Only In Japan

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wa meets the West...Wa, part 3

Yes, a third instalment about Wa... It's the last one though, I swear! But I think it is important to show that the heart of Japan, Wa, with its oppressiveness and its gentleness, is changing and evolving. The social harmony generally admired by Westerners travelling to Japan (the safety, the politeness, the sense of order...) is based to a great extent on an unremitting pressure to conform to the norms of the group and erase one's personal feelings; but this social pressure-based society can hardly coexist with the individualism introduced by the West. Japan is very much a battlefield between these two doctrines, and surely the Japanese can be forgiven for being confused until they sort things out...

The oppressiveness of Japanese society derives mainly from Confucianism, the social doctrine upon which East Asia was built. Confucianism is a school of thought that clearly defines each individual's place in society and his/her rights and duties based on age, gender, rank in society, order of birth among siblings... All these clearly define who is "junior" and who is "senior" in any relationship, as well as what behaviour and manner level are appropriate in any situation.
And "of course", men are more important than women, age is paramount, and in groups or at work ancienty and education level are also major factors in determining rank. In other words: Confucianist societies (most groups in Eastern Asian countries) are, fundamentally, dictatorships of old men. Whether at home, at school or at work, the oldest men in the group have all rights and no duties, and can lord it over everyone else with no possible dissent. And that regardless of virtue, skill, or actual achievement... Whereas junior members of society are only allowed to grit their teeth and wait patiently for their turn to rule.

The practical consequences of this system is that justice is inexistent (if the highest ranking person is always right, then justice just can't exist), people work (or pretend to work) very long and hard, much talent and intelligence is wasted, and society is extremely conservative and has a hard time adapting to a changing environment . On the other hand, Confucianists see Western equalitarianism as resulting in everyone doing nothing but clashing egos with everyone else, being too self-centred to cooperate with anyone, and as a result wasting their time and energy for, in the end, little result and no satisfaction.

For example, in an archetypical Confucianist family, the husband and father may be a drunken slob who beats his wife and kids when the whim takes him, spend most of his salary on gambling and women, and never allows anyone in his house to have an opinion; all these are his rights. And after all, the house will be in order, the kids will study very hard, and the wife will have the twin satisfactions of seeing her children grow into respectable adults and of being part of a stable household; isn't that true happiness? Who could call that man a bad household leader?

For that same drunken slob of a husband and father, a Western family is just Pandemonium. The parents disagree all the time, get divorced as soon as they find someone they fancy more than their present spouse, the kids talk back to their parents and only study what they like when they feel like it, everyone feels entitled to everything, and in the end no-one is even really happy. If that is an enlightened family based on love and mutual respect, then by all means let us back to the Dark Ages! the Confucian would say.

Of course I could have taken politics, work or education instead of the family to illustrate that rift in values between Confucian and Western thinking, but the basic thinking is pretty much the same: from a Confucianist point of view, authoritarianism just works better than anarchy or weak-handed democracy.

Anyway, on to Japan: Japan is pretty much the troubled kid of a Utah Mormon and an Oregon hippie when it comes to social values. In other words: sheer confusion! That's what happens when 1300 years of Confucianism are, in the space of just a few generations, replaced with the notion that Asia is the past and only the West is worthy of admiration... When a society based on duty, tradition and the group clashes with a society based on freedom, rationalism and the individual, it is easy to guess how much mayhem is sure to ensue.

It often feels to me that the Japanese adapt to this situation with a bit of hypocrisy and a bit of opportunism...
That hypocrisy can be seen in the Japanese adopting a Confucian mindframe when it suits them, and then a Western one when it is more appropriate to their interests. The typical example is that of young Japanese women: most of them pretend to dream of a Western-style love relationship, filled with mutual respect and kindness, but at the same time some of the first things they look at in a prospective husband are his salary and how wealthy his family is... Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!
As to opportunism, it is fairly obvious when you observe where, on the Confucian to equalitarian scale, the Japanese place themselves. For example, most men, especially the older ones, are resolutely Confucian (not much for them to gain in Western equalitarianism), whereas young people (especially women) are all in for Western meritocracy and equalitarianism. Of course, as their station in life changes, their "affiliation" will also evolve...

So are the Japanese just sly opportunists? Maybe. But more than anything else, I think they are pretty much confused by the conflicting values of their past and their present, of traditionalism and rationalism, of Asia and the West. It is hard to find the right path when you constantly hear two opposite opinions as to what that path is! And when in doubt, it is always very tempting to choose the path of self-interest...
Eventually though, I believe the Japanese will realise that only a society based on equality and fairness can work, while not forgetting that too much individualism and ego will poison any group relationship. The best of both worlds, of West and East... The Japanese can find a truer harmony than Wa, I am sure. But the road will be long...

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