Work in Japan Advice Board
Some years ago I hosted a group from an American automotive aftermarket trade association, on an industry tour to visit the factories of their counterparts in Japan. The Director of the Association was an experienced industry insider, and had been to Japan many times. He was very smart about the industry players on both sides, though he did not speak Japanese. Every other member on the tour was in Japan for the first time, and it was our orientation meeting.
In his opening remarks he told the group that, “The Japanese have a great respect for people, and for nature. They express this by putting -san after the person’s name. In fact they even call Mt Fuji, Fuji-san.” A natural mistake to assume as much, not knowing the Japanese characters, except of course that in the case of Mt Fuji, -san means mountain.
Funny as it was, it got me thinking about the Japanese use of the suffix -san as a term of respect.
For example, mothers will often speak to their children using the suffix -san on foods and animals, such as “Eat your carrots (ninjin-san)” or “Look at the bear (kuma-san).” If a child throws a toy at the wall, a Japanese mother will say “The wall will hurt (kabe ga itai)” or “The toy will cry (omocha ga naku).” In a similar situation, many American or European mothers might treat the toy and the wall more as objects, and the child’s action as producing a reaction, such as “You will break the toy” or “Go to your room!”
Mothers on both sides may be speaking out of love and concern to get their children to do the right thing, but the approach and the assumptions about the nature of things are totally different.
You might argue that these are conventions of language, yet even conventions are rooted in cultural perceptions. In Japan these roots go deep into Shinto, the Kami Way, in which everything is viewed as imbued with life force or spirit, and especially natural phenomena such as rocks, trees, and animals. Sometimes described as more animistic than religious, similar expressions appear in many non-Western cultures and throughout Asian cultures, as well as in Native American cultures.
Although such traditions do contain rituals and influence behavior, they are not a religion in the sense of the world’s major religions. They express a feeling and a spirit of connection, as well as a cultural heritage.
Even within Western cultures today, you sometimes find a split between science and religion. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins is famous for his articulate and sometimes caustic criticism of Creationists beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. When a Creationist asks him, “What if you are wrong?” he responds with a series of examples of beliefs in other cultures and religions, that he claims are simply the result of being born and brought up under such beliefs. Building to a crescendo he asks the Creationist, “What if you are wrong about the African Juju at the bottom of the Sea?”
That split even occurs between the science of economics or capitalism and the Catholic Church, after Pope Francis recently declared modern capitalism an enemy of the Church, and took a firm stance against right-leaning pro-free market capitalists in the West. The line is drawn between right and wrong, between weak and strong.
On either side of the argument, you find a similar either-or mentality, right vs wrong. This is typically Western, and easily spawns such debates. The Eastern and nativistic outlook is more likely to embrace both-and, and to tolerate ambiguity in the spirit of connection. You can get a sense of the difference by comparing the Yin-Yang symbol of Taoism which embraces and includes opposites; with the Scales of Justice, Sword in Hand.
Of course one is not better than the other, and both can be taken to extremes. The snake can swallow its own tail. Justice can be blind. Despots do not favor geography; they have appeared equally in East and West throughout history.
Nevertheless, there is something to learn from each approach, and perhaps that is a spirit of respect, a recognition of connection. This is not something that can be claimed exclusively by East or West, although they may approach it from different sides.
What if mothers on both sides were to say to their children, “If you throw your toy at the wall you might break it; and how would you feel if you were the toy or the wall, and somebody treated you that way?” Would that not include both the sense of reflection on individual responsibility, and awareness of the undeniable connections around us?
Perhaps my friend the association director was not entirely wrong when he advised his team that Japanese even refer to Mt Fuji, as Fuji-san.
William Reed SEMINARS & COACHING: http://www.emcquest.com WEBSITE: http://www.williamreed.jp WEB TV: http://williamreed.tv NANBA: http://www.nanbanote.com iPAD CREATORS CLUB: http://ipadcreatorsclub.com
William Reed is a renowned author-speaker who coaches physical finesse and flexible focus for a creative career path. A certified Master Trainer in Guerrilla Marketing and 7th-dan in Aikido, he combines practical wisdom of East and West to help you learn personal branding at the Entrepreneurs Creative Edge.