Friday, April 15, 2011

Respect vs Deference: Defining "Social Equality" Japanese-style

In a previous post, I argued that the lack of social openness in Japanese society nullifies many of the redeeming qualities associated with her abundant political freedoms as a relatively mature democracy. As a continuation of that thought, I have to further examine the underlying social force that results in that lack of social openness. I ask: what exactly causes a nation so full of technical innovation to not show a slightest hint of it on the socio-political aspect? Why is the country so conservatively exclusive in social behavior despite having been interacting with the most modern philosophies for the past couple of centuries?

The answer, I believe, lies within the steadfast hold on a sense of stability through hierarchy so central to any Confucian society. Those with seniority are supposed to supply the young ones with wisdom and money, while the youth will pay back by absolute obedience to the orders from the elders. Rebellion by the youth is considered the main cause of society's demise, so every little dissent that can potentially drive a rebellion ideologically must be suppressed and the originator of the dissent be socially isolated.

A small example is sufficient to illustrate how pervasive such hierarchical thinking is even in daily life. Just the other afternoon at work, the floor was getting dark and a older coworker of ours went to turn on the light. Perfectly normal behavior, right? No. A few minutes later, an email from another coworker passed around the new grads mailing list, criticizing the new grads for lacking the "proper manners" to "take over the task" of turning on the lights when they saw the older coworker doing it.

So, the Confucian hierarchy says, even if it is more convenient for one to complete a mundane action like turning on the lights oneself, the young ones must not allow the older coworker to go through with the action. Proper manner calls for the young ones to do every other task so that the elders can exclusively concentrate on using and sharing their "wisdoms." In other words, the young ones must be able to read every desire of the elders so that the desires are fulfilled before the elders even have the chance to issue an order for their completions.

In every society, the youth is supposed to respect the older members of society. Using respectful languages and helping out the elders with certain tasks are indeed considered good manners in every society. However, the Japanese hierarchic demands have surpassed "respect" to become "deference." The youth is expected to adhere to every command of the elders, no matter how trivial and doable, and always consider the actions of the elders to correct and thus worthy of imitations.

Whats scarier is that for many Japanese, the hierarchic principle has even been applied among nations, with elders=rich countries, and youth=developing ones. Of course, since the youth is supposed to submit to the elders, Japan literally shows no respect for developing countries and their peoples as long as people of developing countries are not there to listen to the harsh comments. Such a tendency can explain the difference in status between Chinese and Americans in Japan.

Again, a simple example illustrates this point. Speaking of new-found wealth in China, a Japanese man coming back from China remarked, "the girls from China today have beautiful make-ups while 5 or 6 years I cannot bear to look at them." The condescension in the statement is obvious. Only make-up that is considered good by Japanese terms is a sign of wealth. It completely ignores the different perceptions of beauty across cultures and also ignores the fact that Japanese pop-culture may be temporarily perceived as "cool," something that should not last as China becomes wealthier and begins to develop her own cultural styles.

Whether it be at work or across countries, the institutionalization of social inequality, as reflected in everyday thoughts of the common people, depresses Japan's potential as a social renovator. The excessive trust in traditional values and the ways of the seniors as absolutely correct and infallible are perhaps the fundamental reasons why no worthy philosophical values ever came independently out of Japan. And as the world's ideologies are constantly revised through conflicts of interests, we wonder where Japan and her thoughts will fit into the bigger picture...

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