Only In Japan

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wa, part 1

Traveling in Japan or living here for a while might sound very fun, but would you be happy to be Japanese? Their lives don't look too great, do they?
An army of workers in suits and ties, living their lives just for their company, stuck in a strict hierarchy... In fact, "worker bee" is a term the Japanese themselves often use (in jest, though) to describe their lives, and that probably doesn't mean they are too satisfied. But that impression is misleading; for actually, most Japanese are strongly drawn to that kind or group relationships, in which they can find Wa.

Wa, the principle underpinning Japanese society, is one of the key concepts necessary to understand Japan. Wa is generally translated as "group harmony", but that is as much a simplification as translating "ninja" with "assassin": while technically it is correct, a lot of the specific cultural background is lost in translation.
For most Japanese, Wa is a feeling close to perfection: a group situation in which everything goes smoothly, without contestation or ill will, everyone knows their place and act accordingly.

Wa is obviously a very broad topic, so I will treat it in two parts: the public sphere (education, politics, business, unions, research...) and the private sphere (friends, lovers and families). Keep in mind that things are changing, in Japan as much as everywhere; and young people, especially, might seem to think quite differently from what I describe. Still, I personally think as usual that in Japan, a very traditional spirit is more often than not hidden behind the modern facade...

But first things first: how is Wa really different from Western-style group harmony? After all, eventhough opinions might generally be worded more strongly in the West, it is not like Westerners are constantly at each other's throats!
Well... It is just that what social harmony is based on is completely different whether you live in Japan or in the West. In the West, group harmony is (theoretically) based on equality, respect and the right to be oneself: if everyone is treated fairly and feeling happy, then group relationships are supposed to flow smoothly, right?
But in Confucian countries like Japan, China and Korea, harmony is considered to exist when everyone in the group knows precisely his/her place in the hierarchy and behaves accordingly. In other words, when personal feelings are kept out of the equation, and everyone lets loyalty to the group override the yearning for fairness and personal happiness.

Which system works best? It is very tempting to answer "well, the Western system, of course!"; and I would tend to agree with that system in theory, but in practice I doubt things ever work smoothly. I think that when too much individuality and too many expectations of personal fulfillment make their way into group relationships, the whole thing is bound to degenerate into ego conflicts and petty frustrations. Of course, people are not robots, so personal feelings are bound to be a factor in any group relationship; but opening the Pandora's box of happiness and feelings more than necessary is, in my opinion, not a recipe for harmony.

The Japanese Confucean system doesn't really work either, but for different reasons. Actually, being a rigidly hierarchical system, it can work if the person at the top is very good at managing people, but it rarely works that way. Confucean systems are very good at bringing old men to the top of any group and provides no balance of powers. You guess the rest: men progressively stop working or trying to learn new things as they get older, knowing fully well that seniority will keep them rising in the ranks regardless. Besides, they are free to abuse and overwork the females and subordinates in their group, so why bother doing one's best?

You might wonder why said females and subordinates accept that situation. They do so for different reasons: women because they don't intend to stay there anyway - career women are still few and far between, and women who quit their job after marriage are still the norm - and men because 1/ they don't really have much choice and 2/ because they know that if they bid their time for long enough, seniority will turn them into Almighty Old Men, a very enviable position in Japan as anywhere in Asia.

But rapidly increasing numbers of women and young people don't accept that Confucean approach to harmony, and prefer to concentrate on finding Wa in peer groups instead of the workplace. Tempers and part-timers are the best representatives of this recent trend; they are still a minority, especially among men, but they reflect the changing expectations of the young generation.

Will the Japanese manage to strike a better balance between work and private life, and between Confucean hierarchy and Western equalitarianism? Find out next week!

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