Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Japanese Mind: an ambitious title

After reading `Shutting out the Sun,` I wanted to read something a little more biased toward an insider`s perspective. My library consists of what previous JETs have left behind, and what current JETs are willing to share, so what I came up with is `The Japanese Mind.` This is an ambitiously titled A to Z of some guiding principles of Japanese life, a collection of essays written by University students studying in English. I think it`s overly simple to analyse culture based on a few select vocabulary words, and indeed some of the essays seem eager to see a reflection of mainstay stereotypical concepts, rather than to observe society and comment appropriately. Similarly, the history of a few words is not synonomous with, or sufficient to explain the development of an entire society. Nonetheless, some of these basic essays do shed light on behaviours I`ve encountered since coming to Japan. I want to comment on some of the concepts, as they relate to my experiences here. In the next few posts, I`ll probably alternate back and forth, giving personal updates and then discussing these concepts.

The Japanese Mind: Amae.
In Shutting out the Sun, Zeilenger discusses hikikomori recluses and parasite singles, who live at home into middle age. Both might be seen as extreme cases of abuse of dependency, or amae. Amae refers to relationships of dependence between individuals, as well as layers of decreasing dependency in concentric social circles (which, as Zeilenger notes, relates to Japanese people not helping strangers unless directly asked). The strongest example of expected dependancy is between a mother and her child. Parents expect children to rely on them heavily, and to be at the disposal of the child for as long as the child/adolescent/adult requires. Parents probably want to help their child in all cultures, but the view strongly contrasts with one that seeks to create independent children, able to stand on their own as soon as possible. Parents here often support children who live away from home, attending expensive schools with no employment, even through graduate or doctoral studies, even into their working years. Alternatively, many youth live at home through school, and continue to do so until well into their careers.
There is also the continuing conservative duty for children (traditionally the eldest son) to maintain the household and look after the parents when they age. To that end, many children live close to their parents throughout life. This shows the reciprocal nature of the dependent relationship, which is never supposed to be one way. Even children are supposed to fulfill certain expectations in treatment of their parents, as well as social development. Following this, the support is supposed to be repaid in parents` old age.
Zeilinger seems disappointed by parents who hide their recluse offspring and continue to support parasite singles, but viewing it with amae in mind fills out the problem some what. There is no mechanism in place for parents to significantly alter or remove the support for their children, barring a severe schism in the family. So, hikikomori and parasaito abuse the dependency relationship, perhaps without fulfilling their part of the bargain regarding social development and treatment of the parents. We can`t dismiss the parents or the dependents as weak because this relationship has long been cultivated in both public and private spheres. In public, in close circles at least, as a result of amae, `No` is not usually an acceptable answer. Meaning if an individual struggles with parts of social life, he is not able to decline or refuse it in an overt way. Likewise, women who have been taught to depend on their own households until finding marriage and transferring their dependency/responsibility, yet do not wish to marry, might avoid an awkward social situation by simply staying at home. This tactic of hiding essentially precludes the need to say no, and is not surprising in a society that abhorrs diffidence and dissonance. The implication is that hikikomori, who Zeilinger sees as protestors against what is wrong with modern Japanese society, are taking a very Japanese approach to avoiding the problem, further embedding themselves in their childish roles of dependency.
I also encounter consequences of the concept of amae in my daily life. A sense of dependency is encouraged in students in Japan, and many observers note that students here are less mature than their cohorts in other countries. The differences are a noticeable lack of self-awareness or assertiveness, creativity, descisiveness, and a surplus of dependency and docility. Teachers and students have very intimate relationships (at least, from my perspective), nurtured by the homeroom system. Homeroom teachers are responsible for their students in all classes, clubs, and in or out of school time alike. Students come to teachers with all range of problems, and teachers have an obligation to help, pretty much no matter what. Teachers don`t expect that students are able to learn on their own, or work on their own, and regularly supply answers that were supposed to be discovered. Class lessons proceed with the assumption that all students already know how to complete the work, rather than the hope that through challenge the students will learn. It is up to teachers to spoon feed all the information that will be on standardized tests at certain points throughout the youths` lives. It is not expected that students engage with the material, stay on top of new information, work through problems to challenge themselves, and actively learn. The other day, I spent an hour after school with another teacher, essentially writing speeches for students who hadn`t finished the work at home, or in the ample extra time which was given in class.
I struggle with this type of teaching, as I continually want to challenge the students more. I repeatedly make exercises that cause the students difficulty, because I expect them to be able to pull together information they have learned to realise an answer, rather than simply fill in a blank. Moreover, even after three years of study, the students` average level is surprisingly low, even on materials essential in the curriculum. I feel this is because teachers refuse to challenge their students, and consequently must always proceed at a slow pace, to avoid threatening student`s comfort zone.
However, this is above all an example of my inability to internalize a cultural concept. My personal view is that students should be taught, and then challenged. Here, that students feel supported is perhaps equally important to them learning and demonstrating new knowledge. I always viewed teachers as a source of augmentation and clarification for me to tap and drain as needed, whereas most of my learning was from studying material on my own. Here, students spend a lot of time in cram schools, indicating that there is little faith / expectancy in them learning on their own. Teachers are here to support them exhaustively, and to provide all the information they will need. Even though I recognize the different mentality, it`s hard to internalize. I still get frustrated when it seems the students are being coddled... and they don`t do their homework... again.

1 comment:

Eagle Eye said...

Hi Son, Dad here... reading your blog after missing you for a while. It's still amazing to me that your Mom and I parented such an amazing and articulate person as you.
Your observations about Japanese society are most intriguing. The latest blog about co-dependancy is certainly timely for me, as my brother has been staying with us for a month or so, and is temporarily back in Hong Kong, but will be back at home in our house soon.... ten days.
It all makes me wonder about the obligations of family... of a brother to a brother, despite the ups and downs of our relationship over the years, I still find myself feeling a sense of obligation and duty towards him.
Crazy! Yes. But definitely real and compelling, especially since he has behaved so badly from time to time towards me.
So I kind of understand what Japanese parents feel towards adult children who refuse to grow up and stand on their own. I don't think your mom and I ever wanted to create dependant children, and certainly wouldn't want you to think that we expect that level of neediness.
Still, sometimes I wonder if it would have felt easier if we had done our best to create a sense of dependancy, both emotional and financial, in our kids.
It's tough sometimes to watch your kids grow up and move on with lives... by the way, congratulations on moving in with your GF....
but Mom and I are pretty happy despite the stresses of financial pressure brought about by my own silliness with money. Work is finally going better again which will eventually reduce the stress I have been feeling this fall.
Good blog. Keep it up. I do read it although not every week.