On omoiyari and the sasshi no bunka or “guessing culture” training

On the sasshi no bunka, or “guessing culture” a cultural training that begins when children are young. “Positive action based on guessing is called omoiyari and is considered one of the most important personal traits in Japan.” writes Kate Elwood. Read more in the article posted below

CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / Can you guess when to guess?
Kate Elwood / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

A few years ago I was watching an episode of The Sopranos, the acclaimed 1999-2007 TV show about a mobster named Tony Soprano and his family. One of the humorous delights of the program is the way in which Tony and his fellow gangsters are concerned with everyday, decidedly non-macho matters like discussing hand lotion for their chapped hands while at the same time planning and executing violent, sordid criminal activities. It’s a wacky parody of American contemporary life with a killer twist.

In a scene of the episode I was watching, an up-and-coming thug named Christopher and his fiancee, Adriana, were making up after an argument. More precisely, Adriana was taking on all the blame despite having been treated badly by her gun-toting sweetheart. After sufficient coaxing and contrition on the part of Adriana, Christopher, seemingly magnanimously, relents and assumes a small part of the responsibility for their problems, saying something like: “What could you do? I didn’t communicate my needs to you.” His words in the context sounded like a reconciliation routine from romantic advice column set weirdly and comically askew.

The notion of communicating one’s needs is a cornerstone of American interpersonal relationships. Conversely, a typical charge when things go wrong is, “How can I know if you don’t tell me?” It sounds like a very reasonable assertion, virtually unassailable in its kindly logic, and yet it’s not one that is made quite so often by Japanese. After all, you could always try guessing.

Japan is often called a sasshi no bunka, or “guessing culture” as Michiko Niikuni Wilson, a researcher of Japanese language, literature and culture, translates it. The training begins young. Psycholinguist Patricia Clancy made a study of how Japanese mothers interacted with their young children. She observes that the mothers often gave voice to the unspoken feelings and thoughts of others, thereby demonstrating to their children that it is possible to know what another is thinking without actually being told, and to act accordingly.

Interestingly, the mothers didn’t say things like, “He/she probably feels…” but rather, they directly attributed speech to both adults and children in contact with their child when they had not in fact said anything. For example, when a boy was eating a tangerine, his mother said One-san-tachi mo tabetai tte. (“The girls say they want to eat, too.” American mothers also encourage their little ones to share, but the gentle push is more likely to take a form like, “Perhaps the girls might like some, too,” or, “Why don’t you ask the girls if they would like some, too?” After all, “Don’t put words in my mouth,” is a common criticism, so mothers would hardly be likely to model such behavior for their impressionable toddlers.

Positive action based on guessing is called omoiyari and is considered one of the most important personal traits in Japan. Cross-cultural linguist Anna Wierzbicka gives the cultural script for omoiyari as follows:

(a) X often thinks like this about other people:

(b) “I think I can know what this person feels.”

(c) “I think I can know what this person wants.”

(d) “I can do something good for this person because of this.”

(e) “I want to do this.”

(f) “This person doesn’t have to say anything.”

(g) Because of this, X does something.

(h) People think: “This is good.”

When I talked about omoiyari with some American acquaintances, using this script to explain it, they found it hard to imagine that in American culture (h) would reflect such a wholly positive response on the part of onlookers and indeed on the part of the recipient of X’s action. One suggested that in the United States, (h) might read, “People think: This is arrogant.” The notion that someone could know what another was thinking and act on it without checking first whether their intuitions were accurate seemed likely to be a recipe for disaster by a well-intentioned but clueless meddler. Certainly many American novels, films and TV shows include scenarios demonstrating the dangers of imagining one knows what is best for someone else.

Those steeped in the omoiyari culture may be taken aback when their presumed thoughtful actions backfire. A Japanese man I’ll call Mr. Tanaka once remarked to me that when he had worked for an American, his attempts to anticipate his superior’s needs had resulted in the boss suddenly erupting with, “For Pete’s sake, don’t mother me!” Mr. Tanaka learned to back off a bit, still poised and ready to respond to whatever his superior might require, but not until given some kind of verbal indication. He had to trust in his boss’ words, “If I need something I’ll let you know.” It wasn’t what he was accustomed to, but it worked out OK.

The lack of an omoiyari orientation is not limited to Americans. Applied linguist Catherine Travis surveyed Japanese and Australians, asking them to list the 10 personal qualities they most valued. Omoiyari was on the lists of 70 percent of the Japanese respondents and was the third most frequently occurring word, following yasashii (kind) and akarui (cheerful). On the other hand, the only words occurring on more than 50 percent of the Australian lists were “honest” and “intelligent” and words that might be related to omoiyari such as “caring,” “considerate,” “kind” or “understanding” appeared on less than 20 percent of the lists. And, Travis notes, “empathic,” perhaps the closest translation of omoiyari, did not occur at all.

I sometimes imagine the challenge of surmounting cross-cultural differences as a version of the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Instead of dealing with chairs, bowls of porridge and beds, Goldilocks, the oblivious intruder into the bears’ home in the forest, confronts a variety of communication styles, finding the one that is “just right.” And now and again in my idle reverie, when I ponder omoiyari, Goldilocks strangely has the face of Mr. Tanaka.
Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce. She is the author of “Getting Along with the Japanese” (Ask, 2001).

(Sep. 1, 2009 Daily Yomiuri)

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