Kansai Scene Magazine


Come together

We all undergo changes while living abroad. Are these changes a response to experience and picking up new habits, or do they go just a little bit deeper?

After living four years in Japan, I am starting to realise how subtly Japan changes you. Just this morning I was on a train in London and was amazed at how noisy it was. Getting off I tried making the chopping motion with my hand, but got nothing except confused looks from the teenagers in front of me. I began to wonder exactly how deep the changes are, could my way of thinking have been changed permanently by living in Japan?

On the surface, Japan may appear to be similar to America. There seems to be a Starbucks on every corner, moody teenagers slouch around dressed in the latest hip-hop fashions and baseball has been elevated into a religion. However many researchers are now starting to ask one simple question: is Japan genuinely becoming Westernised or is this all just on the surface? The results may be surprising to some. It seems that in terms of thought processes, Japan remains more different to America than has previously been imagined.

For many years, researchers have been keen to find out exactly how different Asian and Western culture are and whether those perspectives are fixed or whether they can be changed. Could an American be made to think in a more Japanese way or are those patterns fixed? The experiments they performed took many forms from simple questionnaires to quite baffling games involving fish chasing each other and subjects being asked to comment on the 'feelings' of the fish.

To further confuse things our way of thinking can vary from time to time. Even the most Japanese person can occasionally think in a Western way and vice-versa. Despite this the general consensus is that there are a few generalities that are more likely to be true about Asian culture than Western culture.

The first important discovery was that Asian culture is a 'receiver- orientated' culture. This means that the listener has the responsibility to understand what the speaker is trying to say. In Western cultures the speaker has the responsibility to produce clear, unambiguous sentences. This is called a 'transmitter-orientated' culture.

The next finding was the one that appears in every book about Japanese culture. Asians are more likely to value conformity and group membership over indi- vidual endeavour and unique- ness. Many writers have even suggested that the reason for the low crime rate in Japan is that the Japanese fear being rejected from their group so much that they rarely risk a criminal act.

Here is a fun experiment you can try on your friends to test this for yourself. Set out pens of different colours. One colour should be a lot more common than the others. You should also select another colour and make it less common. Tell your friends that they have to pick a present for an unnamed friend. Which pen do you think Japanese people will most often choose for a gift and which one will your Western friends choose?

Two scientists Kim and Marcus did this experiment. The result was that the Asian people tested picked the most common colour; the western people the least common. Presumably the western subjects wanted to acknowledge uniqueness even in something as trivial as choosing a pen as a gift.

The third result has been observed by many authors the world over: that language is responsible for influencing our way of thinking. Japanese is ambiguous so that the listener can 'read between the lines' and understand what message is intended, English is direct so ambiguity is kept to a minimum. Japanese has more verbs to describe the relations between things; English has more nouns to describe the things themselves.

When translating his book of Zen poetry into English, the famous author Daisetsu Suzuki dedicated a couple of pages to an explanation of one Japanese word. The word was 'Yurari-yurari to' which most Japanese people explain by moving their hand in a wave like motion, as English lacks an adjective to accurately describe it. After a long, detailed description, he eventually settled on the word 'waveringly' and explained that some words are a unique expression of the way Japanese people view the world. Suzuki had noticed something that many experimenters would later prove: that language and culture are connected.

One of the stranger manifestations of this was discovered in China. The experimenters studied language students who had learned languages later in life. Interviewing in both English and Chinese, the interviewers discovered that the language students were interviewed in changed their responses. Asked in Chinese, students answered in a way that reflected Asian values. The same questions translated into English were answered in more Western way. Professor Nisbett of the University of Michigan, later stated that these experiments were great examples that 'language does indeed influence thought.'

Hong, Chiu and Kung took this even further. They wanted to see whether simply being shown typical Western images could change the responses people gave. The subjects were shown either pictures of Washington DC and Mickey Mouse or tem- ples and dragons. Depending on whether they were shown Western or Eastern images, Chinese people could be influenced to answer in either a typically Western or Asian way. Later experiments would show that even being asked to think about a time when they acted in individualistic way could make Asians answer in a more Western way.

Therefore both environment and language have the potential to change a visitor's thinking. Just by being in a foreign country, learning a foreign language and being surrounded by foreign people, our thought processes are being changed.

Amongst the books in Kinokuniya bookshop is one about foreign people who 'forgot to leave Japan'. The book tales a light-hearted look at the way foreign people can sometimes act in a Japanese way. The jokes include mothers teaching their kids the noise a pig makes using the onomatopoeia bu-bu and a man finally being able to enjoy J-pop music. Using comedy, it raises an important question: is it possible that a visitor to Japan may have their whole way of thinking changed?

Kitayama, Duffy and Kawamura asked this important question. Their subjects were Americans who had lived in Japan and Japanese people who had spent a lot of time in America. They even included some who had only spent a few months in one of the major cities. The results were surprising. When their thoughts were tested, most of the Americans' results were closer to typical Japanese answers. Likewise a similar effect was seen in Japanese people who had lived in America. When a person spends time in Japan they gain more than just experience, they gain culture too.

As travel increases a new group of people may be emerging that reflect the values of both cultures. People who are essentially Japanese, but think in a quasi-Western way and vice-versa. Next time you go home to your country and can effortlessly explain some aspect of Japanese culture that was utterly alien to you before, remember that it is possible you got more than just language from your stay.

Text: Matt Coslett
Images: KS

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