Monday, August 24, 2015

Work, Money, Sex, and Relationships in Japan vs. America: Observations from an American Christian

A church and cherry blossoms in Japan. Fewer than 1% of the population identify as Christian.
There's nothing like living abroad for teaching me about my own culture, which in turn teaches me about the new culture. The comparisons ricochet back and forth, opening my eyes to new facts about both. One thing life in Japan has brought to my attention is the manifold ways Christianity has shaped and influenced my own culture. American culture these days, while still more conservative than other European cultures, seems to be pulling away from Christian roots day by day. There is not such a social expectation to go to church every Sunday anymore, Christianity is not so fashionable now thanks to controversies about social justice issues and the rise of humanism as the standard of socially acceptable behavior. But even in American humanism, Christian thought has left its mark. I don't think its founders and supporters came up with their ideas in a vacuum. Life in Japan has made it clear to me: they stand on the shoulders of giants--the Christian philosophies of Western cultures.

A lot of the things a Western person, even the most progressive non-religious Westerner, will find "weird" or "old-fashioned" about Japanese culture can be attributed to this fact: Japanese culture developed without Christian influence, in contrast to Western culture which has been steeped in it for nearly 2000 years.

Here are some ways the lack of Christian influence shows itself in Japan. By thinking of the mirror-image of these concepts, I can see how my own culture and values are much indebted to Christianity.

Labor and Workers

Even if you're a staunch capitalist and don't subscribe to Marxist doctrine, if you're a Westerner I think you'll expect to be compensated for every hour of work, and that your employer will honor the contract between you. The push for fair labor practices and unions, giving more power to employees through labor rights, came about rather "late" towards the end of the Industrial Revolution, but its seeds were there in Western culture in the many, many biblical laws about giving workers fair wages and God's judgement of oppressive employers. There is also the Christian idea that no matter your occupation, family status, or position in life, all humans are equally valuable in the eyes of a higher power.

In contrast, Japanese culture does not have any room for a higher power. The standard for behavior and the dispenser of basic rights is not a god but the rulers over you. Therefore, depending on the ordering of society, you may be born either in a "low" or "high" position and will be expected to behave accordingly. Japan has been heavily influenced by American business culture and practices, but the humanistic idea of "rights" has yet to take serious hold. The culture of many companies divides its workers into hierarchies based on seniority and social status, and more than individual rights, commitment to the hierarchy's success is emphasized. Unions and contracts and labor laws exist in Japan, but in many cases a Westerner may be disappointed to find much of it is たてまえ tatemae, for show on paper, and that in practice the powerlessness of the employee, the emphasis on abstract (not quantifiable) emotional concepts like loyalty and harmony, and lack of commitment to human rights is quite common.

Money, Investment, and Charity

Related to the above, a culture's thoughts about money can tell us a lot about what that culture values. In the West, money is a resource and a key part of it is investment. In Japan, money is what you get in exchange for something else. If I give you money, I expect you will give me something just as valuable/tangible in return. I think Japanese people seem to really care about the "tangibility" part. Many Japanese are mistrustful of things like online payments, credit cards, charitable giving, and crowd-funding concepts for new businesses like Kickstarter and Go Fund Me (pretty much foreign concepts here). When it comes to money I think the Japanese like to hold real solid things in their hands--hence a cash-based society that eschews credit card use and likes to see a very material return on investment. We have noticed this unfortunately even in our church--in a meeting some members made it clear they thought the pastor's authority came from the amount of money being entrusted to him. The fact that the "goods" (spiritual leadership and counseling) he gives "in return" are not clearly quantifiable is cause for controversy in the church. Yuya was also surprised to learn that the average American gives 10 times more to charitable causes than the average Japanese. In America, charity may be seen either as Christian/religious duty to follow Scripture's example in caring for "the least of these" (sometimes twisted into a strange guilt for being "privileged") or a humanistic investment in a better (more educated, peaceful) society, which would benefit every member. Neither concept is a part of Japanese culture. Those who have not, were probably unfortunately born into it, and those who have, are less apt to be satisfied with an intangible return on investment.


Though it's a private thing in both cultures carrying varying degrees of "shame", it's right up there with money in the way it illustrates different values. In America, shaped by centuries of Christian thought and a population of Puritans in its early stages, sex is acceptable only in certain parameters, and is pretty black-and-white: there is a repugnance of associating children with sex and acceptable sex is between consenting adults. Notice the assumption of human rights in the idea of consent. In the West, it is a disgusting thing to associate children with sex. Even in biblical times, though the "age of majority" was younger than in many cultures these days, sex was associated with marriage, and marriage with the creation of children and family, so a pre-pubescent person was not an eligible partner. Though childless married women appear in Scripture many times, it was never because they were too young or not of child-bearing age. Thanks to Gnostic heresies that have plagued Christian culture for centuries, enjoyment of sex has been twisted and buried, but is nonetheless present. The pleasure is "fruitful" and "blessed" when children are the result, and the source of fertility is not the sex act or sex organs, but God Himself.

Japanese culture has been untouched by all of it--by the Ancient Near East customs of marriage and inheritance, by the Gnostic division of the material as dirty and the spiritual as pure, by the Victorian commitment to appearing as far removed from sex as possible (thanks to Gnosticism?), by the Puritan commitment to follow Scriptural rules about sex. Traditionally, like in many ancient non-Christian cultures, sex was all about fertility and was intertwined with agriculture, with the rhythms and human interactions with nature and the seasons. The source of fertility is human organs and superstition. This is still evident in things like the fertility festivals held in some areas of Japan where yes, giant replicas of the male organ are paraded through the streets, and guests can enjoy eating phallic festival food like chocolate-covered bananas. It seems so primal to an American because we have to go soooo far back in our history, before Christianity, to find something similar in our culture. Time and religion have erased the memory of it.

In Japan during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868) the family registry system (koseki) was implemented, mainly to keep track of the population, and for tax and inheritance purposes. A man was allowed to have only one legal wife, and illegitimate children born from another woman could appear on the registry but as a kind of footnote, if the man had "adopted" them as dependents. The standard for sexual behavior then was not a religious code or god, but government and social systems. This is still evident today in that the shame of wrongful sex is not guilt before a higher power, but the embarrassment of having your secret outed in public. Sex for money and the oldest profession thrive in Japan, where what your wife doesn't know won't hurt her, and use of modern protection guarantees little risk of meiwaku (bother) from disease or illegitimate children. Westerners might also be shocked by lax child porn laws (though this changing) and the lack of stigma surrounding the literary genre of "loli-con" or fetishes of pre-pubescent girls, and the fact that children's school uniforms are a popular sex symbol. Ambiguous words like kawaii (cute) are used to describe members of the "junior idol" (teen pop star) industry; Japanese people use the same word to describe anything from Hello Kitty to a pretty lady, allowing the line between child and adult in the realm of sexiness to be quite blurry. I think perhaps, children are not thought of as innocent pure blank slates when it comes to sex but rather as explorers. It's considered just a part of human life to explore one's body as a child and be the object of adult fantasies, softened by the word "cute". It's not really either about sin or human rights. There also seems to be less fixation on explicit penetration in Japanese culture, and sexual enjoyment can take many forms, in suggestion and ambiguity, and can even be innocent and "cute".

Given all this, some Westerners also get puzzled as to why the Japanese are relatively closed-minded and unsupportive of gay rights and lifestyles, though most are not religious. It's all about society as regulator of behavior. In the past and now, homosexual acts are categorized as entertainment and private self-expression. It was something rich people, who could afford to not be spending every day of their lives ensuring the survival of the next generation, engaged in from time to time, still apparent in the abundance of "gay" gags and comedians on TV. However since homosexuality cannot contribute to the biological continuation of family bloodlines, and is therefore separate from duty to parents and society, it has never been embraced as a legitimate lifestyle.

Human Relationships

上下関係、jouge-kankei, "hierarchical relationships." This underpins every aspect of Japanese culture and provides the guidelines for interactions in every human relationship you can think of, from employer-employee, spouse, sibling, lover, friend. It's alive and well not just where you'd expect to find it in the workplace but also in the elementary school baseball team, at church, at the community center flower-arranging class, in the education of older siblings vs. younger ones. In Confucianism, a great shaper of many Asian cultures, there is only one truly equal relationship, where the line connecting them is flat instead of vertical: the peer, someone who is your same age and has gone through life at the same pace as you who therefore has the same amount of life experience, encapsulated in the Japanese word 同級生 doukyuusei, literally "same-level person." There are many words for human relationships in Japan that are nearly untranslatable because the concept does not exist in Western thought and is therefore hard to explain in our language: 先輩、後輩。Sempai, kouhai. 目上の人、上司。Meue no hito, joushi. 部下。Buka. お姉さん、お兄さん、妹、弟。Onee-san, onii-san, imouto, otouto. We use "senior member" or "junior member", "superior" or "subordinate", "older sister/brother" and "younger sister/brother" but the working out of those relationships is fundamentally different from equivalent Western ones. A junior or subordinate member has duties to follow orders from above and show respect. A senior or superior member has duties to guide and protect the lower folks. Real trouble comes when either party fails to do what's expected based on their position in the hierarchy. One year in age difference is enough to demand a degree of respect from the younger person to the elder; they can never be considered as having the equal doukyuusei relationship. Even at my workplace at a kids' English school, I see every day how older siblings are explicitly taught to look out for younger ones and are praised for doing so, while there is little responsibility expected from the younger sibling. They are not and will never be on equal planes.

In America, we all have bosses, teachers, and people we respect as having more qualifications or life experience than us. But in most cases, the "superior/subordinate" positions are simply roles we take on for a little while, and thanks to--you guessed it, Christian thought--at the end of the day we are all created equal and are equally valuable in the eyes of a higher power. It is our basic humanity, not our position in life, that makes us equal. In the American workplace, yes, we listen to and follow the orders of our bosses, but there is still in the background the idea that that is the boss's role he has taken on, and that fundamentally his voice is not any more or less valuable than ours. In fact, we may think we have a better idea and tell the boss about it. He may happily implement it, and then we expect to get credit for it and are angry if we don't. Behind our anger is the assumption that both ourselves and the boss are individuals and fundamentally equals. In families, there is cultural pressure for husbands and wives to be equal partners who may at different stages in married life take on different roles. Children are not taught to be so aware of their birth order all that much. When talking about our families, I think we use just "sister" or "brother" quite often, but in Japan it's impossible to talk about siblings without including older or younger. Among adult friends, a few years in age difference doesn't usually influence the relationship. At the gym, you don't interrupt your workout and let another person use the machine simply because they have been coming there for longer than you. You can tell the person who wants to use the machine, "hold on, I'll be done with this in 5" and the other person most likely won't take offense, especially if you give them a time frame and stick to it. It is just completely different in Japan. The implications of this fundamental arrangement of human relationships are very interesting, and sometimes, for this American living here, downright frustrating.

・ ・ ・

In all these categories, what stands out to me as the pattern and standard for behavior is what the majority, or what the people around you, are doing, as well as a commitment to harmony and group flourishing. The Joneses are the standard and you've got to compare yourself to them to behave well. It goes without saying that having your own concrete values and acting on them, doing your own thing as opposed to hiding your values and acting otherwise for the sake of a superior, is frowned upon as selfishness. Thinking of these things, it makes sense to me that Christianity is slow to take root here and is still considered a foreign concept. I can also understand why Japanese people are quick to point out the bits and pieces of Christian culture that remain strong in the West, as much as some of us are loath to admit. For better or for worse and in both America and Japan, it's not easy to erase or reshape a culture that has thousands of years of history and such deep roots.

1 comment:

Thanks for reading, be nice!