5 Observations About Japanese Culture

Duncan McCrary is an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) living in Japan, where he teaches English as a foreign language. He recently came on the ConverSapiens podcast, where he explained his take on the pros and cons of some unique aspects of Japanese culture. He gave me a list of several statements about Japan and then explained them throughout our conversation. Here are 5 of his observations about Japanese culture.

1. People are helpful… but I’m not a child

Japanese people are helpful, but I’m not a child. This is similar, in a way, to the American South, without the religious connotations. There is a societal emphasis on being useful, so if you are having problems, people will generally help you. That probably goes without saying in any place that you would visit, but I find that, in Japan, as soon as an issue arises, control is taken away from you and then dispersed to other people. It’s as if you have been deemed completely incompetent the moment you are in need of assistance. 

It can be hard to tell if they’re being intentionally patronizing if you aren’t used to it or don’t know what to expect. I think that, from a Japanese person’s perspective, they may have no idea how else to assist you besides just doing whatever it is for you, because it may be assumed you don’t have the language capacity to do that for yourself, which is understandable 

When you mention a parallel with the American Southeast do you mean that Japanese people are also likely to strike up conversations with strangers, or are you only referring to the bless-your-heart helpfulness?

Well you have to be pretty obviously in a tough spot to invoke that helpful control removal. If a Japanese person went up to another Japanese person they had no connection with and then tried to start a conversation, the person on the receiving end would think they had a serious mental issue, so it’s not like the South in all aspects. But I’ve noticed, as a non-native, that the spotlight sometimes gets turned on people like me because I’m outside of the rigid social structure here. When people have the opportunity to momentarily break away from the subtlety that is Japanese culture, they do take it. I think that’s at the root of those overbearing helpful interactions.

2. Dedication to craft: The work culture

There is a huge cultural focus on work and being at your place of work here. It can be good, because it certainly gets results. For example, students have club activities that are essentially mandatory as a result of this emphasis on dedication to a craft. Because of that, there are 12-year-olds that are much better than most American high school students I’ve seen at playing soccer or baseball, for example. But, I’ve run into students outside at like 9 at night who are coming home from juku, which is Japanese cram school, because there’s not enough time in the day to study and do club activities and then do your homework and catch up on missing work, etc. The work-life balance here is really rough. It’s maybe even nonexistent. It’s skewed heavily in favor of work – in favor of what you are contributing to society. 

I’ve heard it said that, historically, if you were a fisherman in Japan and your family was made up of fishermen, you would be seen primarily as just that. You would be expected to do that work with all your might. Is that still relevant today?

I feel like that’s the way that they would want you to think about it. As assistant language teachers, they really drive home the idea to us that we’re ambassadors to the city. You’re representing the program and you’re expected to be able to establish and maintain a positive connection to the English teachers and the other teachers at your school. There’s a lot wrapped up in being a teacher. It’s more than just teaching students during the school day.

Is there any silver lining to that cultural emphasis on work

I do feel like I can have more “adult conversations” with younger people here because of it. They can have something that they’re more or less dedicated to, be it because of passion, or because the societal structure has forced a passion or pursuit onto them. Either way, having that sense of purpose does give some perspective that American kids of the same age may or may not have.

3. Tatemae: The work mask

Tatemae and honne are like your public and private faces. Tatemae is basically acting polite to people who you don’t like. There’s a universal need to be polite to people you don’t like, to a degree, just for the sake of getting things done. But the extent of tatemae doesn’t really have an American parallel. It isn’t an established part of our culture, with a name. We would just call it lying to someone’s face. That sounds harsh, but when I talk to Japanese people, that’s generally their opinion about it too. It’s the one aspect of the culture that I truly dislike, because frankly I think it’s dangerous. It’s like malicious pandering. I don’t have many good things to say about it, but I don’t think many Japanese people do either. It’s only designed to be used with people you don’t enjoy interacting with. Instead of working to solve the problem or working through whatever difficulties you have with that person, you just put on the mask of tatemae when you’re around them.

Do you have a concrete example of what that might look like?

Since we don’t have a word for it in English, I would say it’s probably like a relationship with a workplace acquaintance you dislike, or the face you might show them if you have an issue with them but you want to ignore it to avoid rocking the boat. Here’s an example that almost seems like something you would see on The Office. I was walking to class with one of the teachers that I have worked with and he got stopped by the principal, who apparently he doesn’t like. The principal made some joke, and as the teacher was walking through the door, he was laughing loudly at whatever he said. As soon as the door shut behind us the laughter stopped dead. There were no smiles. I noticed it and I asked what happened. He told me he was just pretending to laugh. That’s tatemae.

4. Going through the motions vs. doing it right

I feel like this might be more of a personal thing for me, but here’s an example of what I mean. When covid-19 started picking up, the metropolitan government sent masks to everybody. Everyone got two cloth masks.  That sounds great on paper, but in reality, they’re tiny! They don’t fit on your face and in terms of actual functionality, most of them don’t even work. It was a strictly bureaucratic maneuver. 

Does that preoccupation with what looks good on paper come from a strictly governmental standpoint?

No. I think it’s cultural, which then trickles into the government. Culturally, there’s a lot of doing things to make yourself appear better. There are very clear divides as to where people stand socially in Japan, and in order to try to keep moving up the ladder, you have to show that you know what you’re doing. You must prove that you’re putting in the effort to do the right thing. The motivation is “Look, I care! I got you masks. You can’t criticize my effort after giving you masks because I did a good thing for you. I contributed.”

Japanese art forms are renowned for their focus on detail. Do you think that focus exists as a counterbalance to the bureaucratic going through the motions that happens elsewhere?

Possibly, but I think it all comes from a massive emphasis on being too detail-oriented. It’s admirable in a way. A lot of the systems in this country wouldn’t work anywhere else, because of the dedication that either gets put on the details naturally, or forced on it culturally. It’s always about not wasting. You need to get as much as you possibly could out of anything and everything you involve yourself in, whether that’s art, or giving masks to your constituents. We’re on a four day holiday weekend right now, and I had a teacher ask me what I was going to do. My response was, “hopefully nothing.”  For her, she had a list of things to do. Everything was already planned out. I think that’s great, but I don’t have that in the tank. I want to sit down and play guitar or Animal Crossing.

Do you think it’s harder to relax for a Japanese person? 

Well, that’s a broad thing. Yes, everybody enjoys sitting down and doing nothing after a while. But the definition of relaxing here is just different. It still involves that efficiency that is so ingrained in Japanese culture. 

5. The fatalism of shoganai

There’s no direct translation of shoganai, but it gets colloquialized as something like, “it can’t be helped.” Here’s an example: I had a conversation with a student one day when I was wearing full formal wear in the summer. They asked me if I was hot and I was like, of course! In response, they said shoganai. That makes sense because it’s hot and you have to wear hot clothes, so you’re going to be hot. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you might as well press on. But there’s another side to it that I don’t think is all that positive.

What’s a negative shoganai example?

Often you will hear it in response to situations that, for a non-japanese person, would still be solvable. For example, if you had a job that you wanted to get and you didn’t get it… shoganai. Get over it. It can’t be helped. For me, you could have done other things to make your chances better. You don’t need to be so hard on yourself, in that fatalistic sense. But sometimes, rather than working through a problem and figuring out a solution, the situation is either summarized as something that can’t be helped, or it’s something that you’re just supposed to suffer through for the sake of the passion

To make that clearer, I was talking to two Japanese women when I first got here about childbirth, and they explained that they were against using epidurals during labor, because the pain they felt would make them love their child more. The suffering that results from a difficult or bad situation is sometimes romanticized as a part of shoganai.


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