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Japan: Conflict & Control

Harmony takes work

Question: How come Japanese people seem to be meticulously careful about obeying laws and following rules? And they're so polite. Are they really that harmonious and well-behaved?

Towards other members of their own group, the answer is frequently, yes, they are very careful about following rules and not causing conflicts. Why is this? One hears two frequent and opposing explanations.
  1. Voice 1: Japan is a harmonious society with low rates of litigation, crime, and divorce. Their citizens learn to be attentive to others, to value group goals more than immediate personal gain, and to broadly include everyone in group activities and decisions. Their government ensures that most people have access to basic needs.

  2. Voice 2: Japan is a repressive society that trains citizens to be submissive, where exploitation, violence, suffering, and opposition are hidden in order to keep up the illusion of harmony.

Whether you believe the glass is half full or half empty, producing social harmony (or the impression of it) requires continual attention and significant resources.

Everywhere you look in Japan, you can see this investment, Persistent training in cooperation and cheerful obedience in schools. Police officers watching passersby from their neighborhood kiosks. The wearing of uniforms to reinforce group identity. Interminable rounds of meetings to make sure that all sides to a decision are considered. Local associations which enforce expectations of correct behavior in the neighborhood, The ubiquitous lessons in proper behavior, usually illustrated with cute cartoon figures to encourage happy willingness rather than coercion.

Expressing and hiding conflicts

Individual behavior in conflict situations

  • Conflict between role and personal views & needs:

      is your public face, the opinions and actions that are appropriate to your position and role.

      is one's personal opinion or feeling.

    Where Americans usually feel a person is insincere or outright lying if these two do not match, Japanese tend to see the ability to keep your personal feelings and interests separate from your public role as a sign of maturity. Playing one's role, even if privately you disagree with the policies or actions that you are required to uphold, is usually considered honorable rather than hypocritical.

  • Even when people are angry, they often put aside their own preferences and needs in order to blend in, to avoid causing trouble for others.

  • Self-control, endurance, and duty are valued. In a conflict, Japanese people may fall silent or use humble language that signals but does not express their anger outright. People rarely lose their tempers in public or speak bluntly, unless one of the parties holds significantly higher status.

Conflict within groups is managed through:

  • Hierarchy (age, gender, position).
  • Using intermediaries and indirect methods of communication.
  • Enormous amounts of energy put into behaving appropriately in human relationships, maintaining them through gifts, favors, creating powerful mutual obligations.
  • Stigma and penalties for those who raise questions, who are not sufficiently "cooperative."

Conflict between groups is often characterized by:

  • Clear boundaries between insiders (uchi) and outsiders (soto). Allegiance and loyalty are usually take precedence over principles or individual thinking.
  • Affiliations (work, school, family, neighborhood) are often lifelong, making it risky to break ranks with one's own group.
  • Vertical factions rather than horizontal solidarity, which can hinder reaching consensus or collaborating across faction lines.
  • Indirectness: to save face, and to allow the other party to also save face, conflicts may be hinted at, discussed via intermediaries, or resolved by someone higher up.
  • Harmony behavior creates the illusion of unified, non-political decisions; it can be hard to know who or how to fight it.
  • Protests often appeal to human feeling, to the other side's personal sense of obligation rather than to principles or laws.

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