From my experience living in several countries and traveling around the world, I myself felt lots of differences between Japan and other countries, which are the way they live, their sense of values, their common sense and so on. I started to realize the characteristics of Japan and Japanese people objectively by comparing with other countries. In order to avoid the conflict which may happen from these differences, I want to show the Japanese characteristics which I have felt from my experience.
I think one of the biggest difference of Japanese and foreigners are Japanese people are more collectivism than individualism. In order to have a good relationship with other people, they often have to care about the others. Therefore, it seems that they put more emphasis on harmony with others rather than having their own determined attitude. This phenomenon is quite different from other countries because it seems that they put more emphasis on having their own thoughts and their own opinions. Japanese people are also unlikely to attract attention in order to maintain their harmony. There is a Japanese term called “KY” (空気読めない) which means not to read the atmosphere. If you act or speak something which does not really fit into that situation, you may be called “KY” by others which I think it is peculiar characteristic of Japanese.
Other characteristics of Japanese people are that they are polite, calm, and shy. Of course everybody is not like that but I think it tends to be like that when I compared with foreigners. What I see the difference the most is the service toward the customers. People treat customers as if they were gods in Japan. It rarely happened when I lived in Paris. However, it may be a big stress for workers because their services are highly expected by the customers. Also, I think many foreigners think Japanese people are very shy. For example, when I went to American school, I was surprised because many students were often speaking in class. I remember that I rarely could speak in class because I haven’t taken classes that students have to give their opinions in front of the people. Therefore, I think Japanese people are not really good at giving their opinions in front of the people compared with foreigners.
These are only some examples of the characteristics of Japanese people but I think it is important to know about it because not knowing anything about people who live in different country may provoke conflict and it could also be obstacle of communication. I want foreigners especially those who are willing to live in Japan to know how Japanese people are and try to understand about our character! (Of course, I want to emphasis that not all the Japanese people are like this. I just want to present the general character of them.)
by Mao Shukunobe
Knowing that these characteristics are only the examples that the majority of Japanese people have, I just would like to mention that what would be considered as ‘KY’ may differ in the group to which you belong. To foreigners Japanese may be seen KY as well as to Japanese foreigners are sometimes seen KY. I think that these are matters of course because a common sense naturally differs in different regions. I also believe that the majority of foreigners have a sense of KY as well; we just do not well understand the common sense in foreign countries. As increased opportunities to interact with foreigners in the present globalized society, we should try to understand people in different regions and their cultures as much as possible.
Having lived abroad myself, this blog reminded me of some of the stress and frustration that I felt when I came back and try to adapt to my new environment.
I agree with Koji that there are different “KY”s in the world; I used to live in UK where there are so many social manners and boundaries, where breaking one is frowned upon by others. No one will say it out loud, but you had to keep to you class rules. so for example, it was an social embarrassment for middle-class person to go out in their sweat suits; while it was the norm for a working class person.
Social rules in different countries are so hard to understand because they are so invisible; and Japan may be one of the hardest, I don’t know. As you mention in your blog, I agree that trying to pick up some of the characteristics in each culture is important to prevent misunderstanding at the early stage of interaction.
I think Japanese collectivism due to Japanese national character. As you wrote, Japanese emphasise groups more than individuals. But I think it is because not only to have a good relationaship but also they have sense of collectivism historicaly; like sympathizing each other and respecting older people and men among ther groups. It can be seen in many Japanese customs and cltuers; for example, Japanese put their family name at beginning because of emphasising their descents and their householder. Japanese haven’t asserted themselves and behaved not to disgrace their groups.
I think this Japanese character sometimes can be negative point and all Japanese should know it. But I want to inherit this humble attitude.
Great and informative page for someone going to live in Japan for a while! Thanks!
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