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The Japanese Mind

I went to Kinokuniya yesterday here in Austin, and found several interesting books.  One is called “Japanese Respect Language”, which I intend to read at some point soon.  One is “Read Real Japanese”, which is a reader of six stories of increasing complexity, with notes as to things that may be challenging.  The third was “The Japanese Mind”, which I find to be the most interesting book of the three so far.

It is a series of about twenty essays, each of which discusses a different aspect of Japanese culture.  For example, on of the essays is on “Ganbare”, which is a topic of which I’ve previously wrote.  It turns out I picked up on something pretty accurately – it’s a word that is often translated as “try my best”, but in actuality, that’s not really all that accurate.  It has a connotation of persisting through adversity that doesn’t really come through in English translations.  It actually doesn’t have a good translation in English, and that kind of comes through in the context in which it’s used.

There is also a description of Honne and Tatemae, a topic which I find interesting, confusing, and not the least a bit annoying.  As a westerner, I’m a very direct person (in some ways) even for my culture, so trying to navigate the legendary indirectness of Japanese culture would be very difficult for me.  But in other ways, I am almost as indirect as a Japanese person, so in some ways, I think I would be right at home.  The point, though, is that there are very distinct cultural differences and traps, and trying to navigate those as a westerner are nearly impossible.

But I imagine they have the same issues with us.  Where we might find them indirect and inscrutable, they might find us brash, brazen, and incredibly rude.  I heard it described somewhere that gaijin are considered in some ways to be very high functioning children in their culture, and I guess I can kind of see that.

The language is a gateway into a very old and rich culture, but it’s only a gateway.  You can learn the grammar easily, and the constructs, and even the writing system and vocabulary, but that all falls apart the moment you meet a Japanese person, say everything right, and still manage to fall into a trap that you had no idea existed.

It’s not like my culture is much better, though, honestly.  It’s just a different set of traps.  Trying to navigate the whole culture of dating in this culture is so difficult, irrational, and utterly impossible that I frankly stopped trying about five years ago.

Am I discouraged?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  But I do know that no matter what, any contact I have with a real Japanese person is going to require forbearance on both sides.  I’m going to have to try to understand what they’re really saying.  And they’re going to have to understand that my directness is not rude, just different.

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