CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / The ins and outs of group thinking

(The Daily Yomiuri Dec.1)
Kate Elwood
During my first few years in Japan, while I was still a student, I taught English to a few people individually. People came and went, some moving on after only a few months and some sticking with it for years. One is still my friend, more than two decades later. Housewives, high school students, businesspeople, funky freeter forerunners–I still remember all of these eager and not-so-eager learners vividly. As they practiced English conversation, I also got to know much more about the Japan beyond my university classes and friends.
And then there was an engineer I’ll call Mr. Shimizu, who worked for a major manufacturer I’ll call Tanaka Electronics. Mr. Shimizu was even more challenging to teach than the reluctant and surly high school boys sent to me by their unflaggingly optimistic mothers. Mr. Shimizu was strange in many ways, but his occasional phone calls to adjust the times of our meetings were particularly interesting in their oddness. Whenever he called he would invariably identify himself by saying in Japanese, “This is Shimizu from Tanaka Electronics.”
The first time he called and announced himself in this way, I had no idea who was on the line, since my own connection with Mr. Shimizu had nothing to do with his company. I had a vague notion that it was a sales call and was about to politely ease my way out of it when Mr. Shimizu went on to talk about our next lesson and I realized it was him.
Mr. Shimizu may have been proud to work for a famous manufacturer, and it was likely his most important source of self-identity, but the company affiliation was not relevant in our relationship. Other students who called simply said their name, or something like “This is Adachi who is studying English conversation,” a clearly more pertinent association.
Socially awkward Mr. Shimizu–whom I now inevitably think of as “Mr. Shimizu from Tanaka Electronics”–did not grasp that group identity is a fluid matter, defined by the particular circumstances that determine who is “us” and “them.” Similarly, the Japanese/foreigner dichotomy, while a basic distinction in terms of national and cultural membership, is sometimes perceived by Japan observers as an insurmountable and static division. Yet it may also recede in relevance when other affiliations are more significant.
Some years ago I heard an interesting story from an acquaintance, an American woman married to a Japanese farmer. Sandy (not her real name) and her husband lived on the farm with their children as well as Sandy’s mother-in-law. As is the case sometimes, there was a bit of tension between the two women as each sought to strengthen her respective position on the farm and in the family.
One day, some American agricultural businesspeople were due to visit the farm. Sandy had not met the callers but felt a natural affinity as a fellow American. She looked forward to the meeting with pleasurable anticipation and set out coffee cups and cookies in the living room shortly before the visitors were due to arrive. Here, finally, was a chance for her not to be the outsider, but rather a key person in the negotiations. Hooray!
Things did not proceed as Sandy had planned. Lickety-split, before you could say “Old MacDonald had a bicultural farm,” Sandy’s mother-in-law had guided the visitors into the rarely used osetsuma formal parlor and green tea was being poured out and handed to them. The shrewd older woman had made sure the “us” and “them” dynamic was one of veteran agriculturalists versus newcomer wife rather than Japanese versus non-Japanese.
Among Japanese people as well, different group attachments become more prominent or ebb in importance depending on the situation. Language plays an essential role not only in expressing but also in creating a sense of community, as the language researcher Robert Sukle observes.
Sukle investigated the requests made at a train station, a post office and a vegetable stand. In order to make a meaningful comparison, Sukle only made use of requests for things (such as tickets, stamps or vegetables) rather than requests for services. Sukle further limited his study to situations in which the person making the request was a woman and the addressee was a man. Sukle found that there were clear differences in the language used in train station and post office locations, as opposed to the vegetable stand.
The requests were divided up according to whether and how the social relationship between the speakers was specified. In some requests the relationship was unspecified, as the speaker made a brief demand, like “A 70 yen stamp.” In others, after the desired item was identified, kudasai, marking a socially distant relationship, or chodai, used in close social relationships, was added. (Both words indicate requests, as “please” does in English.) In fact, chodai was used in 14.5 percent of the vegetable market encounters but in none of the post office or train station transactions.
Sukle further analyzed data he had tagged as “other” because it used language to indicate the relationship other than kudasai or chodai. He found that virtually all of the “other” vegetable stand data (24.6 percent of the total data obtained at this location) established the relationship as in-group type. In contrast, the “other” train station data (18.2 percent of that data) indicated an out-group orientation. There was no “other” data for the post office requests.
Thus, the vegetable market exchanges were much more an “us” relationship than those at the other locations.
In our daily lives, we enter into groups and pass out of them even as we take a stroll down the street to obtain various items on our lists of errands. This is true in a range of cultures, but it is more clearly defined in Japanese than in English. For that reason, many Japanese unconsciously evaluate their relationships in terms of “us” and “them” more frequently and express them more openly than, for example, Americans might. Yet these associations are constantly shifting just as a kaleidoscope is shaken gently into new patterns.
The daughter of the owners of my neighborhood vegetable market went to the same day-care center as my daughter, though their daughter was two years older. Compared to parents whose child was in the same class as their daughter, I am a bit of an outsider, but compared to the usual vegetable buyer I’m rather on the inside, as I’ve informally observed amid the mounds of eggplants, cucumbers and tangerines.
When the day came that I had to tell Mr. Shimizu from Tanaka Electronics that I couldn’t teach him anymore because I was graduating and beginning work full-time at a company, he was more upset than I would ever have predicted. For the first time ever he asked if he could smoke, as his hands striking the match shook and tears glinted in his eyes. I suppose that after all our conversations while practicing English we were about as “us” as Mr. Shimizu ever got, and I can only hope that his next English teacher treated him kindly
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).

CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / The ins and outs of group thinking (Dec.1)Kate Elwood / Special to The Daily Yomiuri
During my first few years in Japan, while I was still a student, I taught English to a few people individually. People came and went, some moving on after only a few months and some sticking with it for years. One is still my friend, more than two decades later. Housewives, high school students, businesspeople, funky freeter forerunners–I still remember all of these eager and not-so-eager learners vividly. As they practiced English conversation, I also got to know much more about the Japan beyond my university classes and friends.
And then there was an engineer I’ll call Mr. Shimizu, who worked for a major manufacturer I’ll call Tanaka Electronics. Mr. Shimizu was even more challenging to teach than the reluctant and surly high school boys sent to me by their unflaggingly optimistic mothers. Mr. Shimizu was strange in many ways, but his occasional phone calls to adjust the times of our meetings were particularly interesting in their oddness. Whenever he called he would invariably identify himself by saying in Japanese, “This is Shimizu from Tanaka Electronics.”
The first time he called and announced himself in this way, I had no idea who was on the line, since my own connection with Mr. Shimizu had nothing to do with his company. I had a vague notion that it was a sales call and was about to politely ease my way out of it when Mr. Shimizu went on to talk about our next lesson and I realized it was him.
Mr. Shimizu may have been proud to work for a famous manufacturer, and it was likely his most important source of self-identity, but the company affiliation was not relevant in our relationship. Other students who called simply said their name, or something like “This is Adachi who is studying English conversation,” a clearly more pertinent association.
Socially awkward Mr. Shimizu–whom I now inevitably think of as “Mr. Shimizu from Tanaka Electronics”–did not grasp that group identity is a fluid matter, defined by the particular circumstances that determine who is “us” and “them.” Similarly, the Japanese/foreigner dichotomy, while a basic distinction in terms of national and cultural membership, is sometimes perceived by Japan observers as an insurmountable and static division. Yet it may also recede in relevance when other affiliations are more significant.
Some years ago I heard an interesting story from an acquaintance, an American woman married to a Japanese farmer. Sandy (not her real name) and her husband lived on the farm with their children as well as Sandy’s mother-in-law. As is the case sometimes, there was a bit of tension between the two women as each sought to strengthen her respective position on the farm and in the family.
One day, some American agricultural businesspeople were due to visit the farm. Sandy had not met the callers but felt a natural affinity as a fellow American. She looked forward to the meeting with pleasurable anticipation and set out coffee cups and cookies in the living room shortly before the visitors were due to arrive. Here, finally, was a chance for her not to be the outsider, but rather a key person in the negotiations. Hooray!
Things did not proceed as Sandy had planned. Lickety-split, before you could say “Old MacDonald had a bicultural farm,” Sandy’s mother-in-law had guided the visitors into the rarely used osetsuma formal parlor and green tea was being poured out and handed to them. The shrewd older woman had made sure the “us” and “them” dynamic was one of veteran agriculturalists versus newcomer wife rather than Japanese versus non-Japanese.
Among Japanese people as well, different group attachments become more prominent or ebb in importance depending on the situation. Language plays an essential role not only in expressing but also in creating a sense of community, as the language researcher Robert Sukle observes.
Sukle investigated the requests made at a train station, a post office and a vegetable stand. In order to make a meaningful comparison, Sukle only made use of requests for things (such as tickets, stamps or vegetables) rather than requests for services. Sukle further limited his study to situations in which the person making the request was a woman and the addressee was a man. Sukle found that there were clear differences in the language used in train station and post office locations, as opposed to the vegetable stand.
The requests were divided up according to whether and how the social relationship between the speakers was specified. In some requests the relationship was unspecified, as the speaker made a brief demand, like “A 70 yen stamp.” In others, after the desired item was identified, kudasai, marking a socially distant relationship, or chodai, used in close social relationships, was added. (Both words indicate requests, as “please” does in English.) In fact, chodai was used in 14.5 percent of the vegetable market encounters but in none of the post office or train station transactions.
Sukle further analyzed data he had tagged as “other” because it used language to indicate the relationship other than kudasai or chodai. He found that virtually all of the “other” vegetable stand data (24.6 percent of the total data obtained at this location) established the relationship as in-group type. In contrast, the “other” train station data (18.2 percent of that data) indicated an out-group orientation. There was no “other” data for the post office requests.
Thus, the vegetable market exchanges were much more an “us” relationship than those at the other locations.
In our daily lives, we enter into groups and pass out of them even as we take a stroll down the street to obtain various items on our lists of errands. This is true in a range of cultures, but it is more clearly defined in Japanese than in English. For that reason, many Japanese unconsciously evaluate their relationships in terms of “us” and “them” more frequently and express them more openly than, for example, Americans might. Yet these associations are constantly shifting just as a kaleidoscope is shaken gently into new patterns.
The daughter of the owners of my neighborhood vegetable market went to the same day-care center as my daughter, though their daughter was two years older. Compared to parents whose child was in the same class as their daughter, I am a bit of an outsider, but compared to the usual vegetable buyer I’m rather on the inside, as I’ve informally observed amid the mounds of eggplants, cucumbers and tangerines.
When the day came that I had to tell Mr. Shimizu from Tanaka Electronics that I couldn’t teach him anymore because I was graduating and beginning work full-time at a company, he was more upset than I would ever have predicted. For the first time ever he asked if he could smoke, as his hands striking the match shook and tears glinted in his eyes. I suppose that after all our conversations while practicing English we were about as “us” as Mr. Shimizu ever got, and I can only hope that his next English teacher treated him kindly
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).
(Daily Yomiuri Dec. 1, 2009)

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