Group-to-Group vs Individual-to-Individual
The Ultimate of Complex Human Relations
What are the differences in human relations between Japanese people and Nikkei people? What are the similarities? Among the most difficult of topics to be sure, but these questions have been bugging me for many, many years. Having spent five years in San Francisco back in the early 70s, and have been in Vancouver for the past 11 years, and both places being a social environment where a Nikkei community and an overseas Japanese community coexist and interact, I always thought I was familiar enough with the basic “workings of human relations” among the Nikkei and ijusha folks.
In a nutshell, it is an awareness that we are all somehow “connected somewhere,” influencing each other to some extent, however great or small. I am involved a bit with community activities and am fortunate to have some friends and acquaintances. I recently had a slightly shocking experience of being made to realize how off the mark I had been, although the matter was really quite trivial
A person asked me if I could help out with a professional job, an offer I was happy to receive. As it happened, that job was with a group with whom I had been working on another project. I assumed that the offer had come as a result of that connection. But when I asked, that person did not know anything about the other project. “That’s strange….” I began to wonder. And then that “lightbulb inside my head” finally lit up. There was no reason why that person should know about it. Calling up potential “sources” for news stories was something I had to do routinely back in the old days. “Who is connected to whom and how” is the ABC of source-hunting. This time, I was wide off the mark.
In fact, the person who offered me the job was Nikkei and the person in charge of the group was Japanese. But because of my preconception that we’re vaguely “all connected,” I had forgotten the elementary fact of life that people who grew up as Canadians here and people who grew up in Japan think and act differently.
Due to the nature of this magazine’s readership, I often end up discussing the Nikkei and ijusha folks of the wide Metro Vancouver area in a single breath (like it’s Powell Street Festival every day?), but I am of course ignorant of the overall situation. We are of many generations and backgrounds. The Nikkei people comprise the Issei and Nisei who experienced the wartime internment, Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei, with fewer members of the first two generations remaining. Then there are the post war immigrants, starting with the Shin (new) Issei and their Nisei and Sansei. (The Shin Issei like the Issei before are primarily Japanese-speaking.) There are also Japanese spouses of Canadians and new immigrants who came here to study or who were originally sent here by the companies they worked for. In terms of numbers, there are about 23,000 Japanese nationals registered with the Japanese Consulate. With regard to Nikkei people, there are some statistical difficulties, such as whether or not to count the offspring of interracial marriages which are more common among them than among people who came from Japan, so there are only rough estimates of tens of thousands.
To feel as though all of these different categories of people making up the Nikkei/ijusha community are somehow “all connected” is, I’ve realized, a rather Japanese sentiment. Among the oft-cited differences between the East and West, the one about the former being group-based societies and the latter individual-based societies is hard to refute, even if it’s very generalized. If group-to-group relations are the basis of Japanese society, every member of a group (such as a traditional rural farming village) has to be in the know when that group is undertaking something. If individual-to-individual relations are the basis, secrets between certain individuals of a group have their place too.
To illustrate that graphically, individuals in Japan could be like rings that are connected in series, intersecting each other in complex ways. Individuals in the West could be like bicycle wheels with spokes radiating from the centres, that are connected in series with the spokes intersecting each other. The Japanese are not shy about divulging personal matters to people who are not involved. Westerners tend to draw a clear line between matters that concern them personally, and matters that don’t. The reason the English word “privacy” is commonly used in Japan is probably because the idea originally didn’t exist. Attempts to turn the idea into Japanese have resulted in odd translations like “to be withdrawn, averting the public eye” (intai, hitome o sakeru from Kenkyusha Pocket English-Japanese Dictionary).
On this “individual-to-individual” business, I have one experience to recount. There was a group of guys I used to drink with in Tokyo in the late 70s. It was a motley assortment including an abstract sculptor (a part-time carpenter), a woodblock print artist (a part-time animal mascot at a fairground), a bar manager (a hippie type), a blues music entrepreneur (a former student radical) and a male cabaret dancer. They might sound like a crazy bunch, but were all good guys as far as I was concerned. But there was one thing I found amiss. Whenever we got together it was in a group of at the very least three. The sculptor, whom I had gotten to know while I was in San Francisco, in particular became a friend with whom I shared many areas of interest. So I’d propose, “I want to talk more about these interesting ideas, so let’s go for a drink just the two of us once in a while.” “Sure,” he’d reply, but when I go to the place of appointment, a few more of the regulars would always drop by, the occasion thereby becoming the usual happy-go-lucky drinking session with the silly conversation and all. As thick as I was, it finally dawned on me after repeating that episode a few times. One-on-one was just something many Japanese are not comfortable with. (A couple and a friend, or two couples was perfectly OK.) Needless to say, one-to-one meetings were the norm with Westerners and occasional Nikkei friends I socialized with in Tokyo. Group situations usually involved business or special occasions like parties.
In a minority community environment like Vancouver’s, a loose fabric of all types and categories of Nikkei and Japanese people, values and ways of life, which are both individual-based and group-based, must be interacting in unfathomably complex ways. The aforementioned Nikkei person I have portrayed as a “Canadian” for my present purpose, but who knows? The person might also be much more “Japanese” than the likes of yours truly in terms of his/her values or tastes. Appearances can be deceiving.
I had a close Nikkei friend with whom I spent a lot of time in my student days and later shared occasional good times in Washington, D.C. Denver, Colo., and San Francisco. Now that he has passed on, I have only fond memories left. He certainly did not fit neatly into any stereotype. He dressed like a “typical American” in button-down shirts and levis, but if he was relaxing in yukata at a hotspring ski resort or something, he looked way more natural than, well, yours truly again. We’d eat hamburgers at US officers’ Sanno Hotel in Akasaka or go for spaghetti in Roppongi, spending our English teaching job money, but a more vivid image in memory is us sitting down in a tiny home-cooked menu diner, eating a <rice and soup plus three items for 180 yen> and talking about life. Around 1971 in Denver, he helped me out a lot, and as I recall his friendship and his delicate kindness, I find myself wanting to characterize them as somehow “uniquely Japanese.”
When an old man starts reminiscing, it is a good time to come to a conclusion. “So what?” is the question I’m obliged to answer. In this life there are some topics one gets “hung up” on, things one cannot help asking “why” of oneself and others, knowing full well there is no way of grasping the whole picture. Especially now that my destiny has brought me to Vancouver, a place where Nikkei and Japanese folks co-exist and co-mingle, the question of how they interact has become one of these topics. It is about a domain so deep, a “shared awareness” so vague, that one can be steeped in it up to one’s head (as I might be) and still remain relatively unconcerned.
The Nikkei person I introduced here may (I hope not) take offense, wondering “what’s he going on about?” In closing, I can only thank him/her with apologies for helping out a “hack” so short of story ideas that he has to make a big deal about a trivial matter.