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Unique Japanese traits and interesting cultural differences

Unique Japanese traits

Every nation has its own cultural traits and peculiarities that are specific to their community or ethnic group. It is then easy to come across cultural misunderstandings and cultural shocks when interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds.

Here I would like to talk about some of the most striking differences between Japanese and Western cultures and unique cultural traits that can be very surprising or confusing when viewed from a Western perspective.

Community vs individuality

The first characteristic that many may find surprising is the significance of the community in the Japanese society.
The Japanese culture is known to be very focused on groups and communities. It is a collectivist society that treats the community or the group as more important than the individual, as opposed to the West and its individualistic society. In the West, individuality is a key trait. People’s accomplishments, personal skills and aspirations are highly valued. In Japan, however, certain shared values are found within the group that one belongs to, whether it is at an activities club, a workplace or company one is in. These groups and one’s belonging to collective takes precedence over the individual aspirations.

In the business world, employees used to work for one company for their entire life which a company would be considered as their second family, and had a strong sense of affiliation with the company. Although this has been changing in the past years with people often change their jobs, a company still undoubtedly remains a collective that a person is loyal to. On the contrary, in the West, a person can change many companies or build their own career in the process and acquire many skills that make them more competent in their field, which is seen as a positive trait.

In the case of young adults, for example, we can see that many Japanese students join clubs when they develop a new hobby. Once joining a club, members are expected to attend and proactively participate with a great deal of dedication and commitment.

Japanese are used to agreeing with each other in a group because of peer pressure. This means that anyone who is too different, too opinionated and outspoken may be viewed as self-centered and a potential threat to the group. Whereas in the West, this is very different because participation in clubs isn’t deemed as mandatory as it is in Japan and people can state their opinions and ideas as these are encouraged.

Uchi/soto

Another cultural trait that can be connected with the notion of collectiveness is the uchi/soto distinction. The concept of uchi and soto is heavily entrenched in Japanese society and culture. Japanese clearly distinguish outsiders in everyday life by setting a line between people of uchi and soto. Uchi can be defined as home, or inside; soto, on the contrary, means outside or outdoors. In the most basic sense uchi means your close friends and family and soto is everything else.

This concept can be applied to other levels of the community as well, not just the family/non-family distinction. For example, uchi can be applied to one’s workplace where members of the company would be considered as uchi. This would also be reflected in language when speaking to someone from the soto-group, the soto-group would be honored and the in-group being humbled. Finally, even in a broader sense, the Japanese can be regarded as uchi and non-Japanese as soto. Anyone who is different, whether it is because of a person’s language, ethnicity or appearance, will be put into the soto – or outsider – category.

Unfortunately, as an international professional in Japan, one will most likely never be able to fully become a part of the society and culture, as opposed to Western countries where it is much easier to assimilate and become one with the locals. However, this should in no way discourage a non-Japanese person from trying to become friend with Japanese and trying to be a part of the community. Young Japanese people, for example, are more likely to accept a non-Japanese into their group. In addition, as an international exchange student, one may find that they can be easily accepted into a club or a society at university and treated as an equal and valuable member of the group.

Aimai

Another very different aspect of Japanese culture when looking from a Western point of view, it's the "aimai", which means ambiguity, or uncertainty, vagueness, where there is more than one intended meaning. In a society based on relations of the community, ambiguity is considered a good trait because people have a communal shared sense of values and thoughts, a communal integrity that was respected. The fundamental idea here was to not go against the group and disagree with the collective so as to not to disrupt the harmony of the community. This continued to be a cultural trait even in the later years, where people were less inclined to share their personal thoughts and opinions which resulted in ambiguity.

The Japanese choose to be more subtle to avoid any conflicts, whereas people from Western countries tend to be more blunt and direct. For Japanese, ambiguity is needed for harmony, because if there is no agreement or disagreement, then there will not be any threat. The Japanese are careful of what they say and how they say it. They weigh the atmosphere carefully because it is very important for them to be able to read another person’s feelings or thoughts to avoid conflict. In the West, being direct is considered as being honest and frank and is generally a good trait but this can be considered rude in Japan.

The same applies to body language. For example, in the West, when speaking to someone it is polite to look them in the eyes and maintain eye contact. Not doing so may make the other party think that you are not paying attention to them or that you aren’t interested in talking to them. In Japan, however, is the opposite. Extended eye contact may become uncomfortable if the people talking aren’t close with one another, so Japanese tend to avert their eyes. Aimai for non-Japanese can be quite confusing and can result in various misunderstandings. Many times, non-Japanese can become irritated with the inability of Japanese to directly answer a "yes" or "no" when being asked.

In conclusion

People of different cultural backgrounds can inevitably facing cultural misunderstandings. It is also natural for some non-Japanese to find it somewhat difficult to adapt to Japanese culture in certain situations.

The best way to overcome this would be to really understand that there are always going to be cultural differences, so it is best not get frustrated when things go the other way than your expectation.