The Japanese mindset – part 3

Because your current frame, or group, in society is the most defining aspect of your persona, competition, which exists in japan as much as in any other country, is not as such between colleagues but more between company A and company B. Rating tends to be the prize outcome of competition. One very prominent example of this is the strong competition that exists between Tokyo and Kyoto universities – Tokyo wins so it ranks higher than Kyoto to everyone. So much so that some companies will only higher graduates from Tokyo university than any other university.
Because this headstrong competition exists, there is often a waste of energy – if one farmer says that cabbages are good the others will follow suit to try and outcompete the other at cabbages. They don’t give any consideration to diversification, in so far that this also happens at book publishers and newspaper companies – the latter group comprises 3 different companies that all do the same morning and evening editions with almost exactly the same layout and content.
This competition not only exists in the top levels, but also within the secondary levels there is competition to be the top of the secondary level.

The final chapter in the book talks about the position the individual takes in this vertical hierarchy. As mentioned before, one is characterised by what frame he is currently in, determined by previous achievements rather than birth or other background. When such an individual enters a group, due to the hierarchical order, he enters at the bottom. If offered a better salary at a different company, the individual may turn the offer down as the increase in salary is accompanied by a potential significant loss in social ranking (both in the position within the hierarchy as well as acceptance). This is partly why, in the past more than the present, Japanese have been very reluctant to take overseas positions – once back in Japan it is hard, sometimes impossible, to immerse fully into a company’s social grouping.

This social grouping exists already from a rather early stage in life – even at university, graduates from the University of Tokyo belong to a sort of social clique. The awareness of this clique mentality is felt more by those outside it than those immersed in it. Just as your chances of employment for good companies are improved by the graduating from the University of Tokyo, your chances of getting into the university are improved by going to a high-ranking high school. Therefore the pressure on students to do well is felt by Japanese at a young age – probably around the time of high school entrance exams. This is all important as the company you enter working for tends to be the one you stay at forever.
As international business relations are becoming increasingly important in Japan, it’s interesting to note that employees who studied abroad before entering the company and have done it for personal gain rather than purely work, fare worse as most companies still prefer to send their own, already established employees, abroad to pick up these qualifications.
This is very indicative of the current Japan – it claims to be modernised, but only so in the political and social sense of the word; the traditional structure remains but utilises modern aspects and therefore masks itself.

The most comfortable career for Japanese is that where they are incorporated in a stable hierarchical system, rise to the top and then retire. The career of a professional is far less stable and much more emphasis is on merit. You are still recognized belonging to a company, and therefore if this company is not of high ranking, neither are you. This means that there are very few free-lancers in Japan. You work for one newspaper, and you do not submit to a competing company’s newspaper.
As in Japan the men spend their entire lives dedicating themselves to their work, their social contacts rarely extend beyond these limits. This is partly because the work that you do is not as strictly divided as in the west, but also because for you to be stable at work everything else must be stable in your life too. It is a little bit like a village. The people that know most about you tend to be your colleagues. However, this information is not shared as freely as it would be with western relationships. Inter-personal relationships in japan are very complicated, and take a lot of constant effort to get right. Therefore the only time many Japanese feel they can relax is going to bars after work (done mostly with colleagues). They feel this is one of the few places they can really relax, not just because of alcohol but also the atmosphere. They come here and drink and talk and are accepted, not having to abide by any strict rules. As the alcohol frees the lips and inhibitions, many personal things are often revealed, but most people understand the need for these bars, nothing said in the bars is referred to ever again. The essence of these meetings is not so much in the conversation as is the emotional exchange.
Because of this – the revolving of a Japanese man’s life around work and his colleagues – wives are often shut out of these social activities and her attention is focused on the children. As they often live far away from family and school friends, their ability to extend social activities is more limited than the husband’s. But as a man climbs the social ladder at work, his attention at home decreases, and often the Japanese wife is a mother both to her kids as to her husband – the core of the Japanese family is parent-child, not husband-wife, a principal not changed after the war.

The last interesting point that the author makes is that tangibility is very important to social relationships. Many Japanese don’t want to work abroad not only for their status at the work place, but also their friends. Often, in Japan, they are not so good with the concept of keeping in contact through letters and phonecalls and e-mails. It is more the concept of: out of sight out of mind. Once someone comes back after say a year, the relationship between old friends is very weak, and things they used to talk about on a daily basis are no more, to such an extent that they almost find it difficult to be friends again.

That’s where I leave off.
I hope you have found it as interesting as I. If anyone wishes to read it it’s called “Japanese society, a practical guide to understanding the Japanese mindset and culture” by Chie Nakane.

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