Japan: Can You Or Can You Not? Revisited

The experiences of social conventions vary immensely across the globe. From Andrei Mamor: Social Conventions, conventional rules have an arbitrary nature. This means that we should be able to determine an alternative rule to achieve the same purpose, and if the conventional rules are not followed within the community they lose their specific purpose. But why do people follow conventional rules? It is tied to the fact that others follow it too, and therefore it becomes a recognisable expression that indicates a specific purpose. For example, in Australia consider the convention of saying “hello” when we answer the phone, the same response reflects the manifest feature as an expression that enables the caller to recognise that someone has answered.

What I didn’t realise, is just how different these are translated across cultures, this was seen in my first YouTube encounter in ‘Japan: Can You Not?’ where I began to question the many facets of Japanese life. By revisiting the social conventions examined in the post it is clear, as stated on Inside Japanese Tours, “there are many social conventions in Japan that westerners might find it hard to understand, but that is the nature of different cultures and is part of the fun of being in a country like Japan.”

As has been alluded to for much of this ethnographic study, Japanese social conventions have affirmed to be extremely complicated for someone who has not grown up in the culture, or is a foreign visitor. As stated on Inside Japanese Tours how, “Japanese people grow up picking up the subtleties of the unique culture as they progress through life, respecting both the invisible and varied societal rules.” It comes to one question, how can a communities social conventions be developed to a point whereby other communities and visitors are able to recognise them?

For the purpose of this study, this discussion will examine the Japanese social climate comparing it to that of Australia where possible. With the general lack of conclusive and comparative data, all statements made are based on my ethnographic scope.

In 2013 it was recorded that the population of Japan was 127.3 million, being strikingly homogenous, with ethnic Japanese accounting for around 98.5%. Parts of the country are known for having distinctive, colourful local dialects, however the whole country essentially speaks the same language. Traditional Japanese society and culture stress the values of harmony, consensus decision-making and social conformity.

The common Japanese saying and guideline of social behaviour comes from the saying

“the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (Global Sherpa).

On the other hand in 2013 Australia’s population was recorded at 23.13 million with white Australians consisting of 92% of the population, and therefore are associated with high linguistic affiliation and having a dominant language of English with little multi-lingualism. Australian’s are often perceived as casual, easy going and familiar with the ideology of egalitarianism. (Sources: Every Culture, Convict Creations).

When examining this, the social differences between the two nations become apparent. With these figures, it translates that there are major cultural and language barriers that exist across cultures making translation of social conventions difficult.

By examining etiquette in Japan: Can You Not?’, I discovered many social conventions that westernized countries would more than likely be unfamiliar with. Firstly, I stated “Don’t get emotional: But I’m just generally an emotional person”, but reflecting on it maybe this is due to my upbringing around high emotions with everyone around my outwardly expressing negativity – did it become apart of my nature and habits? Bridges To Japan recognises the Japanese culture to consider open expression of emotion, especially negative ones, to be immature and indicative of lack of self-control.

Secondly, I stated my immediate thoughts in response to the YouTube video on restaurant etiquette, questioning why they can’t customize food orders, but when further researching I discovered the extend of restaurant etiquette in Japan. This came from Convict Conventions where stated that Japanese etiquette is reasonably relaxed aside from refraining from actions that have death associations. These include sticking chopstick up right in rice (this is how rice may be presented to deceased ancestors in the obon festival) or even passing food using chopsticks. In Australia however, etiquette varies according to the nature of the restaurant, but generally taboo to use hands on anything except chips and bread.

Another element of the YouTube video that stood out for me was the use of phones in public places in Japan in specific buses and trains. I questioned this after noticing just how many people in Australia rely on their phones on public transport, however after researching I found that in Japan talking on the phone while riding on a bus or train is frowned upon, and Go Japan Go states that “messages asking passengers not to make calls and to switch their phones to silent mode (“manner mode” in Japanese) are played frequently.” Quora explains the two reasons to this, one being that Japanese people use their time spent on the train to “rest and recharge”, and secondly that Japanese people are mortally afraid of causing trouble to others, so everything they do is done with careful consideration of its possible impact on people around them. Quora depicts the Western world consisting of people who generally feel less inhibition to outwardly express themselves resulting in less proactive empathy than self-interest, and therefore phones are more tolerated.

With Japan proving to having a unique cultural with a very strict code of etiquette, as stated in the Smart Traveller guide by the Australian Government it is important when travelling to be aware of any local differences, and as appropriate, take similar precautions to those you would take in Australia. Being in an unfamiliar location without your typical support mechanisms always create additional challenges.

To conclude, the nature of social climates and their values can be easily misinterpreted cross-culturally, with social etiquette playing a large role within society. The sheer amount of individuals and their cultural differences, upbringing and values constitute, and give each community their own form and adaption of social and cultural etiquette. For travellers or individuals raised outside the culture this can create extreme difficulties when interacting and participating in Japanese culture.

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