It is a truism to say that every culture is unique, and it is also unnecessary: Everyone can see that food, dress, language, architecture and social customs can vary greatly from country to country, or even within countries.
But some differences are not so obvious, and that makes them harder to grasp; indeed, some differences are so subtle as to be all but invisible to visitors, because they are, in some ways, invisible even to those who “know” them. Some established ways of behaving are so “natural” that even natives are unaware of them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japan has more of these subtleties than most countries, which makes understanding more difficult, and misunderstandings more likely.
Japan is what some sociologists call a “high context” culture, similar to other Asian (and Middle Eastern) cultures, and in contrast to many European (and American) cultures, which are described as “low context.” The explanation was formalized by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture.
Hall explained that contrasts between high- and low-context cultures can be deep, profound and pervasive when it comes to behavior and, especially, communication. Understanding the difference is a good step toward a deeper knowledge of Japanese culture – and perhaps a better understanding of one’s own.
High context cultures are those in which the culture is homogeneous and well-established, in which communication is often subtle or even unspoken. The goal is almost always intergroup harmony.
By contrast, low-context cultures are much more heterogeneous, with many different actors engaged, and often with new members, so that things must be better spelled out. This can result in the need for longer and even more contentious discussions; thus, low-context cultures may seem less harmonious. Because such cultures also focus on individual freedom and expression, rule breakers are sometimes honored for their ability to “think outside the box.”
Japan is not a country of rule-breakers. Because of this, and because of its exceptionally low in-migration and high cultural homogeneity, where nearly everyone has been raised according to exacting rules, much can go unsaid; in Western cultures, with high levels of cultural mixing, even basic things must be worked out, out loud – sometimes, loudly. Those who keep their real feelings or opinions to themselves in low-context cultures are considered insincere or even two-faced; in high-context cultures, that ability to tell (and express) two different “faces” may be a sign of maturity and social grace.
Thus, in Japan, much communication goes on non-verbally, through subtle gestures, facial expressions and voice tones, in ways that Western visitors may not even notice, let alone understand. The problem comes when visitors don’t understand, and the Japanese, accustomed to being understood by each other without explanation, don’t understand why they’re not being understood!
Some of the ways in which this may show up in one’s interactions with Japanese are in social situations in which Japanese are much more likely to want to please, but may do so in a way that offends. For example, in a restaurant, the host may order for everyone, which he intends as an acknowledgement that we are all in the same group, together, and that he is doing all he can to attend to his guests; a Westerner may find that this offends her sense of individual will, and she may feel controlled or her opinion discounted. A Westerner would never dream of ordering for another individual.
In conversation, Japanese are more likely to listen than to talk, assuming that they are being told what they need to know; they are also more likely to defer to the group than to assert their own opinions. In personal conversation, Japanese are less likely to discuss personal details, while people from a low-context cultures may ask personal questions as a way of showing their interest; Japanese may find this invasive of their privacy.
While Westerners may complain about service or something they don’t approve of, Japanese are more liable to overlook discomforts to assure everyone in the group that they are happy. Japanese are individuals, certainly, but they are culturally trained to defer to the group; Westerners see the group as important, but only so far as they thrive within it; most are quick to assert their individual needs if the group doesn’t satisfy them.
Japanese who are accustomed to interacting with foreigners are aware of this difference, and make allowances for it; foreigners would be wise to reciprocate. Just being a bit more observant can go a long way towards smoothing interactions, and Western visitors should try not to assume that the Japanese are being purposely misleading, deceptive or intentionally “mysterious” – accusations that have been hurled at the Japanese – simply because they don’t spell everything out.
This requires some effort on a visitor’s part, but that effort can make for a wonderful opportunity to learn more about others – and ourselves – in marvelous and subtle ways. And isn’t that why we’re traveling in the first place?