Theories of the Japanese Society

Is it really so easy to accurately generalize the inner workings of a complex modern society, or to go even further and reduce the entirety of the society down to a single word? Well perhaps such methods can give one an overview of how the society operates, or at least a foundation to quell one’s curiosity, but in the end it would take years of study and research to get the most accurate picture available. For those without the time or dedication however, these general overviews can be a nice place to start. Japanese Society by Chie Nakane attempts to provide just that. By looking into the detailed structure of Japanese society and its hierarchal groups, Nakane provides a view that makes an effort to outline the essential blocks of Japan’s societal makeup. Takeo Doi on the other hand, in his book The Anatomy of Dependence, takes what could be called a linguistics approach to looking at the behavior of Japanese society. Doi explores the world of amae, and explains that while it is not a phenomenon unique to the society of Japan, the use of the word and the concepts of the language around it can be drawn on to provide some insight. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, but when all is said and done, each serve their purpose successfully.

Nakane makes her credibility on the topic of the Japanese society known up front and that the book may appear to be making generalizations or that some of the analysis might be flawed. It is her first hand experience along with extensive research on the topic however, that lends to her authority on the topic. It is perhaps this innovative approach, rather than say, one that is strictly scientific, that gives the impression that such a unique and complex society can be at least partially understood. Of these innovations is the use of unique words to describe the characteristics of the Japanese society. The “attribute” as she calls it, refers to a collection of traits that tie a group together, where as a “frame” describes the location, group or setting in which there is a social context. In a way, this coining of new terms as it applies the foundation of her analysis may be seen as amateurish and unorthodox. The way I see it however, is that with such a unique society, original methods are sometimes best to introduce concepts that are not common or seen in other societies on the whole.

It is within this “attribute” and ”frame” structure, that Nakane describes the diverse relationships within the Japanese society. From one’s primary frame, there in lies the majority of one’s social interaction. This frame however has its drawbacks, as Nakane mentioned, “group unity […] is essential,” but it “creates a gulf between the group and others with similar attributes but outside the frame.” What this boils down to is dependence on the group for economic, emotional, and other support systems, but rejection of those outside of the group who otherwise might be able to offer the same or better support. Within the context of family for example, it is only those living in the house that can count on support from the family; blood relation in that context wouldn’t make much of a difference. Within a corporation, there is little to no, or otherwise strenuous cooperation between companies. While that would perhaps foster competition between groups, it perhaps limits innovation and the introduction of new ideas into society.

The groups themselves then, have their own internal structure. What this essentially consists of is age and tenure being the deciding factors of where one is placed on the vertical hierarchy, with little importance given to ability. Within school, sports or corporations, the flaws with a system like this can be seen quite clearly. A new college graduate, the top of his class, exceptionally skilled and brimming with innovative ideas is hired into a company on the lowest level. All of the decisions are however made by the old man who has been with the company for years, who only inherited the top position because of that fact, not because he was an astute businessman. The group in that case, could be said to be only as strong as it’s weakest link. As Nakane notes, this structure is essentially unchangeable once the group has been formed and there is no advancement based on merit. There is little to no incentive to try harder either, but only to improve the standing of the group – in relation to other groups. This is another issue that Nakane points out, that the competition is against other groups and not in seeking unique ideas or one-of-a-kind improvements that deviate too far from the status quo.

Seemingly contradictory in her analysis, Nakane mentions that the frustrations in lack of advancement within this hierarchal group structure can spur the creation of new groups, breaking off from the parent. An understandable course of action, but Nakane’s arguments before this revelation gave me the impression that this was all but unlikely. The strong case is made however, that if one becomes too good for the group, that the group would likely force them out or out of one’s desire to overcome the hindrances of the group, a new group would be formed. This again reinforces the idea that the primary goal is not to achieve, but to stay stagnant and wait it out to work your way to the top, though even when at the top, one must not stray too far from the group; with the alternate being, you must be an exceedingly above the others in the group if one is even thinking about leaving (for one’s own social health).

One other point of contention is when Nakane proposes that only a horizontal based relationship -or- a “contractual” based relationship would work with regards to having separate groups to help alleviate the dilemma of group mentality and lack of productivity in the vertical relationship system. To me this seems like a false choice. Would it not be possible to marry all three of the systems into the current vertical, even if only gradually? Nakane makes note that “the possibility just does not exist in Japan,” but perhaps it could be said that currently the proposition seems difficult and with time, that things could change.

Nakane continues to stress the Japanese peoples’ dependency on these groups, or frames. Emotionally, socially, economically, they are needed for support, but there are glaring flaws with a system like this. Despite these flaws, Japan could be said to be successful, and with that I can agree. One could speculate as to whether changing the fundamentals of the group and vertical hierarchy systems present in Japan would produce a more efficient, powerful, Japan, but it wouldn’t be the Japanese society we know today.

Another perspective on Japanese society comes from that of Takeo Doi, who looks to the word “amae” to describe the fundamentals of the society and its behavior. Amae as explained is, “the desire to be passively loved.” A fairly simple concept that potentially has large implications. Doi’s purpose in writing this book is to look at the Japanese language to explain the societies’ behavior as it relates to the phenomenon of amae and “what happens when amae is in some way frustrated or distorted.” With his personal research and experience in hand, Doi explains this takeaway from the viewpoint of language as he says, “the typical psychology of a given nation can be learned only through familiarity with its native language.” While the word amae is unique to the Japanese language, it is not unique to the Japanese people; Doi points out, just the fact that it is use however, this has implications about the society in which it is being used. It is then this concept of amae, which Doi relates to the vertical relationships that Nakane mentioned in her analysis. In the context of a familial or intimate relationship, this amae could be someone wanting to be spoiled or pampered by his or her loved one. In the context of a corporation and other such circumstances it could be found in the humbling and honorifics used to refer to the self and the other; a “childlike attitude” as Doi puts it.

Beyond the word amae, Doi introduces a myriad of other words that relate to this concept and help to further define the behavior of Japanese society. One such word is “tanin,” which refers to other people besides ones self. Tanin however, is not used to refer to a parent, indicating that the parent-child bond is not that of one and another. It is the concept of amae that sits behind this bond, the desire to retreat back and indulge oneself in the helpless desires of early childhood where child is again dependent on parent. Again, outside of the context of the familial, this extends into the whole group mentality. There are those who are inside the group who share a special bond of inferred indulgence, and those, others, on the outside who are all but cut off from this relationship. Both Doi and Nakane’s views on this group mentality support each other in that it can be said that there is security within the group, but beyond that, there is potential threat; therefore to leave the group, is to enter a threatening situation in which social and emotional support ties are severed.

Another interesting societal behavior as it relates to “amae mentality” is that of the Japanese sense of being victimized. A simple example given by Doi is how Japanese would phrase being out in the rain; “I was rained on today” as opposed to saying something to the effect of “it rained today;” the person speaking becomes the victim of the rain. This “sense of being a victim,” is not a “temporary sense of grievance” but is an overarching social state. This state does not only apply to the individual, but also when in a group setting, it is the entire group that becomes the victim. Most prominently, this sense of amae and being a victim was brought about by the “shock of defeat” at the end of World War II in which it could be said that some regressed into a state of wanting to be taken care of.

Using language as the key to understand any society is an interesting angle to take, as at first glance it can seem to be so limited. While I would have at first second-guessed the merits of doing so, after reading Doi’s work, I can clearly see the relevance. At the same time however, relating it all back to amae, the desire to be passively loved, seems to be a bit of a stretch at times. The actions of society speak for themselves, but having them all interconnected to some one “thing,” seems to simplify such a complex subject too much. That said, the cuteness phenomenon in Japan that continues to this day, and the features of amae seen throughout the society cannot be overlooked; as Doi says, “the distinction between children and adults has become blurred,” “everyone has become more childish,” with those statements, I don’t think I can disagree.

As both books were published in the 1970s, there is a lot of recent history that is missing from them. Economic ups and downs, and the ever-shrinking global sphere of influence, new technologies and innovative forms of entertainment are just a few of the issues that play a part in how the society is shaped and behaves. That does not deter their significance however. Whether it is via language, or strict observation, to have a better understanding of where the society stands today, we must look back at its beginnings. It is not always possible to get everything right, but Chie Nakane’s Japanese Society and Takeo Doi’s The Anatomy of Dependence do a good job of helping us understand what and why the society of Japan is what it is today.

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