Japanese take conversational English lessons. It became fashionable and affordable for college students to go to the US, England, or Australia to spend their summer vacations or to attend colleges. Sending selected junior executives to US graduate schools for a few years became routine among large companies. Nevertheless, the mastery of language and culture one can achieve in a few years of school is quite limited.

Kimihira Ryozo, a Japanese business consultant who worked in the US for over 20 years, observes in his book that a Japanese businessman's ability is severely reduced the moment he steps out of his airplane in the US. Robert M. March, an Australian professor of international business in Tokyo and a consultant in international negotiations, gives advice to those who do business with the Japanese in English: "You must remember that you are making a presentation in English to Japanese who sound fluent but may at best understand 80-85%. If your speech is full of slang they probably get 20%."

Kimihira estimates that a Japanese businessman may only be able to function in the US at 10 to 65% of his true ability depending upon his English and how well he is informed about day-to-day American life and business. Many seasoned international businessmen from both sides of the Pacific confess that negotiations can break down due to misunderstandings. Those who enjoy the most successful relations, however, proceed in careful steps, making sure each point is clearly understood, sometimes using translation and retranslation to be certain.

The language barrier

Many Americans are already familiar with the way Japanese distort English. Japanese electronic gizmos often come with manuals that provide extra amusement, that might give headaches when one tries to understand them. This passage from Emerson's VCR owner's manual is delightful:

When set to the TV position the TV will receive off-the-air programs normally. When set to VCR, a recorded program being played back, or off-the-air channels selected by the VCR's built-in tuner are viewed on the TV. Should be set the TV position when recording one program while watching another.

Why this company did not consult a native English writer is a mystery to me. Perhaps they are as reluctant to talk to Americans as Americans are to Japanese. Such reluctance causes equally disastrous result when Americans try to convert English documents into Japanese, such as:

Huntsville's Per Capita high income of $12,227 compares to $8,538 for Alabama and Middle-class household income from $27,846 to $19,846 and $25,496 each, along with national average of $10,813. (retranslated from the Japanese translation of "The Introduction to Huntsville/Madison county 1986/87")

Clearly, the translator neither had enough knowledge of English to understand the original text, nor the ability to write coherent Japanese. Japanese would be very understanding to such blunders, since they know how hard it is to master both languages. Nevertheless, if you are getting less than enthusiastic responses from them, you may be well advised to check the quality of the translation.

As can be seen in the above examples, long and complex sentences often pose problems. The Japanese sentence structure is so diametrically different from that of English, that the inexperienced will quickly get lost in a long sentence. Even when the sentence is written down, they may have a hard time figuring it out. Colloquial expressions are also a problem, because Japanese knowledge of English comes mainly from books. Dictionaries are not much of a help when it comes to colloquial expressions. I hate to admit this, but after my first exam in the US I found out that over ten years of English lessons did not prepare me for a simple phrase like "Did you make it?" All I could think was, "Was I supposed to make something?"

Analysis of numerous such blunders in translated books has been a monthly feature of a Japanese magazine called "Translation World". Betsuku, the author of the column, had no trouble finding books filled with blunders and has concluded that a 200 to 300 page book with 20 to 30 instances of mistranslation should be considered a good work. Although I believe we can do more than just pray that those 20 to 30 sentences aren't critical, I also believe Betsuku's assessment accurate. Simply put, if it takes 12 years of formal as well as informal education to produce a well educated person in one language, it will take an additional 12 years to do so in two languages. So, there is no surprise that many of the translations scrutinized by Betsuku are the work of Japanese college professors, some of whom even have PhDs from American Universities.

The Japanese are well aware of their limitation in English and are very conscious about how it reflects on them when they use broken English with a heavy accent. This and the prospect of misunderstanding can make them anxious and shy. As a nation, the Japanese are pleased that their efforts to accommodate western language and culture have paid off economically. However, the amount of resource they put into it, and the embarrassment and inconvenience they put up with in the process, are enough to make them resentful when America pushes Japan to alter business practices.

A Japanese engineer confessed to me that although American computer products are better than their Japanese counterparts in general, he cannot afford the time to read poorly translated or not at all translated manuals and documents. Even if he did take the time, they would likely be obsolete by the time he figured out all the advanced features or even worse, he may never fully figure them out. American businesses' reluctance to invest their resources into adapting their products to the Japanese market is not a rarity. Even the American auto industry that has been on the center stage of trade dispute for many years, has been guilty on this account. Since cars in Japan run on the left side of the road, Japanese auto makers have been putting their steering wheel on the right hand side for the domestic market and on the left for the American market. American auto makers, on the other hand, have been shipping their cars to Japan with the steering wheel on the left hand side as they are for the American market. Such reluctance to accommodate certainly reduces the credibility of American trade negotiators' claims against Japan.

Why is it so hard?

The factors that contribute to the difficulty Japanese encounter in mastering English are manifold: pronunciation, syntax, semantics, and the difference in the way Japanese and English handle expressions of respect and humility. In short, everything about English is different from Japanese, making it rather complex to master both.

Mastering English pronunciation is particularly hard for a Japanese because English uses many phonetic contrasts not used in Japanese. Contrasts such as rice vs. lice, six vs. sex, vote vs. boat, pose vs. pause, math vs. mass, and bat vs. but, are all unfamiliar to Japanese tongues and ears. Even bath and bus can be mistaken. And when a southern accent is added, "mileage" may be mistaken for "marriage".

The second difficulty stems from the difference in sentence structure between the two languages. The difference is such that corresponding words appear in reversed order. So, when you are not proficient enough to think in your second language, you face the complex task of reorganizing the word order as you put your thought into words. Another syntax problem is that Japanese grammar is very lenient in that you can omit any part of a sentence. Even the subject can be omitted when it is obvious from the context or is wished to be left ambiguous. Consequently, a Japanese often improperly omits the subject and/or object word in English sentences. Further, the English usage of articles a and the, seem but unnecessary nuisances to a Japanese. English verb conjugations required for the distinction among the first, second, and third person, and the need to alter verbs to match singular and plural subjects, are "artificial trade barriers" to the Japanese.

The third source of difficulty lies in the fuzziness of natural concepts, and idiosyncrasies in the accepted uses of words. For example, in Japanese you drink medicine whether it is liquid or solid. In English, you can spoil a child, but there is no convenient word to refer to the child's behavior that elicits the spoiling. In Japanese, the same root word amai, meaning sweet, is used to denote both sides. Greetings also come to mind; often a Japanese feels lost trying to come up with an English equivalent of the Japanese greeting Dohzo yoroshiku onegai shimasu, which means "I'd like to request your kind regard". It is used in meeting a person for the first time, or at the closing of a meeting during which services or favors have been entrusted. It replaces both "How do you do" and "I appreciate your help", but it is humbler, therefore more polite.

Today, Japanese use many words borrowed from English. Some of them are not used the way they are in English, some are of Japanese invention, and some are abbreviated beyond recognition. In Japan a mixer is what Americans call a blender, bike means motorbike, and sign means signature or autograph. Japanese wear training pants in place of sweat pants, plug electric appliances into concent rather than into wall outlets, and peek through a door eye instead of a peephole. Their office computers are called offcon and word processors waa-pro. And there are many many more. The problem is that many of your Japanese guests do not realize the difference.

The fourth difficulty is something that is unknown to those whose language does not treat expressions of respect/humility systematically. For example, the English sentence "I will send so-and-so to pick you up at the airport," can be used regardless of who you are, who you are speaking to, and who the so-and-so is. You need to consider only how to refer to so-and-so, or whether to add "sir" or "ma'am". Not in Japanese. In addition to the consideration for the so-and-so, the words used to express "I", "send", and "pick you up" have to be adjusted according to the relative status and affiliation of "I", "you", and the "so-and- so". The Japanese language requires the speaker to be constantly aware where, in relation to the listener, the boundary of we and you lies and who is at the higher rank. For example, a store clerk will use respectful language to refer to things and people that belong to the customer and the language of humility to those that belong to the store, including the boss. But when the boss's mother comes to visit, the boss will be on the other side of the boundary and the respectful language will be afforded accordingly. English also distinguishes formal and polite languages from casual. However, the difference is not clearly delineated and the choice depends more on the occasion than on the relationships among the people involved.

A Japanese, when speaking English, suffers the awkward feeling of not being able to properly express his respect and humility, and of being addressed without it in return. Even those who are fairly fluent suffer being uncertain as to what is proper. Some may hastily conclude that there is no need to be polite and respectful when speaking English. It requires a good deal of real world experience simply to tell how American English handles the distinction between formal and casual or how and when Americans express respect, humility, and politeness. The uneasiness Japanese experience when being called by their given name by everyone around is a constant reminder of cultural differences. Back home, the only people who are privileged to do so are parents, older siblings, relatives, and maybe close friends. Friends and friends of family may also use the given name, but they seldom do so without putting san, kun, or chan after the name. (The Japanese custom is to put the given name after the family name, however, when speaking English, Japanese put their given name before the family name to accommodate the western custom.)

Help is available, but...

Given the Japanese limitations in English, not to mention the Americans' language limitation, the standard practice is to hire a translator/interpreter for business meetings and such. When simultaneous interpretation is required, a team of interpreters is hired to work side by side, taking short turns to prevent fatigue. When the discussion covers a widely differing field of subjects, interpreters knowledgeable in each field are called in.

Even with the help of a competent translator/interpreter, you are bound to feel awkward at times, though the interpreter should be able to cushion both sides to some extent. Some factors involved are linguistic, and some are cultural. Particularly confusing is the expression of agreement or disagreement. Even a simple nod can be a cause of misunderstanding. A Japanese is so accustomed to nodding and uttering Hai (Yes) now and then to indicate he is listening, this habit may come out even when he is aware that it can be mistaken for agreement. Worse yet, he is tempted to nod and smile even when he did not understand what was said, to maintain a positive note.

Further complication arises when one tries to confirm a negative sentence. Suppose an American asks a Japanese "It is not true, is it?" Listening to his interpreter, the Japanese may nod and say something in Japanese. The interpreter then tells the American "No, it is not true." But, he nodded! Didn't he mean yes? you may wonder. The answer in Japanese, literally translated, is either, "Yes, it isn't true", or "No, it is true". In answering a question, Hai is given to confirm the statement or the inquirer's intention. So, when you say "Do you mind if I smoke?" to a Japanese, be prepared to hear "Yes, go ahead and smoke." Needless to say, yes and no in English are equally confusing to a Japanese.

Communication can get tangled even more when one's world view comes into play. Japanese are known for their reluctance to say "No". This is often interpreted as their reluctance to be antagonistic. But, there is more to it than that. In the US, those who do not give a definite "Yes" or "No" answer are likely to be perceived as deceitful and uncooperative, if not incompetent. For a Japanese, things are seldom clear-cut black or white, and answers seldom are yes or no. Although they frequently say Hai (yes) to indicate that they are listening, when it comes to agreement or disagreement, unconditional "yes" is as unlikely as unconditional "no". Giving a simple "Yes" or "No" answer can, in many circumstances, be perceived as untruthful, insincere, or patronizing. In fact, saying Haitwice in a row is equivalent to saying "Yes, sir." to your child.

Nonverbal communication

Of course, it is not merely the language differences that impede cross-cultural communication. Generally, we expect to communicate better face to face than when communicating indirectly, such as through letters. Nonverbal information, such as one's appearance, tone of voice, facial expression, and body language all provide extra information that enrich understanding. However, when cultural difference is involved, this additional information can cause additional misunderstanding.

First of all, when you are not in good command of your second language, you tend to lose some control over your nonverbal expressions. So, English spoken with a foreign accent is not only hard to understand, but also can elicit uncomfortable feelings through a poorly controlled tone of voice or awkward facial expressions. Sometimes it is hard not to judge a person based on such impressions, and it takes some patience to overcome such feelings to really know the person.

Even when you get over the uneasiness, there are things that can still throw you. For example, everyone smiles and laughs, and everyone knows the meaning in that. Yet their use varies. Japanese are known to maintain smiling faces even when they talk about a recent death in the family, to maintain composure. Also, Japanese often start to laugh in expressing a negative attitude. It is equivalent to saying, "You must be kidding." To a non-Japanese, such smiles and laughs might appear strange to say the least. Equally strange for a Japanese, though, is to wait for a smile that is not forthcoming. I still remember the uneasiness I experienced years back when I took a test given by a Norwegian lady, who did not smile even once. It was "obvious" to me that she did not enjoy what she was doing, she hated us, and she'd had a big fight at home that morning.

Body language is an integral part of greeting. Japanese bow as they utter their greetings. Americans extend their arms for handshakes or sometimes hugs and kisses. Most Japanese who are familiar with the international scene are accustomed to handshakes, but when it comes to hugs and kisses few Japanese know the rules and manners involved. Even with handshakes it can be awkward because many of them are not able to withhold bows as they shake hands. To the Japanese, bowing is an indispensable means of greeting and courtesy. It allows them to greet one another without invading each other's personal space, which seems somewhat wider than that of Americans. It also enables them to greet at a distance, when a verbal greeting is impractical. It supplements words in the expression of feelings. To lose it is like losing part of one's civility.

The use of eye contact is also culture dependent. Americans may find it uncomfortable to talk to their Japanese partners, who often do not maintain eye contact. A Japanese would be horrified to see an American driver shift his gaze away from the traffic to talk to the passenger.

Smooth communication takes more than the knowledge of language and manners. The pace of communication also differs between America and Japan. Often Americans talk incessantly. But Japanese proceed more leisurely, pausing now and then to assess the situation or to let the silence speak. When English is the language of choice, the American's tendency to talk without pause can easily overwhelm the Japanese, whose English proficiency is most likely not high enough to listen and simultaneously think of what to say next. If his American partner is not sensitive enough to the situation the Japanese would be forced to choose between listening and talking. Japanese businessmen often use an interpreter just to avoid such situations. On the other hand, Americans tend to get nervous when a Japanese pauses for what to them seems an eternity.

Embedded in the culture and tradition

The way in which words are used also seems to be culturally conditioned. To a Japanese, Americans seem to rely heavily on lengthy verbal discussion where a simple chart or table suffices. Traditionally, the Japanese preferred concise verbal expressions. The Haiku form of poetry is symbolic to such Japanese preference. The adjective for a thick and greasy taste kudoi is used to denote lengthy and redundant discussion. Furthermore, the Japanese general distrust of words prevented them from taking verbal communication skills seriously. In fact, being said to be "skillful with mouth (words)" can be just as bad as being called underhanded.

The Japanese distrust of words and the Americans over reliance on words are deeply rooted in each culture and have some profound implication when the two cultures meet. For example, Americans have puzzled over the Japanese negative reactions to the use of legal document in business dealings. While Japanese have puzzled over the western practice of substituting cultivation of mutual trust and respect with legal documents. In American culture and Western culture in general, words are given superior power over mortal souls in both secular and sacred laws. "No man is above the law." and the power of words is acknowledged at the very beginning of the Old Testament, as the means that brought light to the world. The ability to access this power is vital to many professions. Often business is organized around setting and enforcing this abstract power of words. The fact that English word dumb is used to mean both speechless and stupid is another indication of how deeply it is rooted.

The relationships the Japanese have had with words are somewhat different. For one thing, the Japanese word for speechless oshi or rohwa (Chinese origin) do not mean stupid. The Japanese never had a holy book that compares to the bible. The books that came close to achieving such status were the books of Chinese philosophers, but no one claimed that they were words of god. There were times the high priests and priestesses performed miracles by activating the power of words to call upon spirits and gods and to fend off demons. But words never attained power over mortal souls. They remained as an instrument of communication and imperfect instrument at that. Laws have been written in Japan for the sake of communication and record keeping. The Japanese even have adopted, first, Chinese style laws and later western style constitution and legal system. Nevertheless, to the Japanese words are subject to interpretation and as such they cannot embody the absolute truth and authority. According to the Zen Buddhism, the truth evades words. It will be revealed only when you experience the world as it is.

This is not to say that the Japanese language is not well developed. Japan has a long and rich history of literary art. The modern Japanese is a language well developed to suit modern life. The volume and the variety of Japanese publication attest to that. But, writings in philosophical, legal, and scientific discussion have been limited. It is safe to say that polishing one's language for the sake of good discussion has not been a popular pursuit. Rather, the Japanese have polished the art of indirect communication, of using a few carefully chosen words to hint to the listener the range of ideas and the intentions the speaker wishes to convey.

The art of communication

In general, the less you know the person, the harder it is to communicate. This is particularly true for a Japanese. First of all, Japanese language requires you to come into the conversation with knowledge of the relative status and affiliation of your partner, to set the appropriate level of politeness/humility language. Then to drop an effective hint, the speaker must assess the listener's frame of mind. In order to avoid being too vague or too redundant (better to be too vague than too redundant), the listener's knowledge needs to be taken into consideration. The listener must also be an active participant. First of all, it is best to anticipate what is expected of you and to read the person's mind before a single word is uttered. If that is not possible, it is better not to make the person say anything more than a hint or two and to read between the lines. If you do poorly in these skills, you soon will earn a reputation of being inattentive, lacking common sense, dull-witted, and so forth.

Your Japanese guests will quickly find out that things in America don't work that way. Their hints may be mistaken or not taken at all. Their guesses may turn out wrong. Even facial expressions are hard to read due to the difference in facial features. Most of all they are too busy figuring out what is said and what to say, to read between the lines. They may not be able to put their finger exactly on what is amiss, but the issues and viewpoints discussed seem off the mark. The things that matter to them do not seem to matter to Americans. One time I heard someone proudly say "I don't go around reading other people's minds." I didn't know what to make of it until I learned a couple of expressions; "Don't put words in my mouth." and "You stole the words right out of my mouth.!" It seems that in America when someone speaks for you, it is often done to push their views on you rather than to show understanding, and when someone expresses a view exactly the same as yours, it often comes as a surprise.

In American culture, reading other people's minds somehow has gotten a bad name. Perhaps, it does not sit well with the idea of independence, personal freedom, and privacy. In Japanese culture, responding to subtle cues to read others' minds is what is expected. Actually, we all read other people's minds to some degree, using various forms of nonverbal signals and contextual cues combined with past experiences although we may not be aware of the process. Nonverbal communication is the only way babies can communicate with the world. In Japan, rather than abandoning this skill as the children's language develops, it is expected to be refined and fostered. It is much to our advantage to use this skill.

After a while, your Japanese guests may find relief in that Americans expect others to read their lips but not their minds. Chances are if anyone tries to read their minds, he or she may be accused of putting words in their mouth. However, it soon becomes painfully clear that the relief is not without price. Besides the risk of relying thoroughly on words, it is awkward to be assertive to get attention and to be understood, especially when you realize that you sound dumb in every sense of the word.

Reading others' minds is part of the attentiveness that permeates Japanese life. This attentiveness is probably the thing a Japanese would miss the most abroad. It can be felt not only in the way people interact with one another, but also in the things that surround them. The Japanese quest to obtain the finest in the world is a manifestation of their devotion to life's finer pleasures, from clothing to food to drinks to gadgets and gizmos. Nothing illustrates this devotion better than the tea ceremony, which requires not only sophisticated aesthetic senses but also painstaking attention to every detail. The setting, the decor, the utensils, the food, the dress, and above all the manners must be delivered with the subtlety of studied casualness.

Many Japanese who come to live in the US go through a period of frantic searching to find satisfactory tea and coffee, among other things, after finding out that familiar names do not guarantee familiar tastes. It is no accident that Japanese are buying up the finest coffee beans in the world and developing many of the finest consumer products in the world. I firmly believe that it is not the management style nor the QC circles but the attentiveness, the attention to detail, that is behind Japan's high quality products and economic success.

Japanese culture trains Japanese to be attentive in receiving signals. American culture, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of the message sender to be clear and assertive. This cultural difference seems partly to blame in the recent course of trade dispute between the two countries. Americans' clear and strong message was received by the Japanese as Japan bashing, a hateful display of racism, and it hardened their feelings rather than getting them into a cooperative mood. To the extent Japan yielded, the strong message seemed to be working. Meanwhile Americans paid little attention to what the Japanese felt and thought, until it was spelled out loud and clear in Japan that can say no (I read the Japanese original, but have not yet read this translation, so I cannot guarantee the quality of the translation. The intro says it is not well written as English.) The book advises Japanese politicians and government officials to be assertive and say "no" clearly when Americans are unreasonable, and lists numerous examples of what the authors deem unreasonable and selfish on the part of Americans. Some Americans are trying to take comfort in that the authors of the book aren't in the mainstream of Japanese politics. In my opinion, however, it should not be taken lightly that one of the authors, Ishihara, is a novelist as well as a politician who, compared to most Japanese politicians, is far more skilled at his craft of giving voice to the unheard masses.

Another Japanese custom that might cause trouble is the distinction between hon'ne (the true voice) and tatenae (the facade). It is based on the premise that there are multiple layers of truth, that people have multiple layers of motives, and that the more personal won't be shared publicly. The implication is that to get the whole picture, you need to know the person at a personal level as well as at the business level. This necessitates frequent after-hours socialization and golf.

Those who saw the movie "Gung Ho" may recall a scene in which the young Japanese plant manager took his American employee for a drink and confessed his personal concerns, begging the employee to have mercy on him. It was exaggerated of course, but you get the picture. Sharing hon'ne is like sharing a secret. It strengthens the bonding among people who share it. It is desirable for successful business communication to keep the hon'ne relation, or alternately known as hadaka-no-tsukiai (the naked relation), alive. A business relation that does not involve more personal and emotional levels is a "dry" relation, as opposed to a "wet" relation that does.

It is a universally practiced wisdom to use palatable excuses and to not tell the whole truth to a wrong person at a wrong time. The hon'ne / tatemae distinction is a variation, only it provides a legitimate framework to explore deeper feelings and honest opinions. In the US you can have candid talk heart to heart and reveal your true color, but when to do it outside of the confession booth and psychotherapist's office is unclear. Drunk or sober Americans seem to maintain their facade. Even acting drunk seems forbidden.

The difference in the way people relate to one another is not something you can tell at a glance. At first, the casualness of American manners confuses Japanese. Later your Japanese guests will stumble over limitations as the relationship develops at a more personal level and they start to explore the hon'ne relation. Americans find Japanese overly frank and intrusive when they remove their facade of formality. Touchy subjects require delicate handling, which is not easy with poor language skill. Americans often use jokes to break the ice and to open up, but jokes are hard to practice with poor language skill. Using a pretense of drunken numbness is one way to handle touchy subjects, but it does not seem to be an option in American society. Even with good language skill it is hard to feel connected in a society where the prevailing attitude is "mind your own business."

Historic context

It is all part of a package. America is a loosely knit society on a vast land where people moved to new frontiers to avoid being stepped on. They come from all different ethnic backgrounds and did not know what to expect of one another. So, they stayed out of one another's business and everything had to be spelled out clearly. In this relative isolation, assumptions of individualism were practical. Independence and self determination were the keys to survival.

On the other hand, Japan's tightly knit society with crowded living conditions requires inhabitants who are attentive, responsive, and reserved just to avoid stepping on one another's toes all the time. There, it is imperative to cultivate relationships and an atmosphere in which people can clear the air and deepen mutual understanding, as friction is unavoidable. Naturally, people know one another quite well and share similar experiences, hence there is not much need to assert oneself or to explain things at length. In such an environment a subtle message goes a long way. In a tightly knit society where boundaries among people are blurred and "your" problem quickly becomes "my" problem, you are constantly reminded that no one operates in a vacuum and that you have more to lose than to gain by asserting yourself, putting group harmony at risk. Individual freedom and self-determination are cast in a light of selfishness and recklessness.

In the past, the Japanese have eagerly learned foreign languages and cultures so long as there was no real threat of foreign dominance. When they saw a threat in the form of rebellious Christians, they closed their doors and eliminated all foreign influences for about 250 years. Then Commodore Perry forced them to open up with his mighty black ship some 150 years ago. The conservative forces reconciled in a policy of adopting western technologies while keeping Japanese spirit and values.

Japan initiated a transition from a feudalistic state to a modern democratic state soon after the Meiji Restoration, about 130 years ago. The leaders at the time saw the change necessary and inevitable. They implemented it in small steps, gradually adopting western legal and political systems. The process didn't get very far before it came to a halt under the war. When the war ended, Japan had to rebuild its society and economy and the US became the primary model. The Japanese were deeply moved and greatly impressed by the generosity the Americans afforded to its previous enemy. MacArthur's land reform and the installation of a Constitution more liberal than his own country's seemed to most Japanese like a prize for losing the war. The Japanese vowed never to engage in a war and to build a democratic society, which seemed a sure way to the prosperity Americans were enjoying.

To the postwar Japanese, democracy meant that everyone was equal and had the right to participate in the decision making process. They put this belief into practice at work, at home, and in their communities. The authoritarian approach was perceived as an attempt to revive the old "feudalistic" values and systems which failed the country. Psychological studies that demonstrated the superiority of democratic leadership were cited in a variety of contexts. Many Japanese parents were led to believe that parent-child relationships in the "advanced" western democratic societies were like that of friends.

Now, to the surprise of many Japanese, they are told that group decision making, the bottom-up process, is uniquely Japanese and has little to do with western democracy. Americans often point out that the Japanese do not know what democracy really is. Japanese, on the other hand, find it strange to see the authoritarian nature of American society.

Developed hand in hand with American democracy is the Protestant ethic that attributes individual fortune to individual righteousness. In Japanese society, where the interdependent nature of social life is overwhelmingly clear, it is not practical to operate under such individualistic assumptions. For example, recognition of individual achievement must be handled with great care so as to be fair to all. Like the Academy Award winners, humility and humbleness are essential in sharing credit. The same goes for sharing blame in failure. When a Japanese apologizes, the real message is that they are prepared to share the blame, do their share of saving the relationship, and right the wrong. Most often, it is not enough to just accept the apology. You are expected to ease the apologizer's guilt by acknowledging the mitigating circumstances and that others, most likely including yourself, are also to blame.

The resignation of Toshiba officials in the COCOM scandal was done in such spirit. (Sophisticated Japanese lathes were exported to the Soviet Union and used to produce silent running propellors for submarines.) But, to the bitter disappointment of the Japanese, Americans dismissed the fact that the scandal was done by an European subsidiary in which Toshiba had only indirect control, and that there had been other European companies who violated the COCOM. The uneven and hysteric nature in the treatment of Toshiba was unmistakable. The main message the Japanese got from it was that Americans aren't really concerned about fairness, and that Americans' complaints about Japanese trade practices are just rhetorical Japan bashing.

"Never say 'I am sorry,' unless you are ready to accept the full guilt and blame," is part of standard farewell advice given to Japanese coming to America. But it is still a shock for a Japanese to face a contentious American society where people are quick to blame and become highly defensive at a hint of accusation. Reflecting such experiences, the Japanese perception of American democracy today may be summed up as a society under the "law of the jungle", that requires enough lawyers to pit everyone against everyone.

Things are changing, for better or for worse

Now that the world is getting smaller and more interdependent at a global scale, Americans might start to see things more in the Japanese way. Meanwhile, as the Japanese accumulate more experience in the global community, they too might start to see sense in doing things the American way. Although their land will not get any roomier, their increasing mobility both inside and outside of Japan is loosening up Japanese society, by increasing their exposure to heterogeneity. For better or for worse, things are changing.

In search of excellence, American businesses are seeing the advantage of installing bottom-up decision making processes, the teamwork spirit, and harmonious labor-management relations. Seminars and workshops are offered to change people's attitude in giving and taking criticism, and to promote effective ways of reading other people's minds.

Of course, there always is a force to resist change. In the American business tradition where aggressiveness is regarded as a virtue, a high proportion of managers seem to exhibit a personality marked by aggressive, impatient, domineering, and often hostile behavior. While these managers love to work under pressure and find pleasure in taking risks, they are not good at teamwork and are resistant to the company's efforts to introduce Total Quality Management.

In Japan, there is even greater change, and resistance to change. Many Japanese now recognize the need for thorough explanation, good debating skills, and assertiveness. The authors of the book Japan that can say noare the prime example. The Japanese even recognize that too much emphasis on group harmony is stifling to the creativity which is crucial for future technological advances and economic security.

Today, the Japanese who were born after 1960 are often referred to as shin- jinrui or "the new human race", because their "self-centered" attitude is so foreign to the older generation. With this new human race, however, there have been casualties. The development of social skills and social harmony has declined. In addition to the yearning for individual freedom, too much pressure to compete academically for prestigious universities simply pushed other considerations aside. Progressive thinkers are now calling for some educational reform to provide a more free spirited and creative atmosphere at schools. Some Japanese find all this confusing, and the forces to preserve uniformity and traditional values have reacted in a variety of other ways. In fact, some Japanese right wing fanatics consider western influences evil, the Constitution included.

Some companies regularly send new recruits to boot camp like seminars designed to break "individualistic" habits and thinking. Some educators advocate strict authoritarian, even violent methods to "straighten up unruly children". Mirroring such an atmosphere in society, bullying is a common sight among school children, and those who do not fit in are often picked on and ostracized to the point where they quit school or, in some cases, commit suicide. It is a serious concern of many Japanese parents who return to Japan after a long overseas stay that their children may be victimized in such an atmosphere. Actually, it is not just children. Japanese who decide to live in foreign countries long enough to master the language and the culture have to consider the prospect that they may be treated like foreigners upon their return to Japan. Those who return to Japan often go through a painful readjustment period under critical, sometimes suspicious eyes that tell them that they are inconsiderate, trying to stand out, disrupting harmony and so on.

There is no question about the usefulness of being fluent in multiple languages and cultures. However, besides the time and effort it takes to learn them, our patriotic feelings make us ambivalent about learning to adapt to another language and culture. Like the air, we are not aware how much our cultural heritage means to us until we are cut off from it. Even those Japanese who have idealized western culture will become patriotic in no time with a shot of culture-chock, homesickness, and frustration in a strange land. Furthermore, now that the superiority of Japanese culture is "proven" by economic success, it is easy for a Japanese to find fault with Americans in those dreadful states of alienation.

Let's hope

I don't know whether we humans will ever escape the curse of the Tower of Babel. Nonetheless, I am hopeful. Many aspects of communication are culture dependent, but the skills involved can be analyzed, taught, and trained. My hope is that knowing some of the difficulties Americans and Japanese experience in communicating with each other, we can reduce the anxiety, allowing us to focus our energy on productive issues. Perhaps, mankind's quest to reach to the heavens will bring the world together this time.

Since November 21, 1995