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Who's Backwards?

Author: Tim Boyle, Issue: November 1996, Topic: Advice

"East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet" is a famous phrase by Rudyard Kipling. He was referring to 19th Century India and not modern Japan, but his words still have a ring of truth even today. We certainly have "the twain met" considerably more than in the past, but cultural gaps still don't bridge easily. As an American living in Japan and learning the language and culture, I have been struck by how many things are done just the exact opposite of the way I grew up with. What I am referring to are those things which are arbitrarily either right or left, up or down, frontwards or backwards or whatever; in other words, those ways of doing things that must be either one way or the other but where it doesn't really matter which way. It seems that invariably, the Japanese have chosen the opposite way of the Americans.

One obvious example is driving on the left instead of the right. Now I realize that those of you from the U.K. and a few other countries feel right at home in that respect, and perhaps there are a few other of the following things for which that is true as well. Thus, this essay is meant to present only an American vs. Japanese perspective. Likewise, it is not an issue of right or wrong. One way is just as good as the other, provided the society as a whole follows the same rules. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to take a look at just how pervasive (and even amazingly consistent) these differences are.

Since I've started off with traffic rules, let's continue in that vein. In Japan, when there is an green arrow for traffic turning right (across the on-coming lanes), that comes on at the end of the traffic light sequence (after the through traffic has been stopped). In the U.S., those turning across the on-coming traffic (in this case, left turns) are given the green light first. Likewise, while not quite in the category of traffic, horses at a race track run around the track in the opposite direction.

Push Vs. Pull Tools

Carpentry tools are another interesting comparison. Saws and planes are designed to cut in the opposite ways, with those in the U.S. being designed to push, while those in Japan are designed to be pulled. In other words, the teeth of Japanese saws always face toward the handle so that the primary cutting occurs when being pulled towards the body. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, both ways have their advantages depending on the situation. American hand saws can generate more cutting power with their push cycle, but Japanese hand saws are more accurate and less likely to bind. In fact, when it comes to a small, narrow saw, such as a keyhole saw, the Japanese pull version is so far superior to the American push version that one wonders why it didn't occur to the Americans to reverse the teeth.

One tool that is the same, however, is the hammer. It would be pretty hard to change the action on that one! When one considers how tools in each country developed, it is just possible that the push and pull varieties are a direct result of the characteristics of the cultures themselves. Traditionally, Japanese carpenters sat as they worked, and their tools were designed with that in mind. American carpenters, however, generally stood while working, which is more amenable to the pushing action. From the standpoint of cultures, the dominate American culture (descended as it is from an amalgamation of various European cultures) has tended to be outward looking (and definitely "pushy"!), while Japanese culture is strongly inward looking.

I once heard a psychologist describe how this is symbolized by the way a mother would protect her child in the face of danger. An American mother would face towards the danger with her child pushed behind her, whereas a Japanese mother would typically shield her child in front of her while facing away from the oncoming danger. They both place themselves between their child and danger, but they typically face the opposite direction - in other words, one being outward looking and the other inward looking.

This same tendency shows up in such things as gestures; for example, the way people in each culture count on their fingers. Americans begin with a closed hand and open their fingers outwards as they count (beginning with the index finger). Japanese, however, begin with an open hand with all five fingers extended, and then beginning with the thumb draw the fingers into a fist as they count. Likewise, essentially the same gesture - that of extending the hand palm down and waving the fingers back and forth from vertical to horizontal - is interpreted by Americans as "go away" while Japanese understand it as "come here"! Imagine the consternation of both the American male tourist and a local Japanese woman who found themselves coming into opposite ends of a mixed bathing hot springs bath. The embarrassed man was intending to motion her away, but that only compounded their mutual embarrassment!

Shame Vs. Guilt

It would also appear that this difference in outward-inward orientation is directly related to the differences between the individualistic, "guilt-oriented" culture (that is, with some sort of absolute standards of right and wrong, such as a code revealed by God) and a group-oriented, shame-oriented culture (where no such external standards are recognized). Perhaps there are some cultures where these factors are mixed (such as an outward-looking yet shame-oriented culture), but I am not aware of any. It's not that one orientation is necessarily superior to the other. In fact, arguing which is superior automatically involves personal prejudice - something that each of us has.

The point I'm making is that they are different. What can be said, however, is that each has its own strengths. This, for example, is why a horticultural art form such as bonsai developed in Japan and not America. Such a technique would not have occurred to an individualistic, outward-looking American. This is also why traditionally Americans have excelled in developing new technologies (outward looking) while Japanese have excelled in miniaturizing and applications (inward looking).

This difference in orientation is likewise directly reflected in the language and way of thinking. In fact, it's a "chicken and egg" kind of thing as to which is primary. Each aspect affects and is affected by all of the other aspects. Americans tend to be highly rational and logical in their worldview, while the Japanese way of looking at things is much more non-rational and even mystical. (Note: I'm not saying "irrational" or "illogical", as there is a big difference. There is plenty of "irrationality" in both countries!)

Reverse Linguistic Polarity

Even the structure of the two languages themselves are about as opposite as one can get. For instance, the English sentence "Many people are coming here these days" comes out in Japanese (translated word-for-word back into English) "These days here coming people many are." I realize, of course, that there is a wide variety of sentence structures among the languages of the world. As I am not a professional linguist, I not aware of any exhaustive study of the relationship between thought patterns, sentence structure and culture type. As complicated as things are, I would imagine that exceptions could be found to any general rule one attempts to deduce from anecdotal evidence. Nevertheless, I would suspect that there is frequently, if not always, a direct and important relationship between these basic elements.

Japanese sentences tend to be more indirect and vague, with a much greater reliance on the passive voice. It's common to leave out the subject of a sentence, with the listener having to deduce by the context who or what is being referred to. Japanese take this for granted, but foreigners - even those quite fluent in the language - often find it confusing. Anyone listening to a Japanese political speech soon realizes that purposely vague and imprecise language is often used. That certainly is not something limited to Japan, but it does reflect the impreciseness that is built into the language.

Likewise, unlike English, where words indicating the positive or negative nature of a sentence must come near the beginning, in Japanese, one isn't committed to making a sentence positive or negative until the very end of the sentence. Thus, one can read the listener's reaction to what is being said and then, if one realizes that the statement one originally had in mind is going to cause problems, it is very possible to then completely reverse one's stance at the very end by simply adding a "to iu koto de wa nai" or an equivalent negating phrase. Thus, the sentence structure allows one to be much more tentative and indirect - something that fits hand-in-glove with the consensus-building, group-oriented culture.

Even a simple "yes" and "no" are thought of in opposite ways when it comes to answering a negative question. A simple "hai" = "yes" and "iie" = "no" frequently results in confusion, as it depends on how the question is formulated. Thus, in the intermingling of the two cultures, a "yes" answer to a question such as "Aren't you going?", could either mean "Yes, I'm not going" (Japanese style) or "Yes, I am going" (English style). In fact, it's not only the negative versus positive aspect, but overall as well, the most important information within an English sentence tends to come in the first part of the sentence ("front-loaded"), while the opposite is true in Japanese ("back-loaded"). Other interesting linguistic examples of reverse polarity are found in such phrases as "black and white", which comes out in Japanese as "white and black", such as in a "white and black television set." Even words imported directly from English sometimes get reversed. The "off season" somehow became "season off" (shiizun ofu) in Japanese!

The writing system likewise involves a radically different way of doing things. While the complex writing system of Japanese itself certainly presents a formidable barrier to the non-Japanese, what I'm referring to here is the fact that unlike the English you are now reading, Japanese is traditionally written vertically beginning on the right side of the page and going left. This results in the front page of a Japanese book or magazine being where the back page would be in English (though it is true that in recent times, the horizontal, left to right mode has sometimes been adopted for Japanese). Likewise, since Japanese is a syllabic language (essentially without independent consonant sounds), a word coming at the end of a line of print can be divided at any point. This leads to the frustration of seeing an English word embedded in Japanese text being divided willy-nilly wherever the end of the line of print comes.

Names Along a somewhat different but related line, personal and family names are also listed in the opposite order. Since the family takes precedence in Japan, one's family name comes before one's personal name. Even the "Mr." or "Ms." title is reversed as "Mr. Tanaka" comes out as "Tanaka san". It's likewise interesting to note that when a Japanese name is referred to in English, the name order is almost always reversed into the western style of family name last. We read of Prime Minister " Ryutaro Hashimoto" and not "Hashimoto Ryutaro". The same is not true, however, of other Asian countries such as China, Korea and Vietnam, where the names are in the same order as Japan. English newspapers never refer to "Tse Tung Mao" or "Chi Min Ho". About the only exception I can think of is the "Reverend" Sun Mung Moon (founder of the "Unification Church"), but he is an exception in practically everything!


There are numerous other examples that could be listed, but I'll end with a sports illustration. Baseball is an American import, but even here, the Japanese have chosen to reverse the balls and strikes (or as they prefer, the strikes and balls) count. A "three and two" (or full) count in the American version means "three balls and two strikes". If you were to go to a "three and two" count in Japanese baseball, you would have just struck out, because the strikes are always mentioned before the balls. One thing, at least; they didn't decide to run around the bases in the opposite direction!

One final observation about sports. While the above analysis presents a hopefully fairly convincing argument for this overall consistency of relationship, one interesting example that seems to thoroughly go against the grain of this line of thought is traditional Japanese sports. While the apparent "group-oriented" versus "individualism" dichotomy of Japanese and American culture is quite obvious, a quick look at what are considered representative traditional sports, the very opposite situation exists. What are the traditional sports that first come to mind when one thinks of Japan? Sumo, along with Judo, Karate and other martial arts - all individuals competing against each other. What sports come to mind when one thinks of America? The "national pastime" of baseball, along with American football and basketball - all team sports! Hmmm! We seem to have a fly in the academic pointment here! (Or is this just an unconscious compensation for the imbalance in each society for the overemphasis on either the individual or the group?)

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