Cultural Misunderstandings


Cultural Misunderstandings

Cultural misunderstandings are obstacles in our world that prevent people from obtaining true understanding and appreciation of another’s culture.  Japan and America are two such cultures.  They gain knowledge about the other’s culture, only looking at the basic facts that define them, not bothering to look deeper into the underlying ideas.  Japan and America learn about each other through observation.  It is because of this behavior that they are unable to infer everything about each other.  No matter how much America knows about Japan’s history, no matter how much Japan knows about American values, no matter even if they both know everything there is to the other culture, cultural misunderstandings will continue to exist between them as long as they both avoid analyzing the ideas that are the drivers for these characteristics.

Japan is mostly a homogeneous culture; or at least they believe themselves to be (Wright).  The typical Japanese has black hair, black eyes, and over all, pale skin. Compared to foreigners, they are very short on average and their facial features include slanted eyes, small noses, and relatively small mouths.   When they see a foreigner, they are awe struck by their various different hair colors, darker skin, big noses, and giant height.  Although different nations have different combinations of these characteristics, Japan looks at all foreigners in relatively the same way.   Since foreigners are so different-looking than the Japanese, when one arrives in Japan, they are treated like level D celebrities (Wright).  Some Japanese will try to confront the foreigner and attempt to talk to them.  In most cases, if you’re a foreigner, the Japanese would assume that you’re probably an American (“Culture”).  This does not cause much of a problem for those who truly are Americans, but for those who are not, it does.  America is predominantly an English speaking culture, so the Japanese would assume that the foreigner they see speaks English (“Culture”).  In the long run, in the case that the foreigner does not speak English, an awkward situation occurs where both the foreigner and the Japanese person are unable to understand each other.  This is an unfortunate and hopefully avoidable situation, but if one is travelling to Japan, something like this should be expected.

The Japanese, based on the belief that they are unique, believe that Americans and other foreigners are unable to do the simple things that they can; things such as speaking Japanese, using chopsticks, or using everyday items, such as futons (“For”).  They will continually ask a foreigner if they are able to do these things.  If the foreigner does not, the Japanese person would politely explain to the foreigner and would go about his or her marry way, but in the case that the foreigner does indeed know how to do these things, these constant questions can become a bit annoying (“Common”).   A Japanese person might be surprised to see a foreigner skillfully using chopsticks to eat sushi and might praise them for it.  The praise is unnecessary seeing how even 4 year old Japanese children are seen using the chopsticks with similar skill. The Japanese are just stuck on the belief that although these tasks are simple to them, they are difficult for foreigners to handle.  (“For”).  Even when a foreigner approaches a Japanese person and speaks with flawless Japanese, the Japanese person is more likely to reply in English believing that their reply in Japanese would be too difficult to understand (“Common”).  This might frustrate some foreigners as they are trying to fit into the community and instead feel that they are looked down upon (“Common”).

Cultural Values

A cause for these cultural misunderstandings could be because Japan and America express contrasting values.  Some things that may be important to the Japanese may not be viewed in the same way by Americans and vice versa (“Japanese Values”).  The opposition of values between America and Japan does not necessarily mean that one country is better than the other.  Both countries’ values are what defines their cultures and makes them different from each other.  Each country has their own view of a perfect society which their values are based upon, and it is from those values that cultural taboos are produced.  Understanding the other’s values and the reason for them is a step toward understanding the other’s country as a whole.

One value that is immensely stressed by the Japanese is “respect” (Dolan).  Children are taught from a very young age to respect others as well as themselves.  This transforms into a high amount of self-respect for the Japanese people (“Japanese Values”).  This self-respect encourages young Japanese to strive for higher goals and to challenge themselves.  This also outlays the belief that one must achieve excellence otherwise they would shame their family (“Japanese Values”).  Americans also explain to their children to “respect their elders” but is not stressed enough to actually take effect.  Americans are seen as more disrespectful to others than respectful and it is because of this disrespect that many Americans have a lack of self-respect as well.

Along with respect, the Japanese seemingly value education more than Americans do (“Japanese Values”).  While Americans focus more on teaching their own history and language in their curriculum, Japan finds it important to learn about other cultures as well.  The Japanese teach English as a requirement in their curriculum along with their own language and history (Abe).  The Japanese also make a point by having parents become involved in their child’s education (“Japanese Values”) In contrast, American parents just send their children to school without any further involvement.  This lack of education and parental involvement causes America’s education level to be significantly lower than Japan’s and other countries’ (“Japanese Values”).   To change this and improve America’s academic excellence, it would be best if America adopted Japan’s value on education.

America has its own values, and one of them is “privacy”.  Japan has a rather awkward view of privacy.   Unlike America and other foreign countries, Japan is quite outward in regards to their personal issues (Hisae).  For example, friends are expected to share all of their secrets with each other, if they don’t, they cannot be considered “true friends” (Ariga).  Things like one’s blood type, horoscope, birthday, and preferences should be given automatically.  This personal information is not only expected between friends, but even in the work place (Ariga).  A boss may ask their employees for personal information about their hobbies, family, and health before they are even hired (Ariga).  If such things were asked in America, one would be offended and claim that it is an invasion of their privacy.  Another example would be Japan’s use of public baths and hot springs.  In America, one always commodities himself or herself with a bathing suit before entering the water with others, but in Japan, they enter completely naked with the exception of a towel or two (Ariga).  Most Americans would be appalled at the idea of showing off their naked bodies, while the Japanese don’t even think twice about it.  The Japanese were just simply raised with the idea that there is nothing to be ashamed about being naked in front of others (Ariga).  Of course, the hot springs and public baths are separated by gender, but a few places can be found having a mixed bath area that is shared by both men and women. 

This lack of privacy in Japan could possibly be an attribution to Japan’s collectivist ideas.  Japanese people like to hang out in groups and never do things alone.  This includes going to the bathroom.  If a young Japanese girl needed to go to the restroom, she would in most cases, go with a friend (Hisae).  A girl seen going to the restroom by herself might be thought of as an outcast (Ariga).  Also if a Japanese person was invited to an activity with a group of friends or colleagues, it would be considered rude if he or she were to reject.  It is the Japanese idea that you must always put the group before yourself (Ariga).  This is probably why the Japanese seem to value their friends and colleagues over their family (“Comparative”).  On the other hand, Americans would find spending precious time with their own family more important (“Comparative”).   This shows that forming good relationships within the community is the priority for the Japanese.

Americans, on the other hand, are the opposite of collectivists, and focus more on individual achievement.  Americans like to build a healthy level of self-reliance and do things for themselves without looking to others for help.  When Americans strive for achievement, they strive for themselves without a care about how it will affect others.  The Japanese, as collectivists, would view individualism in America and Americans as people who are “driven by their selfish desires” (“Beyond”).   However, as of late, the Japanese seem to be leaning towards individualism as they develop their own personalist ideas.  More and more Japanese are trying to create their own uniqueness by engaging in new fads, hobbies, and personal interests (“Beyond”).  This newly established ideology adopted by the Japanese could very well have been caused American’s influence.  Nevertheless, the Japanese still hold on to their old collectivist ideas. 

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