Episode 2: Omoiyari – Japanese-style Sympathy

Japan has traditionally been noted for the extraordinary exclusivity of its culture and this has been recognized as one of the more serious handicaps when the Japanese deal with the outside world.

This exclusivity of the Japanese mindset goes far beyond the intangible features of culture such as philosophy, morals, ethics, values, it also includes race, food and other aspects of life.

To make things even more complicated Japan’s exclusivity complex is based upon group membership.

In essence every group in Japan tends to see itself as an exclusive entity, that tries to be independent from other groups and is self sustaining.

You can see this throughout Japanese culture in the plethora of exclusive groups; like the middle aged housewives who are in love with Korean boy band, girls and women who dress up in costumes such as maids outfits, you can go to Shibuya or Akihabara for a first hand look at this, and the heartfelt devotion of the high school baseball teams to their alma matter.

It is therefore very difficult or often impossible for the Japanese to put themselves in the straw sandals of someone who is not a member of their group and, as a result it is extremely difficult for the Japanese to personally relate to strangers, in particular foreigners or what is know as “gaijin”

By the way, the two ideograms that make up the word “gaijin” are “outside” and “person”.

So all people from other countries other than Japanese are known as “outside people, makes sense to me.

This also extends to include all other Japanese outside of their group. I experienced this firsthand when I built my house next a famers land and we became friendly.

Interestingly enough, I have never been the object of his scorn but probably because I am considered to be an anomaly with Japanese communication skills, humorous more often than not, and they basically really don’t know what to make of me, However, I can not say that this is the case for everyone in my neighbourhood.

I mentioned in passing something mundane to this diligent farmer about one of our neighbours, who was originally from Tokyo, and my friendly farmer turned and said aitsu wa kitachosenjin da dai kirai.

He is a North Korean, and I dislike him immensely.”

Granted, this outsider was a brash and obnoxious businessman, and this just added to the distain of what my Japanese neighbours on our block consider to be nothing short of an outsider to be suspicious of, and he and his extremely annoying wife will never truly be a part of this neighbourhood.

This group exclusivity is one of the primary reasons why communication in Japan is so difficult, and why it generally takes so long to get things done.

The exclusivity protocol makes it mandatory that communication follow a precise hierarchal path within groups and between groups, making communication time-consuming, cumbersome, and often inexact.

In addition, the more bureaucratic the group or organization is, the more effort is required to communicate with it. Japan’s political factions, government ministries and administration agencies all of which are made up of vertically rank members, are good examples of groups with which communication can be most difficult.

Because of the intensity and importance of personal relationships within Japanese groups, empathy and sympathy are an essential ingredients for functioning inside Japanese society. However, these ingredients are generally not used beyond the group, unless some kind of special circumstances arise .

As a result, Japan’s foreign policy, both political and economic, are increasingly being designed with an element of omoyari or sympathy for international causes and for foreigns.

The sympathy ranges from concerns for the health and the physical hardships of the non-Japanese to their concern for our shared economic future.

One of the special occasions when the Japanese automatically extend extraordinary sympathy is when tourists or other guest of the country experience a mishap, for example when they are robbed, lose a camera, or experience some other misfortune.

On such occasions it is typical of the individual Japanese to take extreme measures to see that the lost items are returned or the people are compensated in some way.

I am sure you have all heard stories about the taxi driver spending hours of his own time trying to locate a passenger who has left something in his vehicle, or on a personal note.

When I left a suitcase containing several important items in the busy Hamamatsucho bus terminal, to call somewhat distressed a day later, only to find it safe and sound in the security office of the World Trade Building, does this happen any where else in the world, this is clearly a case of the ingrained culture of omoyari.

Of course there’s more than just omoyari in these actions there’s also a sense of innate pride, and when visitors has any kind of problem, the Japanese are still honour bound to remedy the situation so the visitors will not leave with a negative image of the Japanese or of this country.

Also, keep in mind, when the Japanese face disaster and tragedy they face it together. Recall such a disaster as the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region leaving 10s of thousands dead, and you could see the Japanese come together under the banner of being Japanese with a force unbeknown and incomprehensible to those of the outside world.

Surly, where have you have such devastation, without any riots, with orderly line ups, and groups of strangers helping one another to bring back peace and order to their shared world.