We don't like to debate, we prefer to be quiet…

17 Jul

Today I am rambling about Japanese people in general. An email from my reader, which I have not replied to yet, made me decide to write about cultural difference. As you may have noticed, Japanese people basically do not like to debate first of all. I’m not saying that we don’t do it at all but it’s not too much to say that we don’t do it unless we are forced to. At the debate of political party leaders, they do it of course. But how about it at a classroom or a blog or a social network? No.


We hardly like to start discussion or to state one’s opinion in public. Our classrooms are usually very quiet, students are so passive they wait until they are asked to answer the questions from the teachers. Teachers have to feel as if they were the only ones who keep speaking from the beginning to the end. (Yes, it’s way too far from something interactive! Sometimes I feel sorry for the teachers, but if I say something, I will be looked at by every student there.) You can imagine this, when a teacher asks a question, nobody even raises hand to say something. Most of all the students keep quiet, or even sleeping! (lol) Thus the teacher sometimes asks her students to answer her questions one by one; for example, the person at the left line at the first low for the first question, then next question to the person who sits next to the first one, and next, and next…

This is quite opposite to the classrooms in the U.S for example. I only have 1 year experience of studying at a college in California when I was a university student in Japan. I was sort of an exchange student from the Japanese university at that time. I had to take classes at the American college and transfer the credits to the Japanese university to cover the credits for the second semester of sophomore and the first semester of junior. It was very hard for me to show participation to the class besides my poor English. I could not even get what the assignment was at that time. There was another Japanese student in my first ESL class who I guess saved me from failing the class, honestly. (But this was only ESL, English class after 2 ESL classes was the hardest one ever! At that time my English improved well enough to understand what the homework was of course, but I was the only foreigner among Americans in the class…I had to rewrite every essay 5 or 6 times having been helped by some volunteer tutors but I got only C almost all the time! The assignments that I had then were to read bulky English books everyday and night to prepare for the discussion and to write an essay. That actually took me entire afternoon, evening and night and I often ended up having so shocked at the next morning at the class to learn the theme was something sarcastic, which was totally different from how I read it, for example. I could hardly participate in that class but it was lucky my credit was transferred (even if it was C after all) and I went back to a lazy Japanese university student again. I remember this English class was a nightmare at that time that kept torturing me and how much I wished I could have changed it to ESL again. Ugh…such a hard and stressful experience I don’t even want to recall now!)

It was only about 1 year that I attended classes in the U.S but I have to say that I felt Japanese classes were boring when I came back to my junior in Japan. It’s basically that nobody states a word unless nominated to speak out. Yeah, that’s basically how Japanese people are educated. I don’t know when this started but I’m sure when we were elementary school kids, we were more active enough at least to raise hand to say something to the teacher and to the classmates. But as we get older we started to feel embarrassed and finally everybody stopped that, I guess.

This is the background of our education. Our education allows us to be passive like this. (And we can still graduate from university, really.) There’s no speech class, either. We are not used to speak in public, nor debate with others. I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t like to debate or even to leave a single comment to a blog. I have to tell you this also but Japanese people are not as active as you guys who feel no barrier at leaving comments on someone’s blogs for example. But I think it’s still easier on internet because we can pretend to be anyone anonymous, compared with the real life. (So that’s also one of the reasons we don’t like to be ourselves with some personal info. and activities being casually seen by the general public. As a Japanese I can understand well how twitter is well-received by the Japanese while facebook isn’t that much. BTW I opened my facebook account because I received some invitations from friends, but I’m not very active there, besides the name Kirin is a nickname I like to use online. I don’t even know how to use it well.)

In real life, many Japanese people hide what we truly think, which maybe another reason to avoid debating or starting discussion with others. (I guess I am more open though) We’d rather want to stay away from them. We may not even know how to distinguish debate and personal attack. That’s how most Japanese people are. My eyes can even be caught at a comment such as “I disagree with you because…” and I am sometimes so dull at someone’s joking something. But I guess blogging in English to the world gives me a good training to be more international person rather than a traditional Japanese type of Japanese. haha, do you know what I mean? ^ ^; I want to be flexible: when I speak to old Japanese people, I will try not to speak my opinions and I’d rather keep nodding to let it go, (lol) but when I speak with foreign friends I can be more honest to my feelings or thoughts.

If you ever had unexpected reactions from communications with your Japanese friends or neighbors or even me (!) please think about this difference. It’s only a difference due to cultural background. But I have to say temperament like this makes us more mysterious and less understandable from the eyes of non-Japanese people’s. (lol)

Please feel free to share your thoughts with me and other readers! πŸ™‚
I think the Japanese who live abroad or who have international friends are less likely but very Japanese people are more likely to be how I stated above. What do you think? ^ ^;

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33 Responses to “We don't like to debate, we prefer to be quiet…”

  1. Maria July 17, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

    Hmm..Finnish people like to say "silence is golden". I would feel very uncomfortable if I needed to express my opinion to unfamiliar elders so I too always nod and keep my opinions to myself.
    I think that here too when you become a teen you stop answering questions in school. There are only few people who actually want to answer teacher's questions. Part of the reason are teachers and part are the classmates. When I was 14 I got assigned to a horrible class, all my classmates were lazy and half-delinquents. So the teachers always got mad at the class because majority never did homework or had any idea what the teacher was talking about. After 1 year I switched school and ended up in the class with gifted students. There half of the class were rasing hands for any question (and knew the answer) and teachers were always praising our class.
    I have heard some foreigners say that Finland is a cold country as people don't smile or talk to each other much. If you see office workers going home from work..they don't talk or smile much. I think it's because they are tired and want to get home. Also it's not part of our culture to talk if we have nothing important to say.

    I understand what you Kirin said about Japanese people, the same can be said of my people too. But there are differences too. Sometimes Finns are very vocal and like to debate on stuff. But they are usually considered barbaric or too young to understand life well.

    • Cath July 17, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

      Wow… Thanks for sharing! I know next to nothing about Finland. At least now I've some ideas. n_n

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 7:45 am #

      Thank you for sharing the story about Finnish people. It was a big surprise to hear that there is a country that has culture like "silence is golden" outside Japan! (We have exactly the same way of saying in Japanese!!) lol Same as Cath, I know next to nothing about Finland. It's always to know something new.

      Then…it may be easier for us, the Japanese to get along with Finnish because our culture and yours are alike. :p

  2. Chris July 17, 2010 at 2:03 pm #

    This was a great article. I really enjoyed your insight into Japanese culture. Many popular blogs in America get hundreds of comments; Do you know of a popular Japanese blog that also receives many comments and maybe they are debating something? I wonder what topics Japanese are passionate to debate. Can Japanese people talk about who their favorite artist is or who their favorite musician is without being afraid of starting a debate?

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:02 am #

      Thank you Chris. The other day I blogged about popular blogs in Japan (http://tokyokawaiietc.com/archives/4864) and from what I can see, there are less comments for the popularity. In other words, if they are English blogs in the US for example, their great number of page views should have a lot more comments. I'm sure they have great number of readers but the point is that most of the readers just read them without leaving a single comments for years to come.

      Also, if you look into the comments, you can see they are far from something to start debating.
      Oh I see there is a place online set for debate in Japan, which is 2channel (http://www.2ch.net/) but this website is so unique many Japanese people rather stay away from it. That's because sometimes, depending on topics, people speak bad, swear each other and link a nasty, non-relative link on purpose to cheat people (sometimes to phishing sites).

      Forum is also not popular in Japan. I think most of Japanese people end up gathering at Mixi (http://mixi.jp/) to join the group to discuss who their favorite artist is and etc.

  3. Bernadette July 17, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your insights with us. I read your blog for a little while now and it's very interesting and informative. I'm studying Japanese and it's great to have a little more information on the culture behind the language, especially since it's very different from ours.
    I sometimes wonder how it's possible to get along with people and successfully convey your interests if you're not supposed to be debating or state your different opinion. Especially hard to learn this way, if you don't participate, don't ask questions and such. That's a very different mindset. Especially in Europe we love to debate and share ideas. That's not considered personal attack at all, as long as the tone of your speech, your intonation etc. are not offending and the overall atmosphere is friendly. The internet communication is a different issue though. Somehow people seem to be more sensitive to criticism online than they're offline despite the fact that most people prefer to be remain anonymous anyways.

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:12 am #

      I see what you mean. That's part of the reason that makes foreigners puzzled at Japanese people.
      "Honne to Tatemae" (ζœ¬ιŸ³γ¨ε»Ίγ¦ε‰: one's real intention and what one says on the surface) is another issue that even we Japanese are having difficulty in coping with in our life. Without debating, there's no way but to guess what the person really feels in his heart. I understand this sound very strange and impossible but that's our culture and we are very sensitive basically to sense what others feel all the time. We sense it without being spoken. That's our culture, basically. You know what? Old Japanese men for example would never say "I love you" to his wife, as his wife is supposed to sense that without hearing he say so.

      I agree, on the internet we cannot see face; if the person is joking or he means it, it's highly possible the things can be interpreted in a wrong way. So I think we have to be a little bit careful about choosing the right wordings for online debate.

  4. sedonia2 July 17, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    This was so good, Kirin. Thank you for sharing all that. It makes so much sense. There is a person in Japan who visits my blog all the time – I think they are subscribed to it because I see they visited each time I write a new entry but they have never commented. Now I can see why because of your explanation. I also had a friend from Japan back in college and even though we used to hang out together all the time and he was incredibly sweet, when I think back, I don't remember much about him because he didn't express opinions and feelings (except for food. I think he felt free to talk about food in place of other more personal things.) the way I did when we talked. I didn't understand him at the time and now I do. I'd be more sensitive to him in that regard if we talked now.

    Thanks again for sharing all this, Kirin and I sent you a friend request on Facebook. πŸ™‚

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:20 am #

      I'm happy to hear that you understand your Japanese friends better now. πŸ™‚
      Leaving a comment on a blog is a big challenge for most of Japanese people, I guess. lol
      It's possible even a big fan of your reader (when he or she is Japanese) doesn't leave a single comment for years to come. Instead, they may feel it a lot easier to send you an email from contact form because that message should not be open in public.

      As for your Japanese friend from college, I think he will start talking more about himself only if you take a lot more time. Unlike American culture, we need way too much time to be very friendly with people, but once we become friends, we can be very good friends. No hug, no kiss, no over reaction, but the bond will be so tight. That's us, how the Japanese are basically. πŸ˜‰

  5. Lisa July 17, 2010 at 7:23 pm #

    Interesting post! I definitely recognise what you mean about people not wanting to state their opinions. As a teacher it was initially really frustrating, because I had special debate classes with high level students. But with perseverance and a 'safe' environment (while I wanted them to be argumentative, I also made sure that they fought 'fair' with facts) I think it went really well. Plus, as you stated, perhaps it may be easier with a foreigner – I know that with most of my friends I never had a problem (that I know of!!). But even then I think that maybe it was because I lived in Osaka… I was very lucky anyway and had the benefit of people being very open and letting me know their thoughts on things.

    But even I recognise that there are many occasions where I, personally, would prefer not to express my thoughts. I don't usually think it's important enough to get worked up over people's opinions even if I disagree, when I know they're not a big part of my life. Even if they are, then either a friendly debate is fun or I just accept their opinion as their own. But I would rather know what their opinion is rather than wonder "oh wait, are they agreeing just to be polite/avoid conflict?" I worry about that sometimes, but it's very stressful to be so careful all the time!

    (Having said that, it's sometimes hard to find the middle ground – I have friends who just don't know when to let go of an argument, because they believe there is only one 'right' answer (usually their own opinion, haha!). This annoys me to no end!!)

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:28 am #

      Hahaha…I can see how much you get frustrated, but as you say, things are better in Osaka compared with those in Tokyo. People in Osaka are really open, which I think is one of the reasons but many people from Tokyo dislike them.
      As I wrote on my Osaka trip, I found I liked Osaka very much. (http://tokyokawaiietc.com/archives/3620)

      Thank you for sharing your experience in Japan, I'm sure you understand what I wanted to mean in this post from your actual experiences. πŸ™‚

  6. chickling* July 17, 2010 at 7:29 pm #

    Growing up in the US we are told to "be seen and not heard". Our parents tell us this so we don't act out in public and that we are not old enough to speak our opinions. So when we are adults we view being open and speaking up as a sign of maturity.

    If someone is not talkative they are seen as being really shy or depressed over here.

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:30 am #

      I know, that's why it's so challenging for us to get enrolled in the classes with local people or active foreigners in the US.

  7. Patty July 17, 2010 at 7:45 pm #

    Having gone to school in both US & Asia, it was definitely surprised to arrive to school here and people speaking out of turn. On top of that, it is encouraged. It helped, however, when I arrived in college, because you really see how competitive everyone is. The down fall, is that some people talk just to talk, they don't have anything to contribute to the debate, they just like to hear themselves talk to show that they're dominating the situation. Quite annoying.

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:32 am #

      Oh you've gone to school in Asia, too? I don't know how other asian culture is different from ours.
      It's stressful to see people be too competitive…

  8. Matt Sheffield July 17, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    It's very true.

    I wish more people in my country (the UK) had those virtues πŸ˜€

  9. Simon July 17, 2010 at 10:07 pm #

    Argh! This may be why I have penpal problems!

    See, I visit a language site where people enter their mother tongue, and the language they're learning. They then can search users whose mother tongue is the language their learning, and vice versa. I used to visit it a lot, and had a few Japanese people exchange emails with me.

    The problem is, I'd be having discussions with them, and it was really interesting. Then, one day, they'd just…stop replying. They would completely stop talking to me altogether.

    I think the problem now is that Western people usually ask questions based on the other person's opinion. "What's your favorite TV show?". "Do you like manga?". "What do you think about so-and-so?". Of course, when the person replies ("I don't like manga much"), we then reply with our own opinion ("Really? I love it! I collect loads of manga!"). This might be where the Japanese person feels their opinion is being attacked, where actually I'm trying to get a scenario where we both reveal information about each other, and get to know each other better. I don't demand info from them, and I don't surrender all my personal details all at once: I usually balance one question ("What's your favorite food?") with an opinion ("I really like video games!") and go from there. I encourage them to talk about their interests, while allowing them to express their opinion on my own, so I can get a good idea on what to focus on.

    Maybe this is a bad idea! πŸ˜›

  10. Steven Stier July 17, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    This subject is very interesting to me. I have a friend in the US that is married to a Japanese woman. She never shows anger to me but has told her husband that I am on her "List" because I would not tell her a secret. This bothers me because I made a promise not to tell anyone this secret. But since she will not tell me she is upset we cannot discuss the situation. Of course, she is not the only Japanese to hide their feelings or thoughts. I believe the Japanese have a word for remaining silent rather than disagreeing with someone. But I cannot remember the word.

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:59 am #

      ζ²ˆι»™γ―ι‡‘γͺγ‚Šγ€‚The same as Maria (the first comment) states, "Silence is golden".
      Thank you for sharing your experience with us. We do not like to say "I disagree with you" directly to the person, when those two people are not very friendly each other. With trust and strong relationship or friendship we can finally debate without hesitation. But before we reach there, we have to sense others feelings. That's our culture. ^ ^;

  11. Cath July 17, 2010 at 11:22 pm #

    Oh, I've been wanting to tell you! A Japanese prof. came to my school to teach us (teachers) about Lesson Study. He was frustrated by our culture because we talk a lot! He felt we were not listening. He's right and I do wish we would be more respectful and listen better. But some of my colleagues were indignant.

    Yes, we do encounter (what you mentioned) when we share the gospel with Japanese. But some college men we encounter are ready to debate with an open mind and that was refreshing! n_n

    I certainly enjoyed our conversation when you came to Singapore! It was excellent because you were sharing your thoughts freely (about service in S'pore and Japan). Ah, it would be wonderful to meet up again!

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 9:01 am #

      Haha! You guys talk a lot! I can imagine that~! (lol)

      Yeah we had a short time meeting but I remember we had a very good time together in SGP.
      Thank you so much for the day, and yes let's talk and exchange opinions again when we can see each other again!! πŸ˜€

  12. Cath July 17, 2010 at 11:27 pm #

    Haha… oh dear! I'm sorry to hear this.
    Or maybe they just got too tired? What's Kirin's take on this?

    • kirin July 18, 2010 at 8:53 am #

      Thanks Cath, I thought they felt tired, too. lol
      I don't think it's your fault. I wonder if penpal is really lasting with anyone. Without a single meeting at all, it's hardly possible to get connected with someone for a long time. Well, that's how I feel about penpals. But if I see the penpal in person even once, I think I can keep writing to her forever. I used to be a penpal to some foreign friends but that ended up somehow someways… :p

  13. Apple July 19, 2010 at 6:32 am #

    Hi Kirin! This is an interesting post!!!

    My Japanese manager and I had a conversation like this once. She said that when she first came to Singapore, she couldn't really get used to how Singaporeans could just speak out their mind very honestly. She said that most Japanese wouldn't voice out their opinions so directly. That sometimes they would beat around the bush to say something.

    She gave a simple example for beating around the bush, like, let's say somebody asked her out to a party she's not really interested in. She said, in Japan, she could just say something like, "Ano…sono hi wa chotto…" She didn't even have to finish her sentence, and the other party would usually understand, and she could get away with it. But in Singapore, when she tried this method, she said the Singaporean wouldn't get it and would keep insisting her to go. Even if she comes up with valid excuses, she said the Singaporean would still come up with a solution for her excuse. HAHAHA!

    I told her that means that Singaporean really wanted her to go to the party. HAHAHAHA! I think perhaps we are insensitive in that manner. We take words at their face value. So, for example, let's say my manager said something like, "I'm a little busy that day…so…maybe I can't go…" We will usually say, "Busy?? With what??" And maybe my manager would say, "Oh..I have to clean up the house that day…/ I have a date with another person already.." We will respond with things like, "Oh come on!!! You can do this/ meet your other friends some other day!!! yaddayaddablahblahblah."

    I asked her which communication style did she prefer and she said that she had grown to like to be able to speak honestly with Singaporeans without thinking about 'appearance'. But she still think that sometimes some things didn't have to be said. So a little bit of both is the best.

    Actually, when I was in primary school, my class was also very quiet. Nobody would put up their hands even if the teacher asked a question. She would have to answer her own question.

    One day, our teacher got so fed up that she said, "From now onwards, if I ask a question and I don't see any hands raised, you get out from my class." So from that day onwards, we had to put up our hands regardless whether we knew the answer or not. At first, sometimes, the teacher would pick a student to answer her question and the student would have nothing to say because she just raised her hand for the sake of it. This made my teacher furious too. So, as time went by, we subconsciously forced ourselves to think about everything our teacher said, to get ready for her question, and so that when we get picked by the teacher, at least we have something to say.

    As a teacher myself now, I don't really agree using this method (because of various reasons), but I have to say it helped me a lot. I used to be very shy, and would keep my thoughts and questions to myself, but after being in this teacher's class for 2 years, I could enjoy a lesson more because of the exchange of ideas. Everyone also grew more confident and outspoken, so the class was always lively and we could learn more because we ultimately thought more, asked more and gathered more from the teacher. When I moved on to secondary school, the habit of thinking and asking the right questions continued, and one could actually become more confident of oneself in this way.

    Kids in Singapore nowadays are different though. Or at least the kids I teach are. They have so many things to say, sometimes offering rubbish. So, now, I have to teach them to only raise their hands and offer what they have if it is relevant and interesting to the class. They are not shy in voicing out their opinions, and I think that's good. But I want them to grow up to become adults who take responsibility in what they say, and to be sensitive enough to know when it is right to say something.

    For myself, I live by this rule: "If there is nothing good to say about something, then don't say it. If you really have to say it, ask yourself whether this would make a situation much better. If it would, then you can say it, but find a good way to bring the point across."

    Anyway, the picture you drew for this post is really cute! Is it supposed to mean anything?? ^^ Thanks for sharing this wonderful post! ^^

    • kirin July 19, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

      Wow, Apple thank you for the comment. I wonder if IntenseDebate (comment system on this blog) has ever accepted such a long one! LOL The Japanese manager is right. ^ ^; We can decline invitations or offers very softly and others get it. I'll be so upset if I were asked the exact reason to decline the invitation. Then, at such occasion, do Singaporeans say "I'm not interested in such kind of party, sorry." or something from the beginning and people do not feel bad against that? In Japan, such way is considered as "Kadoga tatsu" (= to create bitter feelings) and so we should avoid that.
      Beating around the bush…exactly!! That's our culture, which must be so confusing to foreigners. lol

      Thanks for the small drawing. πŸ™‚ I wanted to describe Japanese people who watch people carefully…sort of hiding behind the hat and when she wants to say something, she says that under the water so people cannot hear it. So this picture was abstractively related with the post, but I wonder who got it (lol).

      • Apple July 20, 2010 at 4:28 am #

        >> Then at such occasion, do Singaporeans say "I'm not interested in such kind of party, sorry." or something from the beginning and people do not feel bad against that?

        I guess it depends on the relationship!

        For us, among very good friends and family, we can say it honestly, and usually there are no problems. We won't hold grudges against the person. We will even understand that this person don't like such gatherings, and we either don't ask that person anymore to similar parties, or we try asking again but fully understanding that he/she might reject it.

        But let's say it's an important function or dinner that is totally disrespectful in some way to NOT go, then perhaps it may breed discontent.

        I guess you ultimately still have to exercise good EQ and common sense! My boss (an American), said that rejecting something you are sure you don't want takes higher skill but it is a very useful skill to learn, and that everybody should learn it!!! Haha! I agree, and I'm still learning…:)

        I love your picture even more after you explained it!!! ^_^

      • kirin July 20, 2010 at 11:25 pm #

        Thank you for replying to my question. I guess we (Japanese) may never be good at rejecting something with high EQ because our society is just like you mentioned (ano…sonohi wa chotto…). lol
        It'll be a good chance to train ourselves to get into Singaporeans. lol

        Thank you for understanding my picture. ^ ^

  14. Miki July 20, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    Ah, I totally understand. ^ ^; My personality is usually very open and Im not afraid to say what I truly think (unless its rather rude…then I keep quiet.) but when I meet someone new, I just try to be polite with them and not comment on their opinions by just saying “Hmm” or “Ah, I see.” Its usually really helpful. ^ ^ But anyway…thank you for the post! Its fun to learn about Japanese backround!

    • kirin July 20, 2010 at 11:26 pm #

      I like that. ^ ^ and I feel safer with that way, too.

  15. Mary July 21, 2010 at 4:31 am #

    Ah, now I see. To be honest with you I think Malaysian education is pretty much like that too. In my experience during elementary school or even in universities, most students will keep themselves quiet whenever the teacher asked questions. I admit that I do that too..ha ha..it's like the teacher is talking to herself/himself. Unless a name is being called, then the person will answered. In a large lecture hall too, when the lecturer asked something nobody would even dare to raise up their hands, we will just look at each other waiting for someone come up. I don't know why, but I feel like everybody would look at you and listen to your answers and when the answers were wrong, everybody would just laugh. Or maybe we are afraid to point out our opinion.

    • kirin July 22, 2010 at 7:53 am #

      Really~~? That sound exactly the same as our culture~~! Thank you so much for sharing your comment. It was very interesting. πŸ™‚

  16. xiao hui December 11, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    Hi! Im a new reader here from Singapore =] This post is so interesting , from my experience in school students often do not express their options unless they are selected. Lol , sometimes the teachers even told us that they feel as though they are talking to the wall.

    • kirin December 12, 2010 at 12:30 am #

      Hi xiao, thank you for your comment!
      It's so interesting to hear things are similar in Singapore?! I thought Singaporeans are more active, you know. Is this something common among Asian people? I feel sorry for the instructors and teachers whenever I am a student. It's exactly as if they were speaking to the wall for 90 minutes or something….it's sad. 😦

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