Episode 12: Ato Aji – Foreign Aftertaste

Episode 12: Ato Aji – Foreign Aftertaste

Episode 12: Ato Aji – Foreign Aftertaste

When the first westerners showed up in Japan in the 1540s, the Japanese found it very difficult to be in close proximity to them, especially in enclosed areas, because the Westerners did not bathe or change their clothes regularly, and they gave off a strong stench. 

Most Westerners who took up residence in Japan at that time eventually discovered that bathing regularly would not harm their health, and they learned one direct benefit that they had no trouble at all in  appreciating. It dramatically improvement in their social lives with Japanese women, who prefer men who have bathed and are clean shaven.

Most of the western living in Japan then, however, continue to eat a diet of meat and butter, and no amount of bathing would eliminate the body odour such a diet causes. Unfortunately, the smell of butter turned out to be a specially nauseous to the Japanese, given rise to the saying batā kusai or “stinking of butter”, which was gradually used as an uncomplimentary way of referring to western attitudes and behaviors.

In the 1630s, because of real and imagined problems with Westerners, the Japanese government expel all foreigners from the country, with the exception of a handful of Dutch traders who were isolated on the tiny man-made islands in Nagasaki Bay. 

Japan was not open to foreigners again until the 1850s.

The downfall of the shogun in 1868 resulted in a flood of Western ways and habits into Japan, but it was not until after World War II that the Japanese began gradually to add meat and butter to their traditional diet of vegetables and seafood.

You can hear stories about the Japanese businessmen who traveled to the United States in the late 50s and 60s where they became seriously ill after 4 or 5 days of a meat-based diet.

Some had to cut their trip short and return to Japan.

I can attest to the felling of unwellnes after eating an American diet for several days in a row, so I understanding their feeling, but I can’t help but to chide the Japanese who pack their suitcases full of instant noodles and other Japanese treats jut in case the food doesn’t agree with them. 

It was well into the 70s and appearance of the McDonald’s hamburger restaurants, and numerous hamburger wanna be imitators before meat and butter became a regular staple in the diet of most young urban Japanese.

This abrupt change not only eliminated most of their sensory sensitivity to the smell of these previous taboo foods, that also resulted in a dramatic increase in their size.

We can see that the older Japanese were much slower in adapting to a partial western diet.

The Japanese, though overcoming the revulsion to the stink of butter, did not eliminate the sensitivity to western attitudes and behavior. 

Japanese culture is so strong and so pervasive that the Japanese, including those who have been heavily exposed to western influence, still automatically distinguish between Japanese and Western ways, and automatically make comparisons between the two. 

Most Japanese seem to be more susceptible to cultural shock than their western counterparts when they are stationed abroad for extended periods and are forced to associate with foreigners on a daily basis.

The reaction of the Japanese to western attitudes and behaviours is intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

Some complained that interacting with Westerners for just a few hours is tiring and leaves an ato aji, or “aftertaste“, that by its very nature is unpleasant.

Westerners visiting Japan should be aware of this cultural sensitivity and do what they can to leave as little of the ato aji as possible. 

This, of course, requires a great deal of sensitivity, plus expertise that come only with familiarity of the Japanese culture.

And while you are pondering the meaning of ato aji keep working on your hinkaku as well.

Ato Aji - Foreign AftertasteLand Of The Rising Son

Episode 11: Gaijin Kusai – Smelling Like A Foreigner

Episode 11: Gaijin Kusai – Smelling Like A Foreigner

Episode 11: Gaijin Kusai – Smelling Like A Foreigner

The Japanese have long been notorious for their  racial, ethnic and social discrimination.

They have traditionally been incapable of accepting other races and ethnic groups into their inner circle and treating them the way they treat other Japanese; even the Japanese who look or act a little different are not accepted.

As long as an outsider is a guest, whether in a home, a hotel, a place of business, or anywhere else in the country, the Japanese are so friendly and hospitable that it often becomes almost just a little bit intrusive and un-nerving for those who are not condition to such extraordinary treatment. But once an outsider becomes anything other than a guest, the attitude of the Japanese changes dramatically, becoming anything from distant to cautious, insensitive, uncooperative and even antagonistic.

Now you maybe be asking yourself, didn’t you yourself run into this phenomena as you weaved your way around this homogenous society, and the answer would have to be a resounding yes. However, things changed once my Japanese level was at a place where they could no longer question my position in their neighbourhood and indeed their cloistered society.

They then, although somewhat begrudgingly, treat me merely as an anomaly in their system unlike the foreigners who come and go and, as the the Japanese have a history of thinking whom also, “stink like butter.

You will have to extend some understanding to the Japanese as this automatic discriminatory reaction undoboutably derives in parts for the historical isolation from all other people.

But one could also argue that this ingrained societal construct derives from the traditional image that the Japanese have had of themselves as being absolutely unique in the world, and also being absolutely homogeneous.

In other words, anyone who was not born and raised as “pure Japanese“ and who did not look or act “pure“ Japanese cannot possibly be fully Japanese, socially or indeed, get this legally.

Let’s take this dramatic example of the several hundred thousand people of Korean ancestry who are born and raised in Japan, look exactly like the Japanese, are still regarded as foreigners in a racial, ethnic, social and legal sense.

Just to put this into real time perspective for you dear listener, it’s like in the United States where you would ostracize the descendants of the English, the Irish or the Germans immigrated to the United States within the last hundred years.

Till this day, any Japanese who associate with foreigners in Japan over length of time, or who stay abroad long enough to pick up non-Japanese attitudes and mannerisms, is likely to be labelled as gaijin kusai, or stinking like a foreigner, and there after being discriminated against in someway.

The origins of the expression gaijin kusai is interesting.

When butter and meat eating foreigners first arrived in Japan in the mid 1500s, their body order was so powerful, and so unpleasant to the Japanese that prolonged exposure to it made them ill. So from the beginning, foreigners in Japan were known by their distinctive smell.

Soon thereafter anything that the Japanese recognizes foreign, including attitudes, manners and products, was labelled bata kusai, or “stinking of butter”, or gaijin kusai.

This built-in discriminatory faculty of the Japanese was heighten to a fanatical degree by the military during the 1930s with the use of English being prohibited.

Words that has been derived from English were purged from the language.

All foreigners in Japan were treated with deep suspicion, as were the Japanese unfortunate to have anything other than pure black hair.

Japan subsequent defeat in World War II, the military occupation of the countries by several hundred thousand Americans and Allied troops and civilian personnel, the influx of thousands of foreign commercial and diplomatic residence and from 1964 on, the mass exodus annually of millions of Japanese tourist abroad, the large number of Japanese businessman and the families posit overseas and the equally large number of Japanese student studying abroad, has not yet been enough to overcome the gaijin kudasai mentality of the Japanese.

Till this day, one of the most serious social problems in Japan is the mental and physical abuse inflicted upon children who have lived and studied abroad, by their own school mates and often by the teachers as well. 

I’ve actually experienced this myself when I was teaching early on in my career in a series of junior high schools in rural Japan

Indeed Japan’s anti-foreigner feelings are so deeply embedded in the psyche of the people that it will, unfortunately, surly be a few more generations before they will finally diluted this societal concept down to the point that anti-foreigner sentiments will no longer be a problem.

In the meantime, there are hundreds of thousands of individual Japanese who have been raised without anti-foreign prejudice, or who have essentially overcome whatever prejudice they inherited, and their numbers are growing.

It is highly interesting from my point of view here in the Land Of The Rising Son, that when I see the behaviour of many foreigner tourists now flooding into Japan. I can not help but to think, maybe, just maybe, that even though the majority of these foreigners do not “stink of butter”, they do act like, and thus remain in many ways, wild savages and cave-people, honky stomping all over aesthetic sensibilities of the Japanese.

Gaijin-Kusai - Land Of The Rising Son

Episode 10: Hinkaku – Dignity and Grace

Episode 10: Hinkaku – Dignity and Grace

Episode 10: Hinkaku – Dignity and Grace

In the 1880s only a few years after the fall of the Japanese last feudal dynasty a Japanese businessman went to London to study the English banking system.

While there, a British banker treated him kindly and help him accomplish his mission. During the course of the relationship, the banker was introduced to, and developed a keen interest in, the tea ceremony.

When the Japanese businessman return to Tokyo, he made arrangements at his companies expense for a Japanese carpenter to go to London and build a teahouse for his newfound British friend.

When the carpenter presented himself at the British bankers home, the English man could not believe that this man a mere carpenter behaves like such a gentleman.

His behaviour and demeanour in general were so meticulous, and refined, that the banker mistook him for an affluent member of the Japanese upper class. 

More than 100 years later when an American Hawaiian Chad Rowan wrestling in Japan semi sacred sport of  sumo as Akebono won his second tournament and achieve the rank of Oozeki, or champion, talk to his being elevated to the exalted position of yokozuna, grand champion, began almost immediately.

However, key members of the sumo association, which control the sport with iron discipline, opposed   Akebono’s promotion to the sports highest rank, claiming that he did not exhibit a satisfactory level of dignity, which is so valued in Japanese society.

The English word “ dignity“ does not do justice to the full cultural connotation of hinkaku in this Japanese context.

Dignified behaviour in American society – much more so than Europe to be sure – leaves one with a fairly broad range of acceptable conduct, and does not necessarily signify any particular cultural achievement. 

Hinkaku on the other hand, incorporated a degree of character, spirit, and cultural propriety that raises the individual well above the ordinary person.

In the Japanese context, hinkaku is directly equated with virtue and morality. A hinkaku ga takai hito or “person with great dignity” is humble, totally honest, trustworthy and can be depended on to always do the right thing –albeit the right thing in the Japanese context of right and wrong. 

The Japanese have been conditioned for centuries to be sensitive to hinkaku and to expect it of people in responsible positions.

The higher and more important the position, the stronger are the expectations for the person to exemplify hinkaku.

This makes sense to me, and in these extremely interesting time when I see the representative of the United States, I always am reminded of the importance of hinkaku in the people in important position of power.

A significant reason why the Japanese have tended to look down on Westerners, particularly prominent businessmen and political leaders, was that they did not demonstrate the qualities of hinkaku the Japanese had come to expect. 

Even today, the foreign businessman or politician who fails to behave with an acceptable level of hinkaku (except in settings of drinking parties at geisha houses, nightclubs, and other private places), suffers a serious loss of face that reinforces the general Japanese belief that the Japanese way is a culturally superior. 

Foreigners who want to be accepted by the Japanese as sincere, virtuous, dependable, and worthy as friends, allies or partners, advice to make sure they exude a healthy degree of hinkaku.

To complete our Akebono story, the American sumo wrestler won the January 1993 sumo tournament, and so impressed the Sumo Association judges with his behaviour, that shortly there after he was unanimously confirmed as Japan’s first foreign sumo grand champion, an event which is comparably as auspicious as the marriage of Emeritus emperor Akihito, who was then the crown prince, to the commoner, Michiko Showda, in 1959.

Who, by the way has excelled at the art of hinaku throughout her time as the empress in the cloistered and insular halls  of the Imperial Household Agency. 

Hinkaku - Dignity and Grace - Land Of The Rising Son

Episode 9: Shugyō – Training For Intuitive Wisdom

Episode 9: Shugyō – Training For Intuitive Wisdom

Episode 9: Shugyo – Training For Intuitive Wisdom

Most Westerners prize practical knowledge and hands-on experience above all other kinds of learning.

They are also condition to approach work and other challenge is directly, aiming for the “the shortest distance between two points”.

It is therefore, inevitable that Westerns in Japan, and those working for the Japanese companies abroad, will be mystified and frustrated by a great deal of typical Japanese behaviour, for to the Japanese the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line; indeed, both practical knowledge and experience can be a handicap in functioning well in a Japanese environment.

I know this sounds bizarre, but bear with me as we explore the Japanese code word for intuitive wisdom training.

Americans, in particular, are extremely inpatient for results once they begin any kind of training or enterprise. And you have to chuckles at the novice foreign students of Zen Buddhism and how they pester their masters, wanting to know when they are going to “learn something“ the new foreigner employee hired by a Japanese company wants to put their experience to work immediately, almost always causing distress and social discomfort amongst the company members.

In Japan, the cultural element in training and work often and take precedence over results.

This is particularly true in the early stages, but generally applies in perpetuity. 

In the Japanese value system, the way things are done outweighs what is done. 

For example, young students practising the ideograms used in writing Japanese are expected to learn more than just mechanical strokes necessary to reproduce correct characters. They are also expected to learn form, order, aesthetics and harmony.

The first obligation of young employees of Japanese companies hired directly from school is not to learn work routines so they can immediately become productive. No no, not that indeed, the first obligation is to learn the company philosophy and culture, so their personal behaviour in the work decisions they make in the future will be “correct”.

One of the most important words in the Japanese corporate world is shugyō, which usually translates as “training”, but shugyō has far deeper and broader implications than this English translation implies.

Shugyo in its full Japanese contacts is better translated as “apprenticeship” in the old, traditional sense of the word, when it refers to a young person being apprentice to a journeyman or to a master for at least 10 in sometime as many as 20 years.

The goal of shugyo in a Japanese company is for the new employee to gradually absorb knowledge about the company and how it functions, and to determine intuitively what the responsibilities and duties of the new employee are. 

Like the apprentices of old, new employees get little or no direct feedback regarding the work performance for many years.

Managers and supervisors do not stand over newcomers, instructing them about what to do and how to do it.

The employees are expected to figure that out for themselves.

You can be assured in this strict and hierarchal society things are not made easy for Japanese students or apprentice workers. 

The Japanese believe that the harder something is to learn and the more effort  it requires to learn it, the more valuable than knowledge or the skill. 

Furthermore, the ultimate goal in Japanese training is perfection, which cannot be achieved, so theoretically there could be no end to training or to learning, and shugyō is seen as an ongoing process.

This Japanese attitude about learning is in sharp contrast to that of the western mindset, again, particularly Americans, who after reaching a certain level, tend to either rest on their laurels or take so much pride in their learning that they do not open themselves up to learning more. 

There is another important characteristic in Japanese training and employment that sets them apart and motivates them to continue learning and striving to improve. 

Because they receive no direct, explicit feedback about their work, they never know where they stand. In this atmosphere, peer pressure and the fear of bringing shame on themselves and their coworkers forces them to continually strive to improve their performance.

The true challenge for any foreigner entering a Japanese company is to have a clear understanding of the concept of shugyō and internalize it when navigating the mysterious complex Japanese corporate work culture.

Episode 8: Byōdō – Equality

Episode 8: Byōdō – Equality

Episode 8: Byōdō – Equality

The concept of byodo, or equality, among people is a western invention that apparently evolved from the Christian theological beliefs that all human beings are created equal in god’s eyes. 

Of course, and as we know, there has never been a time in history of any society when all people were treated as equals, however,  Americans as well as others have passed laws over the centuries that tries to force the foreign concept upon not only the Japanese, but are readily spreading their version of freedom and democracy and equality all over the world now.

This is such an alien concept to the Japanese, they have no such historically based concept for them to conceptualize what the Occidental paints as equality.

Is Equality A Myth - Land Of The Rising Son

Neither of Japan’s two main religions, Buddhism and Confucianism, have ever recognize or taught the principles of byodo or equality.

In fact these two belief system are based on exactly the opposite premises. 

Over the centuries the primary structure of Japanese society was based upon inequality, that is, on the categorization of people in carefully delineated classes and ranks, with individual behaviour determined and control by institutionalized and ritualized inequalities. 

This exceptionally foreign ideas to the Occidental mindset is exceptional in that it has created the unparalleled and orderly society of Japan, a society that I have chosen to live my entire adult life based upon the societal harmony and the conventions which are fundamentally adhered to in Japan. 

The Japanese Salarypeople - Land Of The Rising Son

Although, as I say this, it obviously also comes with a price and what those in the Occidental mindset perceived as inequality is indeed that price.

The American military forces have some success in introducing the idea of equality during their occupation of Japan which was from September 1945 to May 1952.

The feudalistic structure of the family was outlawed giving wives and children rights they have never had before. 

And yes, political reform gave people more rights as voters, and workers got the right to bargain collectively.

However, these booming decrees coming from up above alone will never be enough to make the Japanese change their entire culture in a short period of time, or, from where I sit, ever.

And undoubtedly the concept of inequality continues to prevail in virtually every nook and cranny of this society, even until this very day. 

Right around the 60s as Japan accelerated its rise to become an economic superpower the first postwar generation of young Japanese began to demonstrate many characteristics of equality in their relationships among themselves, and the pace of the trend, was to speed up from that time on. 

Showa Family circa 1946 - Land Of The Rising Son

But make no mistake about it, these demonstrations of equality among the young did not extend outside their own personal spheres. 

Inequality to the very day remains the prevailing principle in schools and in all economic and political organizations.

No matter how strongly individuals in the younger generation may have embraced the concept of equality in their private affairs, even to this very day, they were forced to conform to the prevailing concept of inequality the moment they begin their education and join the workforce. 

In today’s Japan, people generally claim they are inherently equal to everyone else, but this is only “in principle“, and what we refer to as tatemae, or “the constructed reality to which everyone pays lip service.”

Despite the general acceptance of the principle of all people being created equal, the lives of the Japanese continue to be based upon the concept of fubyodo or in other words inequality.

In practice, the Japanese continue to recognize that sex, age, education level, school attend, and family background determines a persons rank in the overall hierarchy of it every group or organization, and that rank establishes both guidelines and limits to what and how an individual can do things. 

Is Sameness a Strength or a Weakness - Land Of The Rising Son.jpeg

It is therefore very important for foreigners dealing with Japanese and professional organizations, companies and government agencies to be aware of the general lack of equality in Japan, and how this affects the individuals with whom they have direct contact.

The main factor where foreigners are concerned is that the behaviour of the individual Japanese who they deal with is controlled by the reality of their hierarchical rank within their organizations, and the behaviour that is approved for that rank. With the rare exception, even executives of the highest rank cannot act on their own initiative.

All Japanese are also extremely sensitive about the extent of the responsibilities and privileges that come with their place in the hierarchy, and they are very protective of their own turf.

If a person does not follow a precise protocol in dealing with people higher and lower in rank, considerable trouble can result for all people involved.

I have seen this played out time and time again. It is very interesting to compare the concepts of the Japanese and those of a Occidental mindset.

So, for example in English it is said “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” where as here in in Japan they say, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

If somebody puts their hand up in Japan, and it’s out of place, they just get hammered down.

Where in Western setting, perhaps the person putting up their hand would get a promotion for being proactive. 


Also, keep in mind that even though the image of the Japanese is one of groupism there is still plenty of self-interest here as there is every where one may go.

For instance, some managers in Japanese company will sometimes keep things to themselves, either because they think an outsider proposition has no merit or would not be benefit the said manager, or because they think it is a winner and they want to get as much credit as possible by keeping it to themselves for long as they can.

Indeed Westerners, and the Americans in particular, often have much difficulty understanding and accepting the limitations ranking puts on the Japanese behaviour, and they often expect, and sometimes even demand responses from the Japanese that would seriously endanger their image.

This is a grave flaw in the thought process of Western mindset and they would be best to obtain a deep understanding of this Way of Japan, equality or, should I say truthfully, fubuodoinequality. 

For the Japanese do not understand, nor really, to any extent have an inkling of how they would go about to change this system to where all became equal, and for which the Japanese already know and understand here in the Land Of The Rising Son, that equality is a myth and is only to remain a “constructed reality to which every one pays lip service.”


Equality Japan's Cultural Code Words Land Of The Rising Son

Episode 7: Ara Sagashi – Nation of Nitpickers

Episode 7: Ara Sagashi – Nation of Nitpickers

Episode 7: Ara Sagashi – Nation of Nitpickers

When Westerners first encounter the Japanese writing system, which is an application of the much more ancient and complex Chinese system, they look at it from several different perspectives.

In my particular case I stand in wonder as to the aesthetic aspect of written Japanese, or actually one can say that Japanese is drawn in stylized calligraphy.

Most are overwhelmed by the sheer complexity and the enormity of the system, and never bother to learn it at all.

Still many others look upon Japanese with a degree of arrogant superiority for the Japanese to have adopted such a difficult way of writing, certainly in these peoples own mind they think the Japanese writing system is a clearly a handicap that is impossible to overcome.

Learning to read let alone to write Japanese is a formidable mountain indeed, and in my more youthful and immature days, I took the advice of my well-intentioned, but somewhat misguided good friend as he said to me. “You are a Westerner and it is not necessary to learn to read or write Japanese“.

Then, I was thinking to myself, boy is that ever a relief.

And I lulled myself into thinking for a few years, until I came to the absolutely correct conclusion, if you are going to live here all your life, learn to read and write Japanese, and thus I started my journey down the eternal rabbit hole of the Japanese language.

We can say for sure that the Japanese way of writing has indeed been a mixed blessing for the citizens of the Land Of The Rising Son, but with the passage of time we can honestly say that this highly complex system has gained many more advantages which now I believe far outweigh any of its disadvantages.

The fundamental advantage of the Japanese writing system derives, in fact, from its complexity, and the degree of effort and long period of time that is required to learn to read and write it.

This effort, which naturally begins in childhood, has an extraordinary influence on the mental attitudes, manual skills, as well as the character of the Japanese.

All young Japanese must learn patience, perseverance, a considerable degree of manual dexterity, appreciation of graphic harmony, and some familiarity with aesthetic’s in order to master the ideograms used to write the Japanese language.

This discipline and the training Japanese must undergo to learn to read and write their own language is enough to set them apart from most other people, and give them advantages that continues throughout their lives

When the Japanese system of writing, which is obviously very precise and demanding, is combine with other traditional activities that require equally precise form and process, the overall influence on the Japanese character is profound.

To the Japanese, the making of anything requires extraordinary attention to the finest details, which is the primary factors which makes the Japanese among the worlds most fastidious and discriminating people.

Even more so, the Japanese have been conditioned to be compulsive about forms and processes and about identifying and labelling everything in accordance with its status and role, and the word for this characteristic in Japanese is arasagashi which translates nicely into English as nitpicking.

As a real life example, in early years many foreign products failed in the Japanese market place because they were far below the quality standards acceptable to the Japanese, or because they were not neatly finished; for example threads were left hanging from apparel, or the inside or bottom of product were left rough and unattractive.

Steve Jobs was one of the examples of a fan and you can see this reflected in his legacy of Apple products.

Compare the design atheistic of Apple products against the others and you can see the influence of this way of thinking.

The design and finishing stands for products in Japan evolve centuries ago through the apprenticeship system in the handicraft industry.

This approach demands virtual perfection regardless of how mundane the product might be, with the result that even something as mundane as ordinary kitchen utensils were typically works of ceramic and lacquerware art.

Regardless, this cultural conditioning which turns all Japanese into moderate arasagashi has waned somewhat in recent years, but enough of it still remains in the education system in the overall cuturalization process of the Japanese that even the youngest generation has a critical eye that distinguish its members from their counterparts in most Western countries.

If you are planning on selling anything to Japanese one must always be aware of the nature of the Japanese before starting out, and avoid learning about it the hard and expensive way.

Nation of Nitpickers