Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (Part 2)


Last time I talked about some of the good aspects of conformity in Japan. This time I am taking the gloves off and am going to talk about the bad. I must warn you, a lot of this comes from personal experience, so if it starts sounding like I am griping, I apologize. But the way I perceive it, there is just a lot more "bad" which comes as a consequence of conformity than good.

Briefly, the good amounts to strong group ethics, supporting the family and parents (which often times means living at home permanently), a feeling of unity, and a close-knit culture which realizes that manners and politeness are required at every level to keep society flowing smoothly, and where negative criticism is rarely ever spoken out loud because this would stir up tension and effectively ruin the "Wa" (or peace and harmony) of the group.

Overall, it creates a peaceful atmosphere where you can be at ease. Where being part of the group is seen as desirable. It creates the perfect atmosphere for nation wide cultural festivals too, because everyone can partake in them without anyone ever overstepping the bounds of social etiquette too much (unless they are drunk--then they find excuses to go crazy).

But at the same time, it has a few negative consequences. Such as the fact that everyone thinks it's perfectly healthy and fine to smoke cigarettes, and do it all day long, and in your face. It's not perceived as rudeness, or even wrong, because it's simply what everyone does.

Meanwhile, another good aspect is that it forces you to tip-toe around the feelings of others (a good thing in and of itself) as it makes you work extremely hard to get good at thinking before you speak. Group related functions always do.

But at the same time, at least for me, this is the most exhausting thing about the Japanese way of life. It is the constant struggle to think about what I say and how my words will effect every little thing and every person in the room. I am horrible at it, mainly because I am a talker and, more importantly, an American talker. In other words, I like the sound of my own voice a little too much, so it's hard for me to zip the lip, so to speak.

But in almost a decade of living in Japan, I have improved considerably. I now spend minutes on end thinking of what to say in important meetings, so that I can make every word count. This is an art form the Japanese have mastered. I struggle with it daily.

I only raise this example, because it shows how a culture of conformity can both be beneficial to you but at the same time be slightly harmful.

While giving thought to every word allows me to interact with others on a higher plane of respect and manners, it creates barriers too. I can never make intimate personal friends on first or second gatherings because one simply isn't allowed to show their true self. Every thought, every word, is highly controlled, and it takes twice as long to get to learn anybodies real personality because their individual personality always is suppressed by the societal expectations of conformity to the group mind and the social etiquette.

For example, it is great to be able to never have to take negative criticism or face embarrassment and have so many people be so polite all the time. The problem is, sometimes it is hard to tell if they sincerely mean it, or if they are simply blowing smoke up your ass. For all you know, they might hate your guts, but for the fact that they are adhering to a culture of conformity which prides its niceties above individual quips. It sometimes can breed an environment of artificial compliments and, regrettably, people spend more time trying not to step on each others toes than actually addressing their real concerns.

Subsequently, this creates the infamous "talking in circles syndrome" common to Japanese daily life. It affects everything from school functions, such as PTA meetings, to corporation and employee relations, to national politics. As a side-effect, it also makes agreement hard to come by when one person doesn't quite agree, or worse still, it makes it near impossible to state the problem straight forward and then tackle the issue.

Every year I join what is known as Kenshukai (which means Research Education) which are Prefecture wide events in which you travel to various school districts in your area (or ward if you live in the city) and "study" teaching methodologies and then comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each school system. The way this differs from genuine pedagogy is pedagogy actually focuses on the new ways to teach and how to implement new techniques which will improve learning and education. Kenshukais, however, are bogged down by the incessant diplomacy of the Japanese. If there are real problems, they often only get hinted at, in a roundabout way, and never are put fully on the table.

The best example of this, that I have seen, was when my old Board of Education invited Mrs. Matsuka, founder and CEO of the Matsuka Phonics Corporation in Japan, to give a lecture at the mid-year Education Research seminar. She came in from the city, and in not so many words, flat out said that the teachers were to blame for teaching English the wrong way in Japan.

Silence fell over the crowd. And afterward, hands shot up across the room. Instead of posing questions of how do we change the way we teach English, which would be a discussion of pedagogy, what happened was strange. People raised objections by saying it was impossible to change the curriculum as mandated by the Japanese government, they said even if they tried it they wouldn't have time to prepare (even though they are at school all summer long working while kids are on vacation), and they acknowledged that the Japanese way of teaching English was not adequate but, in effect, said it couldn't be helped.

But, but, but... It was all excuses... for not adopting the right techniques and methods of English education.

I was flabbergasted by this response. But looking back, I realize what they were doing was simply a mass exercise in "not rocking the boat."

Here they were faced with a radical CEO of a successful company which taught the right way of teaching English--a proved methodology which works--and a success record. But Matsuka was butting heads with the very education system itself. Instead of objecting to her radicalism, they simply dismissed her methods, and nobody, not a single person, said--yeah, I'm willing to risk sticking out as a rebel if it means my students have a real chance of learning.

Nobody.

Not a single educator in the room was willing to go out on a line and take Matsuka's side, because, it would mean rubbing up against the system, and it would mean trying to convince the parents, politicians, and policy makers that they weren't only wrong--but so wrong that they had erected a system which works against the goal of integrating English as a second language in Japan.

As an aside, it was no skin of her back, as Matsuka simply charged her going rate for giving lectures and was off before they could recuperate from what had hit them.

But the lesson I observed was clear. The group conglomerated together to resist the one proved way which actually works when it comes to integrating English education in any non-English speaking culture. They did so because they were all under the impression that it was impossible to change the system, impossible to incorporate, or impossible to execute, for whatever reasons--and this is how they all felt about it. End of discussion.

This is what is effectively known as group-think. Where the group thinks the same, and because everyone else holds to the same beliefs, it is believed as true simply because their is an ubiquity of like belief.

This can be good when one is well informed and correct about an issue. But when the consensus is wrong, as it occurs, it usually means the entire group will be wrong too.

Instead of dealing with the issues, they grow dismissive of anything that doesn't conform to the group-mentality, and this resistance to anything which goes against the group is a way of using conformity to override the radical opinions of those people who dare to stand out. Once rejected, the person is either made to submit to the group or they are made an outcast.

Now, I use the example of English education in Japan, since that is what I am most familiar with and have analysed it in detail. But this same problem of group-think dominates the way Japanese respond to real world issues and spills over into their politics and everyday life too.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had an idea rejected or been dismissed for rasing a cross-cultural point by the simple phrase "But this is Japan. That's not how we do it in Japan," or simply "This is the Japanese way."

They use it, almost as if to say, because you're not Japanese you couldn't possibly understand. No, I am afraid I understand all too well. It is because you are Japanese--and so is everyone else--that you refuse to accept any other way but for the Japanese way.

In the next article, part three, I'll talk about the ugly aspects of conformity in Japan. The aspects which create things such as racism, the secluded "island mentality" which contributes to an unease with foreigners and foreign cultures, or the opposite extreme, xenophilia.

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