Japanese Culture: Group over Individual

Culture involves aspects of our lives which we do not even consciously think of anymore. One of the most important aspects of Japanese culture is that the “group” reigns superior over the “individual”.

If you have ever heard that the Japanese are a polite culture, it is completely true. However, it is not as simple as it is made out to be; it has a darker side to it. Although blatantly oversimplified, why is it that we always hear that Americans are rude and Japanese are polite?

Images of Japanese school uniforms. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the U.S, we pride ourselves on our outspoken opinions and ideas; we are proud to be “different”, even from each other. It is often said, “I don’t care which opinion you have, as long as you have an opinion“. Because of this, a situation like this is perfectly suitable for daily life in America:

You are out walking in town with a group of friends, perhaps a group of four. Someone realizes they are hungry and asks if anyone else is. Two are hungry, but the two others are not and do not particularly want to go eat at the moment; they’d prefer to finish their sightseeing and go eat in another twenty minutes or so. The two that are not hungry, in the U.S, might vocally say this outloud to the others, even if it is just an alternative suggestion (“Let’s finish this and then eat in about 20 minutes instead?”). In the U.S, perhaps another idea might even creep up — one in which two go eat, and the other two continue sightseeing.

In Japan, individual wants and desires are often pushed aside for the group’s sake. In the above situation, the two that are not actually hungry at the moment would most likely say nothing in regards to their hunger status, and instead happily agree to join the others at whichever restaurant is decided upon (again, by the group collectively). To them, there is no need to go against the grain, because it would cause an awkward social situation, and they do not want to personally be accountable for it.

While this example might seem generalized, oversimplified, or just plain silly to you, it is indeed a real concept that is ingrained deeply into the Japanese culture, involving a plethora of everyday activities, phrases uttered, and ideas thought by Japanese people every single day. At the beginning of this entry I described it as the “darker side” to the politeness of Japanese culture, but I am biased as an American. Many Americans are indeed loud and rude with their individual desires, yet we can also have open discussions with several different suggestions and ideas without necessarily creating any situation that is considered too awkward or uncomfortable to us. Many Japanese are indeed incredibly polite and considerate of others’ desires, yet it is taken to such an extreme as to trump their own individual desires in such a manner that some psychologists might consider unhealthy. What do you think?

Learning Japanese in Atlanta (at GSU and Beyond) [Part 2]

Part II of II.

Personally, I began my Japanese studies at a two-year college called Georgia Perimeter. Perimeter, or GPC, began with extremely small classes of Japanese (a maximum of about 6 or 7 students), although since then they have offered larger 30 student classes like Georgia State offers. I believe the smaller, more intimate class size helped us gain more one-on-one experience. Particularly on days which some students might not have shown, it was almost like having your own personal Japanese tutor! Talk about cool!

However, GPC also started out using the same flawed textbook as discussed in the previous entry. This textbook, while praised by others for its good aspects, simply needed to be refreshed; since the author/publisher were not refreshing it, GPC chose to move on from the book and picked up another one for its courses, “Youkoso!”. This was a more mainstream Japanese textbook, in line with another very common one titled “Genki”. Youkoso! was well-received among myself and my fellow students, after grudging through the previous textbook (which our instructor did not even particularly enjoy herself), and I believe it is the textbook of choice still at GPC. If not, I am sure they have chosen Genki by now.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

There are many other ways to learn Japanese these days besides going to your local universities. The image above is of an electronic dictionary, known as a “denshi jisho” in Japanese. Getting a used one of these (due to price) can prove to be an invaluable asset to your language learning.

There are hundreds of sites to help teach you Japanese online these days, although they work best when used in conjunction of self-learning with a textbook of your choice (Amazon is a great place to find those, with several useful reviews as well). LiveMocha and Lang-8 are two competing sites which allow for the user to post blog entries in their target language and then have them graded for accuracy by native speakers of that target language; the idea is that you then grade other posts in your native language as well.

Additionally, JapanesePod101 and JapanCast are two great examples of podcasts which seek to teach listeners (and viewers of their HD video lessons) the Japanese language, as well as culture.

There are many more online sources to teach you Japanese these days, and they are growing every year. However, the best way to learn the language is still to simply (or not so simply) immerse yourself completely within the target language. For that, I highly recommend All Japanese All The Time (AJATT).

Learning Japanese while living in Atlanta doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think, thanks to these in person and also online resources!

Learning Japanese in Atlanta (at GSU and Beyond) [Part 1]

This is part one of a two-part entry.

Learning Japanese can feel a bit overwhelming when you realize there are around 1,945 kanji (characters/symbols borrowed from China) that you must learn in order to be considered about 90%-95% literate.

Many students interested in the language start out with Hiragana, which has 46 simpler characters to memorize, followed by Katakana, which are those same 46 simpler characters, but in different shapes. When English students already begin freaking out over Hiragana and Katakana, I liken it to learning lowercase and capital letters, which helps them grasp the concept better.

Despite the seemingly endless and arduous task of learning the language, there are many different resources and paths one can take with the same end goal in mind: Learning Japanese.

At Georgia State (for Spring semester 2014), students entering the language courses for the first time will be greeted by an unknown instructor (named “Staff” on the description) as their only choice teaching Elementary Japanese I. The course is only offered for a MWF configuration from 9:00 a.m-9:50 a.m. Once past this first hurdle, students take Elementary Japanese II, which is helpfully offered with more choices: MWF 9:00 a.m-9:50 a.m, MWF 10:00 a.m-10:50 a.m, and lastly MWF 12:00 p.m-12:50 p.m. The instructor for this course is a Masaki Shibata, who has rave reviews on Rate My Professor as being kind, patient, and passionate.

Image by Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for GSU students, once you pass Elementary I and II, there is oddly no Intermediate I class. I have noticed this on three separate semesters at this university; it shoots straight to Intermediate II. Perhaps they are training their students in preparation to skip from Elementary II to Intermediate II in seamless and successful ways? The Intermediate II class also forces the students out of a comfortable setting with the same instructor they have had for a year now, and into the hands of a Yuki Takatori. Personally, I have had a rather rude experience with her on a couple of occasions, though I am sure there are students who adore her manners and style of instruction.

Regardless of one’s preference for instructors, the textbook used for GSU’s Japanese courses (“Japanese: The Spoken Language”) has been consistently made fun of and attacked in many other university settings and online forums as being extremely outdated, as well as for its use of romaji (Japanese written with English letters, rather than Hiragana or Katakana). Often preached by Japanese teachers and those-in-the-know, using romaji for anything more than a couple of weeks when beginning Japanese simply acts as a giant crutch and winds up teaching students incorrect Japanese when they actually begin learning the writing system. This entire textbook relies upon romaji, using absolutely no actual Japanese in it whatsoever. This is a huge oversight, and, combined with vocabulary words such as “typewriter” and “soviet union” (these are not jokes), creates a bad experience for the modern student.

Part II to follow.