Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Situational morality in Japan

The younger kendo guy's wife is giving her husband and I a ride, along with the English teacher who hates his job and loves to curse. As we pull up to a red light at the intersection of a major highway, the wife points out that in the lane next to us going the other way, a large chunk of heavy plastic - something that might have fallen of a truck - is sitting in the middle of the road. It's not immoveable or particularly dangerous by itself, but certainly enough to cause an accident if jammed in a wheelwell. "Wow, that's really dangerous!" they all agree. As we watch, a car making a turn onto the road nearly runs over it, barely swerving at the last second to avoid it. The three adults in the car are still watching, rapt. That is, just watching. I am sitting on the left side of the car and so (roads being backwards in Japan) on the opposite side from where this is happening. I look over at the the teacher sitting on my right, waiting for him to do something. He in turn looks out the window and exclaims, "Yeah, that is really dangerous, isn't it?" Then he turns his head right back around. Nobody makes a move.

Finally, it is abundantly clear to me that nobody is going to do anything about this, so I check the light, tell them not to drive away, and open my door. I walk around the back of the car, pick up the hunk of whatever the hell it was and chuck it off the road. As I walk back around the car I see the person behind us eyes-wide in a state of shock after witnessing what I just did. Getting back into the car, the three inside start clapping, crying out "Sugoi! Sugoi!" ("Amazing!") I shake my head, because it's nothing I should be applauded for, it's something that a person should do; to me, really something they should be punished for not doing.

This was a particularly glaring example for me of the difference between my Western morality and that of the ordinary Japanese. Our morality is unconditional, a kind of categorical morality. Things are either morally right or they are morally wrong, though we often disagree as to what is which. In the Judeo-Christian ethic, those ideals of right and wrong were traditionally laid down by God, but they could just as easily be understood in a secular, philosophical sense. The point is that widely, our society works on the basis that there are universal things that we take to be right and wrong, and we act accordingly, bound by these rules individually. In this particular case, it would be wrong for me to watch while some innocent person was harmed. We deal in absolutes.

But, the Japanese morality is not absolute, it is situational. Japanese society is based on relationships to others. The very word in Japanese used to mean "human being" in Japanese, 人間 (ningen), is written with two kanji characters that mean "person" and "between" respectively, giving the word the loose meaning of "between people." A person is what lies between others; more directly, a person is defined by their relationships to others. Traditionally, this would be the Confucian relationships between parents and children, adults and rulers etc. Now, it would encompass the family, friends, classmates at school or coworkers. One basically is identified through these groups- but not only passively, actively; students and teachers at school introduce themselves as "Hamamatsu Minami High School's So-and-So," workers at a company might say something that literally translates as "I'm Japan Airlines' Maiko Iba." (ha)

I used to wonder why Japanese schoolchildren wear uniforms; in the US I thought they were either for religious schools or those with disciplinary problems. Neither is really an issue in Japan (well, discipline would be a problem in some schools but certainly not a high level one like where I teach). I could see how they work to crush individuality, but it seemed like they're doing such a great job of that every day in class already that uniforms are quite superfluous in that respect. I was even more confused as to why kids would wear their uniforms even on weekends and vacations when they didn't have class. Understood in the context of the social structure however, it makes perfect sense. Kids wear uniforms to identify themselves as part of a group - students - and, in fact, the uniforms of particular schools are easily distinguishable, making even further stratification possible. Even the suit of the salaryman - or Japanese businessman - can be another group marker. People's lives seem determined by this "inside" and "outside" dynamic.

As belonging to a group is how a person is defined, so their value within that group is defined by their behavior within. Largely, one's life is supposed to revolve around living within these social circles and cultivating relationships, I suppose. People are bound to correct behavior based on their obligations and connections to others. The constant consideration of others that this necessitates accounts for the fabled courtesy and politeness of the Japanese. That's the upside.

The downside, is what happens when another person is not within this inside circle. That is, what happens when you have no connection to another person, and so no real societal obligations to them?

Think of the car itself as a functioning example of this "inside" and "outside" concept. The people inside the car can watch something happening outside with a sort of moral distance because they have no connection or obligation to those not inside the car. They don't know them, they don't work with them, they've never met them. If someone inside their circle were to be in danger, they should act, but outside of that, there is no bond placed upon them in this situation. To me, it doesn't matter that I don't know those who might be affected, the fact is simply that it is wrong to allow others to potentially be hurt due to ones own inaction. That is, my action stems from a morality based on universal imperatives that decide what is right and wrong, while their morality is situational. When taken outside of a situation, it often ceases to operate or decide behavior. This is not to say that some Japanese people wouldn't help, just that no one is expected to help, or would be judged for not helping. The formality that drives the decisions on moral behavior is what makes the fabled politeness of Japanese people to me chilling, as is not really politeness in our sense at all.

There's an expression in Japanese that aptly describes the situation: "The traveler discards all shame." Japanese tourists are regularly much more rude and ill-behaved when traveling in foreign countries than they ever would be in Japan, because leaving the country frees them from their societal obligations towards others. This detachment has been pegged as one characteristic that made some of the Japanese soldiers in WWII so able to committ heinous and dehumanizing acts against the peoples of Korea and China. The Japanese were free from the bounds of their country and its expectations, and the other Asians did not belong to this inner group of Japanese that would accord them fair treatment, but instead basically existed outside in an area in which actions against them were held to no moral standard.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the Japanese are somehow alone in the tendency to marginalize connections to another group in order to easily ignore basic human obligations to one another; this is obviously a constant underlying all aspects of abusive behavior within human civilization, from petty racism to genocide. I am, however, particularly struck by how dangerously open their society leaves them to this sort of moral ambiguity. If they can ignore another Japanese person in such a cavalier way simply because they don't belong to one of the same social circles, imagine the possible attitudes one could have against foreigners, who are basically not even placed in the same circle of humanity as the Japanese themselves.

My three friends in the car are, to me, incredibly kind people. The two teachers work tirelessly to help their students succeed, and if I needed their help, they would no doubt be there. But, it's precisely this fact that makes such an innocuous event so unnerving to me. When these things happen, I feel as though my basic assumptions of human nature have been shattered.


big bro said...

So if you were driving down Crenshaw Blvd and saw a bunny threatening a lady you would pull over, get out of the car and challenge him to a dual?
What if you were driving down Crenshaw Blvd and saw a bunny threatening Mom, would you then pull over and beat him with a vengence? Probably.

Just like these old teachers werent interested in playing chicken in traffic to recover some trash they already passed by safely... Look out for your own Lukey, no one else will...

Luke said...

First, this is not Crenshaw Blvd. It's a two-lane street in a quiet neighborhood; more like Rancho Santa Fe Road, but not as busy. And it's not a violent crime in progress, or anything involving personal risk. The question is, if I were driving down a street in my neighborhood, would I stop to help someone? And if I didn't, would I feel guilty? How many people do you think stopped to help Dad when he fell over on his bike?

bigbro said...

its a pretty dangerous place to stop...they would have caused more accidents...
you would be hopeful however that all the idiots with cellphones would have used them to call an ambulance while driving serving a purpose for once..

tomo edington said...

I feel very fortunate to find your essay, albeit 4 years after it was posted. I am a Japanese citizen, living out of Japan for 18 years now. I just wrote an essay about this "amae" structure in Japan on my blog, and also discussed this with a grad student who interviewed me for her anthropology assignment. I told her about kamikaze pilots and scientists who performed human experiments and soldiers who raped so many Korean and Chinese ladies, how they could destroy other human beings because of this "in" "out" thinking. You are very intuitive. I bet most of the Japanese people you knew had told you that you could not understand the Japanese way of thinking because you were a gaijin. Kudos.