Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jewish vs. Japanese argument culture



When I see someone write a big rant about a foreign culture, I tend to roll my eyes. Usually it's some sort of stereotype-based derp. If it's an economics blog post, it's probably ascribing broad economic outcomes to some sort of stereotype - "lazy Greeks", "hardworking Germans", etc. If it's a tourist/expat rant about Japan, it probably takes for granted many of the stereotypes I think are just utterly false, like the idea that Japan is "conformist", "collectivist", or unaccepting of foreigners. So I won't think badly of you if you stop reading this post right now.

But after living in Japan on and off for a quite a few years, I think I've identified a general feature of Japanese culture that does lend itself more or less to blanket statements. And - even more surprisingly - it's one that I suspect may be holding Japan's economy and society back in significant ways.

Basically, Japanese culture is too averse to argument.

To see what I mean, try to start an intellectual debate with a Japanese person at a house party, bar, or coffee shop. Chances are that the reaction will be immediate discomfort - looking away, changing the subject, or just not saying anything. Often, Japanese people react to attempts at argument as if they expect you to physically assault them any moment. Many times I've tried cheerfully to debate some assertion a Japanese friend made (just as I would have done in my college dorm), only to have them ask: "Why are you upset?"

Now you might think that that reaction has something to do with the fact that I'm a foreigner...but hang out with Japanese college kids, professors, or artsy types, and you will see that the kind of casual intellectual debate common in America is quite rare there. And actually, I have some friends in Japan who told me they enjoyed my company because, unlike almost all of the people they knew, I "like to talk about things" (so you see, there are definitely exceptions to the stereotype).

In the written sphere, the aversion to argument and debate is equally apparent. As someone who spent years editing (actually rewriting) academic papers and books written by Japanese professors, doctors, and government researchers, I can confidently assert that persuasive writing is a much-neglected skill in Japanese intellectual circles. And if you try to read Japanese opinion columns and editorials, you will see how utterly parlous is the state of persuasive writing in their media.

I'm not sure why this is the case. I'm sure if you wanted, you could spin a theory about it being some ancient samurai tradition, like if you argued with someone back in the day he'd just cut you in two. Or maybe you could try to relate it to Imperial-era fascism. Maybe it's related to lack of press freedom and academic freedom. Maybe it comes from social isolation, since so many Japanese people live alone. Or maybe it's a function of the education system. Actually, there is some evidence for this - Japanese teens perform very well in science and mathematics, but lag their East Asian peers in reading. This is probably because Japanese people learn how to read kanji at a much later age than people in China - Japanese people usually can't read a newspaper until age 12 or 13.

Whatever it is, I think it's actually a problem for Japan. One big thing holding Japan back is its fragmented political system. Watching Japan's splintered opposition try for the umpteenth time to mount a coherent challenge to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is among the more exasperating experiences a human can have in life. As for politicians themselves, their tin ear is hardly helpful for Japanese diplomacy. Japan's weakness in marketing probably undoes a number of the technological advantages its companies enjoy. And Japanese white-collar productivity, which is legendarily low, might be improved slightly if employees and managers were more willing to debate with each other about how to make offices more efficient (this, of course, is pure hand-waving speculation on my part). But most importantly, Japan is undergoing a lot of cultural and social change, and I feel like argument and debate could help this process, as I feel like it has helped in America.

Basically, I think Japanese people need to learn that it's OK to argue. And to learn this, I think they should take a cue from another culture I know a bit about: Jewish culture.

Jewish culture is famously argumentative. This probably comes from the tradition of men getting together in Jewish communities to argue about religious stuff. As a result, arguing about stuff became a way of showing that you were in the community. In other words, while in Japan, arguing is generally viewed as a prelude to physical violence, in Jewish culture, arguing is a way of demonstrating friendship. I figured this out long before I read papers like the ones in those links, actually, simply by getting repeated eye-rolls from the taciturn Texans in my hometown.

The Jewish way makes sense to me, actually - if you're going to fight someone, why would you bother sitting down and bullshitting with him about politics and philosophy? You'd just punch him in the head right away! Arguing is an inherently comradely, respectful act.

(Also, the popularity of friendly debate in Jewish culture refutes any argument that Japan's lack of debate is due to ethnic homogeneity; after all, what could be more ethnically homogeneous than a 19th-century East European village full of Jews??)

While I doubt that Japan is going to convert to the Jewish argument culture anytime soon, I think it could benefit from moving a little bit in the Jewish direction. School curricula could be updated to emphasize more persuasive writing and verbal debate. More TV shows like Legal High (which depicts lawyers engaging in rapid-fire, Aaron Sorkin-style debates) might help too. And of course, the shift to shared housing will probably help, since it will reduce isolation and put people in more frequent contact with their peers.

And if those don't do the trick, Japan could always import a bunch of Jewish immigrants! :-)

29 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:21 PM

    While I agree Japanese culture's fear of debate (and of meiwaku more generally) certainly weakens them in some ways (as individuals at the very least), I'm not convinced that it's a large enough "problem" to need solving, or that debate will magically improve the Japanese political and economic landscape. Convince me, Noah!

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  2. Maybe it comes from being out on that resource-scarce island for so long. Get along, or you all starve.





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  3. Thanks for an interesting post.

    My contact with Japanese has mostly been limited to karateka and computer programmers. Not exactly a representative sample. Yet I am minded of one karate instructor, quized about the "philosophy" of karate, who replied "in karate, the answer to every problem is to punch the other guy in the head."

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  4. John S8:33 PM

    Spot on, I noticed the same lack of political/econ small talk in Japan. It's an interesting contrast with Korea, where people like to incessantly argue (or at least discuss) such matters to the point of invoking all kinds of crazy conspiracy theories. Maybe this is b/c democracy was imposed on Japan from outside, whereas Koreans had to "earn it" after a long period of protests and social movement building.

    There also doesn't seem to be much of a complaining culture in Japan. White-collar conformers (teachers, company workers, etc) seem to feel genuinely dedicated to their jobs and organizations. Non-conformers will say "screw you" to the mainstream but are then quite content to run a fusion curry shop or retreat to some weird subculture w/o trying to change the overall structure of society.

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  5. I've lived here continuously for 7 years now, so here's my 2 cents on this topic.

    There is one social situation where quite lively debate can take place and that's an evening drinking session w/ colleagues. It's like going to a Jeckyll and Hyde party. Mild-mannered office workers by day and flat-out nuts at night. Discussions are very wide-ranging and not much is off the table. In fact, I'd say much more is on the table than if this were a group of western colleagues. The next day, it's as if nothing happened. For some reason in Japan, discussions during a "drinking session" are off-the-record, so what you say can't be held against you. It's where the real bonding among co-workers takes place. But, alcohol shouldn't be the required medium through which controversial matters are discussed.

    Another thing that helped me understand Japanese culture was to read books on Japanese history... especially the Edo (Tokugawa) period (1603 - 1868). Extreme repression was the tool used to get everybody to work together and stopped the constant warring among groups. Everybody knew where they stood and what they needed to do to get along and survive.... or else. Things weren't necessarily fair, but it provided social order and stability. You don't have to look too hard to still see remnants of that management approach around today on smaller levels (e.g., Kisha Clubs, Jimusho system, etc.). This stuff is changing... but very slowly.

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  6. As a Japanese who grew up in Japan, agree with you most of the part. I kinda tried to bring this up occasionally then I found lack of argument cannot even bring the issue to be argued (sadly).
    There's one interesting phenomenon which I think is relevant. In Japanese classes of schools, from elementary up to high school, students are essentially asked to answer "what the author thinks?" or "what a man in this novel thiks?" type of questions. It's understandable if the referred columns or sentences are very logically structured. But most often they are some essays and novels. So I would say Japanese students are trained to keep guessing someone else's mind and emotion beyond any kind of logic. I think this contrubutes to lack of one's own opinion, hence avoiding argument (it's very hard to argue without one's opinion.)

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    1. Anonymous3:46 PM

      Interesting point. Now you mention it, I have seen this in Japan myself.

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  7. I have a hunch that there's a connection between the causes of Jewish argumentativeness and being a permanent variously-tolerated-and-persecuted minority in everyone else's countries for many centuries.

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    1. Anonymous12:21 PM

      Squarely Rooted, your "hunch" is just anti-Semitism. First of all, from what I've observed, Jews don't have a culture of argument - they have a culture of intellectual debate. Second, the Jews can't be blamed for the persecution that has befallen them throughout history; they've just been convenient scapegoats for problems they didn't cause. Third, Jews don't live in "everyone else's countries". You understand that Judaism is a religion, right? You understand that one can be an Italian Catholic or a German Christian or a British Jew, right? Jews live in their own countries across the globe. They are not outsiders.

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    2. Anonymous12:42 PM

      Of course Jews have a culture of argument. Not just in religious debate. Friends. Husbands and wives argue. Siblings argue. Business partners argue. Over everything and nothing.

      What Jews don't have is a culture of violence. Jews yell at each other without coming to blows. Something that would cause an Irishman or a Texan to punch you in the face just results in more yelling.

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  8. Maybe it's about the role of language and writing? A sign can mean a whole word, and a word can have different meanings and each word opens a world of possibilities? Maybe for Japanese, arguing is not only fighting with words, but also fighting with all kinds of subtle meanings and concepts. And arguing about concepts is always a little like arguing about the worth of a person's belief system and the Japanese are rather polite, aren't they? (Another cliché...) Numbers are less dangerous than words in that context.

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  9. In this post you write "But after living in Japan on and off for a quite a few years", yet on your Welcome to Noahpinion page (http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.jp/2010/04/welcome-to-noahpinion.html) you state "..I've written a lot about Japan, where I lived for about 3 years."
    It's difficult for me to take you seriously when you equate "quite a few years" to three years.


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    1. 3 years (well, 3.5) is the total time. "Quite a few" = the # of years I have been going to Japan regularly, which is 12.

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  10. You could go for the Pseudo-Gladwell explanation.

    Cultural differences based on "Outliers" seem to be at least partly, if not entirely, due to differences in language structure. In this case the Japanese un-argumentativeness is a function of their ridiculous (from a native American English speaker's perspective) number of tenses and pronoun forms for addressing people at different social levels.

    Compare the "stereotypical" Korean Airlines co-pilots whose very language of ingrained respect for superiors was a barrier to their saying a vitally necessary "You idiot, you're flying us into a mountain!".

    American English is pretty unique even among the more freewheeling Indo-European languages in the absence of a T-V distinction, I understand Japanese has something like a dozen levels of infamiliarity.

    It's a relatively simple hypothesis to check though. Do Koreans, with a similar language structure, have a similar disinclination to debate?

    I wonder to what degree American Jewish culture actually is more argumentative than Mainstream American culture. (A quick look shows Arabic and Hebrew lack a T-V distinction and special forms of address are limited to the deity.)

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    1. This type of Sapir-Worf reasoning has become the last refuge of racist arguments about people.

      The problem is that language structure has never been shown to imply anything.

      It is like that dumb Eskimos have some huge number of words for snow. Inuit adds adjectives to the noun so just because wet and snow are pushed together doesn't mean anything about the Inuit.

      If there is a genuine sociological aspect of society it rarely if ever has any effect on the structure or words within a.language.

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  11. What is Noah's way? Japanese or Jewish?

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  12. You must really hate Aaron Sorkin!

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  13. Japanese argue, politely, but as intensely as ever, and they take revenge on things we will ignore.

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  14. Hmm want to test your theory but I don't know any Jews or Japanese

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  15. Inscrutable (Japanese?) Oriental, distant New Yorker (me?), reserved Brit (Londoner?) > severe overcrowding?

    When I was a high school kid in the Bronx (1960) I used to take long walks between 2 and 4 AM to get away from the sardines. My brother used to go down to Yankee Stadium at 4 in the morning to run on the track across the street.

    Last visit in 1992, the Manhattan crowds reminded me of the crowds in the last scenes in the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"; seemed distant from each other. As a native I understood their need to stay away from the others (so many others) so you could remember who you are. Seriously.

    I got back to San Francisco and -- the second time -- my Irish babbling away in the taxi drivers' waiting room drew an old Chinese driver to yell from across the room "You should keep it to yourself!", I caught it. Overcrowded: different versions of isolating yourself (so you can remember who you are) -- in the Orient this may have thousands of years of cultural impetus. May be related to the non-argumentive thing.

    Oy! (As a son of an Irish/Jewish neighborhood I can attest the Jews like to argue. :-])

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  16. Argosy Jones11:09 AM

    And Japanese white-collar productivity, which is legendarily low, might be improved slightly if employees and managers were more willing to debate with each other
    According to what I have read about Japanese manufacturing management, blue-collar employees are expected to, and do, provide a continuous stream of suggestions for process improvement, many of which are adopted. Of course this is probably not structured as 'argument'. Still, this alleged disparity is puzzling.

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    1. Right. There have been lots of institutions adopted to get people to give input in corporate settings. But the suggestions they give are rarely debated, which is a problem.

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  17. OMG! This post almost perfectly encapsulates my own culture shock from living in close contact with my sister-in-law's asian/diplomat family. I'm always getting myself in trouble because I keep trying to engage her family in a good argument (although I'm not Jewish, I do have a very argumentative family). Her dad, especially, will get up and actually leave the room if I (or my brother) try to have an intelligent discussion with him in which we don't completely agree with his position, which needless to say I find extremely offensive. It's a very frustrating experience for me.

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  18. Anonymous4:48 PM

    The liberal 1920s was marked by so much argumentation and mudslinging that people began to tire of politicians, paving the way for effective military control of Japan, Perhaps it is the military that should be blamed for laying the foundation, with their extreme insistence on national unity and obedience to authority. The 1960s did see a political radicalization of students, but afterwards everybody seems to have fallen into line again. And that's a bit mysterious, because yesterday's students are today's professors. Strange that their papers lack argumentative fervor.

    In any case, my point is that there has been times when the Japanese have been very argumentative (and such times can return). So I think the main reasons for their current non-confrontational behavior are of more recent date than whatever cultural patterns has survived since the end of the Shogunate.

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    1. Well, I think violent or angry argument is different than friendly debate.

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    2. Anonymous4:11 AM

      I'd argue it's not either or. Anything that rouses passions will see both argument and debate taking place. You can't start a political movement without finding common ground with other like minded people, which happens through discussions and debates. Political opponents are of course by definition not like minded, and thus fair targets for angry argumentation.

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  19. You could make the same argument about men and women. The real trick about getting the reticent to come forward is to ask them about theirs before you tell them about yours, and you have to be like I don't know, what do you think, and then accept what they tell you.

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  20. Anonymous12:25 PM

    Noah, perhaps you could change your description of Jewish culture as one of "argument". Jewish tradition values intellectual curiosity and debate, not argument. How about "culture of intellectual debate"? I know what you mean, but using the term "argument" is fuel for the fire of anti-Semites who insist on painting Jews in the worst possible light at any small provocation. You've unintentionally given them that fuel here.

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  21. I'll also point out (as someone with many Israeli relatives) that Israel is pretty poorly governed in a lot of ways. Israel sort of has the opposite problem of Japan: the political system is so fractured that no party has ever won an outright majority in the parliament, forcing the large parties to form coalitions with smaller ones, and thereby giving small constituencies (ultra-Orthodox Jews and West Bank settlers being the primary examples) far more influence than their numbers alone would warrant. Something like the Jewish debate culture may be useful for societies, but it is not sufficient to ensure good governance.

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