Differences in Culture and Civilization; and the “Techniques” to Educe Them
In the last several years, I have taken my students to universities in the Boston area so that they can experience different cultures first hand through discussions. Each time, as they are getting into deeper discussions, the exchanges have become something we might call an experience of different civilizations, which gives me a refreshing surprise. As a result, I have been trying to inspire inter-civilizational understanding for the past several years.
Today, we can connect with people in other countries instantaneously through SNS, videoconference, and the like. By speaking English—the de facto international language—we may feel as if there is only one global society. Especially in the world of scientists, you will not have any problems academically if you understand the technical terms and the framework of the specialized area. Recognizing inter-civilizational differences anew is thus all the more refreshing a surprise.
It was perhaps about 30 years ago, that I heard Japanese scientists say the following: “I cannot understand monotheism for the life of me. No matter how hard I try to understand the Western world, it seems inscrutable to me when it comes to this fundamental point.” I was young then, but I still recall that even the scientists who were internationally active in the field of natural science had such a feeling in terms of human communication.
I will set aside the question of whether it is appropriate to summarize the characteristics of the Western civilization as “monotheism” for now, and only say that the very source of the “fundamental inscrutability” might just be the difference in “civilization.” In the modern world, the unit for culture is often the “nation,” and we can therefore use expressions like “Japanese” and “American” cultures as a matter of course. There is, however, a certain common perception/knowledge/thinking-style at the root of the cultures of France and Germany, for example, and we call this large framework the “West.” This kind of large framework is the “civilization” referred to here.
When we, the Japanese, understand English spoken in American dramas, we tend to think we understand them. In reality, however, we might naturally understand American dramas with the Japanese mindset whenever we watch the same dramas or read the same novels as Americans do. We can make use of some discussion techniques to inspire a surprise in the experience of inter-civilizational encounters for the students who feel they understand but only in their own ways.
This year marks my fifth visit with Chuo University students to Boston, Harvard, and Brandeis Universities for presentations and discussions. In the process, I have only observed about a total of 150 students from the American universities and my seminar, thus consisting of mostly American and Japanese students. While my experience is a limited one, I would like to share below three techniques which, I have learned, are effective in drawing out the differences in culture/civilization
1. Comparison of Words—Meaning, Etymology and Composition, and Physical Reaction
First of all, it is useful to compare the difference in the meaning of words, especially their etymology, composition, and emotional and physical reaction to the word. For example, when a Japanese student asks, “What is regarded important in job-hunting?” an American student would reply, “The important thing is how well you can get along with other people.” Then the Japanese students would think, “If it is important to appeal to cooperativeness [kyocho-sei], it is the same as in Japan.” If the discussion were to end there, it would not lead to an understanding of different cultures. What is “cooperativeness” to begin with? In the case of the Japanese language, in order to see the composition of the word, it is useful to write the kanji [Chinese] characters, “協調 (kyo-cho for cooperativeness)” on the blackboard and explain each character one by one. According to the Japanese kanji character dictionary, 協 means to conform, to adapt, or to follow, while 調 means to adjust, to ease, to harmonize, or to balance. Here, a cultural difference manifests itself: the Japanese word for “cooperativeness” has quite a different content from the proactive content meant by the American expression of “become on good terms with people.” It is also very informative to look up the etymology of words. For example, as for “恋愛 (ren-ai, the Japanese word for (romantic) love)”, not only the word but the notion itself did not exist in Japan before the Meiji period (1868-1912). The etimology as well as the composition of kanji characters make the Japanese students realize how the Japanese mindset has changed historically.
In the method to compare emotional and physical responses to words, we asked their physical response to a certain word; for example, for Americans, their reaction to the word, “freedom,” while for Japanese, the word, “jiyu (freedom).” It turned out that the word, taken as an absolute value, caused avisceral emotion in Americans, but only tepid reactions from Japanese students, for whom jiyu can be compromised for what they see as the greater good.
2. Comparison of the “Logic”—Especially Correspondence between Symbols and Substances
Secondly, there is a method that compares whether or not the symbol and the substance it is meant to represent are considered to correspond one on one, or they are recognized as separate—i.e., substance is substance, and symbols are symbols. For example, let me take an episode involving a Chinese person and consider it involving a Japanese person instead. When an American asked a Japanese his name, he replied, “Call me Tim.” Later, finding out that the name of the Japanese is not Tim but “Tomoyuki,” the American was very confused. This episode, however, would not make the Japanese feel particularly uncomfortable. “Tomoyuki” must be very difficult to pronounce, and its abbreviated form Tom is the name of his acquaintance. Since people do not change regardless of what name others call them, it is acceptable that people call him Tim, for example, if it is easier to pronounce. Within the cognitive framework which has strong one-to-one correspondence between the name and the substance, however, Tomoyuki is Tomoyuki, not Tim. The Aristotelian logic is universal because it has one-to-one correspondence between the signifier and the signified. Human and social realities are different. If Tomoyuki is Tomoyuki and is not compatible with calling him Tim under Western logic, it sounds irrational to the Japanese: Nominal designation is just a signifier; and it is different from the signified.
Moreover, this might be the reason why the Japanese are ready to accept both real intention (honne) and stated superficial reason (tatemae) at the same time. One can understand A’s real feeling on the one hand; one can also understand the situation where he is obliged to say other things on the other hand. While A’s real feeling and his words contradict each other in appearance, one can understand each of them. In addition, it might be related to the way of thinking to separate the substance and the word that, for the Japanese, many things belong to gray zones, where things cannot be easily classified as black or white. The Japanese think that the human and social entity more or less includes both the elements which are classified as white and those as black. I have called this cognitive framework the jijimuge way of thinking. Jijimuge is an originally Buddhist concept meaning “everything-coexists-flexibly,” denoting that most things contain every element. Because of the “everything-coexists-flexibly” way of thinking, the Japanese are ready to admit the existence of something weak, evil, and ugly, not only in others and the environment, but also in oneself.
3. Comparison of Tropes—Usual Pattern of Stories
The third method is to compare tropes. A trope is the form of the story—how to develop the story and with what to finish it. This academic year, we presented at Boston University Ryo Asai’s novel Who am I? [Nanimono] as a story of “awareness” by the protagonist, which elicited a question: “How can it be the ending of a story at the point when someone becomes aware of his shortcomings?” followed by a lively discussion. Come to think of it, many of Japan’s fairy tales have such tropes. There is a good old man (woman) and a bad one. The bad one is made aware of his (her) wrongdoing when his (her) mercenary intent is somehow crushed, and we have a happy ending. It is a cliché in Japan that manipulation of the environment is important in the Western world; on the contrary, in Japan, adjustment of one’s thinking at a very personal level could be the ending of a story.
Not only can we think about what kind of trope is diffused in a society, but also, we can think about to what degree the trope is diffused in the society. Whether one is looked up to or looked down on by the other, or gaining or losing, or winning or being defeated—even animals would understand these differences, animals whose faculties do not include the utilization of symbols. When most men adopt such standards, that might be a sign that the society scarcely shares tropes. A society without a trope could hardly be seen as cultural or civilized, and therefore man would become unsocial. In the world without tropes, a “weak one” is a “bad one” and people only gain favor with a “strong one.” People can help the “weak” and fight against the “evil deed” only when they share appropriate tropes. Did some kind of trope make it possible for people in Tohoku (Northeast region of Japan’s main land) to take pro-social actions at the time of the Great East Japan Earthquake? The trip to Boston with the students makes me ponder.
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Sociology of Knowledge
Born in Tokyo in 1963. Graduated from School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I (Psychology major), Waseda University in 1985. Joined Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc. (Industry and Economy Division, and International Division) in 1985. Studied abroad from 1988. Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University in 1999.
Full-time lecturer at Faculty of Commerce, Chuo University, before taking the current position in 2013.
Co-authored The Ideals of Joseph Ben-David: The Scientist’s Role and Centers of Learning Revisited (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2012).