You Can be Serious (in Earnest) Without Becoming Serious (Grave)
How can those of us who were born and raised in Japan adapt to western culture in English- and Spanish-speaking countries and elsewhere? This has been one of the most difficult challenges faced by those Japanese over the ages who have aspired to migrate overseas or to become “world citizens”. I recently came across a brilliant piece of advice that could be a key to solving that question, so I’d like to share it with the readers.
It concerns a first-year female college student who went from Tokyo to a remote mountain village in northwestern Thailand as a volunteer worker taking part on a grass-roots volunteer program for Japanese and Thai university students. The episode occurred about two years ago. I went to the same mountainous region about 15 years ago and as pastoral and peaceful as it looks, life in these villages, vaguely reminiscent of Japanese mountainside villages about half-century ago, is not easy. To go there from busy Tokyo would be virtually like travelling back 50 years in a time machine.
Helping to dig a hole to install a large tank underground, the student was scooping up the excavated dirt into a suspended bucket at the bottom of the hole. She was not used to the work and was a little weak with fatigue, causing the work to slow down. One of the villagers said to her, “I can take over that work, so why don’t you come up and help with the work of throwing away the dirt?” But she could not respond, turning her face away. “I came all the way from Japan to help the village, but I end up holding up the work. What am I doing in this village if that’s all I’m good for?” That was her hopeless state of mind.
The experienced leader of the volunteer program, the widely-known expert Prof. Tasuhiko Kawashima of Gakushuin University’s Economics Department, then spoke some apt and poignant are the words to the girl. “It is necessary to be shinken (serious, in earnest) but not necessarily to be shinkoku (grave).” Some time later, the student said to the professor, “Thanks to those words of yours, I was able to change my mindset and free myself of the utter helplessness that had been torturing me.” As a matter of interest, she decided to study the Thai language seriously and spent some time brushing up on the language while working part-time in a Thai restaurant in Tokyo. She eventually passed a test to qualify for a student exchange program and is now studying at Chulalonkorn University in Thailand.
These words, according to Prof. Kawashima, actually are from his mentor, the late Prof. Genpachiro Konno. I’m struck by how useful they can be for Japanese who go overseas for the first time with big dreams. I looked them up in a dictionary (Daijiten, Kodansha), and found that, among other meanings, shinken is defined as “addressing matters in earnest, tackling matters seriously,” while shinkoku is defined as “being deeply depressed in perceiving a situation to have reached a critical and helpless point.”
In Japan, when one is set a task to achieve it is usually in the framework of one organization or another, so there’s always the added weight of “sekinin” (group responsibility). Even if it’s a personal objective, there are always friends and acquaintances one has consulted or parents who help out, so that it is easy to perceive situations as having “reached a critical point” and sub-consciously paint oneself into a corner. If one is inside Japan, there are also “buffer mechanisms” to soften social dynamics that soften the pain of failures and breakdowns so one usually does not reach the point of desperation. But living in an unfamiliar foreign culture, one might not be even able to gauge the reaction or assessment of those around him/her. Based solely on one’s own judgement and criteria, one may despair, thinking “I’m at my wit’s end” or “I’ve caused irreparable damage.”
Several years ago, I was on a Japan Airlines flight from Vancouver to Singapore. At breakfast time, I heard a Chinese lady sitting nearby complaining loudly to a flight attendant. Pointing to an old lady sitting next to her, the woman said something like “This is my grandmother, you know. She can’t eat bread so she’s asking for some rice, and you say you haven’t got any. In the first place, this food really sucks . . .” in that recognizable staccato rhythm of “Singlish.” At that point, I couldn’t help cutting in (though I should have known better) to say “Everyone’s eating, so can you keep it quiet?”
“You sit out of it, old man,” the woman blurted out, but eventually the two of them moved to other available seats. Good riddance, I thought. A few moments later, the flight attendant involved came to thank me, graciously apologizing for “causing all the trouble.” A bit taken aback, I was nevertheless favourably impressed by her sincerity. But when I looked at the young woman’s face, I noticed she was crying. It must have been stressful in terms of her relationship with her superiors too. I did think it would be easier for her if she did not blame herself so much, if she was not so grave. I suppose she had to endure such trials on her way to becoming a true professional.
The flip-side of becoming “grave,” is becoming giddy in some private fantasy land of Japanese atmosphere and context one has dragged along with him/her on a trip overseas. The following is a true story I heard over 30 years ago when was working as an interpreter for the youth department of the then pro-Moscow Japan Socialist Party during an international event. A group of young leaders from a pro-JSP labor union were visiting Moscow, the capital of their perceived “utopia” USSR, for the first time at the invitation of their Russian counterparts. One day they set out from their hotel, each with camera in hand, on foot to visit the famous Red Square nearby. When the party passed by a flower bed, water suddenly gushed spring-like from a sprinkler installed in the ground. That’s when one of the men blurted excitedly “Are they doing that to welcome us?” He was so giddy with excitement that he had momentarily lost the objectivity of common sense, like how long the underground water pipes must be, how difficult the timing, etc.
Born in 1945, the year WWII ended, I used to hear many stories about the “mental strength of the Japanese” bandied about during the war years. One of them was that “there is no way Japanese solders fighting desperately can be defeated by these loosely-disciplined, gum-chewing American GIs more interested in going to dances.” The GIs were obviously not shinkoku in their behavior, so surely they can’t fight seriously, went that line of reasoning. Having suffered the devastating defeat of their nation thereafter, and having become more familiar with Western culture through movies, TV and so on, the idea that it’s more advantageous to fight with mental reserve, even with some humor mixed in, has gradually taken hold. Be that as it may, the national trait of going into the serious/grave mode when undertaking a big project whether as a group or personally dies not easily change. Taking things seriously can also be a strength of the Japanese people, so it would be nice to acquire, on top of that, the mental resilience to be able to enjoy living in a foreign culture. That said, many young Japanese people nowadays, especially young women, seem quite “resilient” in that respect. (And I don’t mean to offend.)
By the way, the project mentioned at the start, called Gakushuin Overseas NGO Volunteer Activity Programme (GONVOGA) in a magazine article (Bungei shunju, July 09) involves other interesting ideas. To share with you just one practical idea, “recommendation of looseness” could also be of use to Japanese people going overseas.
With projects in the mountain village, it’s difficult to set up precise work schedules as, among other things, delivery of materials is delayed due to treacherous mountain roads or unpredictable weather changes like sudden squalls. So from time to time worried students would come up to the professor saying things like “the plumbing project will not be completed as we planned” or “please draw up a clear plan of action for tomorrow.” Prof. Kawashima likes to deliberately throw them off by saying something paradoxical like “wouldn’t it be interesting if we could set up a plan that is free of plans.” Even when facing an unfamiliar culture or context, if one can retain a mental reserve of certain looseness, one can handle situations flexibly and eventually achieve the objective in one way or another. That’s what he wants them to experience.
I was looking at a website “chat room” for young Japanese company employees working in Singapore, and was amused to see that their work-related gripes hadn’t changed at all from those of Japanese company guys there 30 years ago. Materials or merchandise that was to have been delivered in an hour to a client doesn’t get there. You phone the local delivery service repeatedly but all you get is “it’s on the way, it’s on the way.” In the end it took several hours and you have to apologize to the client (more often then not another Japanese company). Today as it was 30 years ago, things don’t get done the same way as back in Japan. Better to have some reserve of looseness.
We can hardly compare ourselves to a mountain village in rural Thailand. But it would seem a certain amount of “reserve of looseness” might be handy in getting along with in the multiracial society of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, which probably has as many different racial minorities and cultures as anywhere.
As complex and intriguing as the question of what the differences between Canadian and other Nikkei people and Japanese people are, one general difference must be that the former are used to the cultures of North or South America whereas the latter aren’t. Young Japanese who come to these shores to learn English must surely want to also pick up some of that “knowhow” in the form of familiarity, just as the first Japanese immigrants of yore must have.
If there are things Nikkei people can impart to the “potential immigrants” who have just come from Japan, one of them must be the “knowhow” that one can be shinken without becoming shinkoku. Probably many readers who have the opportunity to spend time with them as host families and fellow volunteers are doing just that.