Sunday, April 27, 2014
Jewish vs. Japanese argument culture
Author: Noah Smith
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! :-)
Posted at 6:22 PM