Wa is a Japanese word used to discuss its own concept of harmony, and essentially defines just what the Japanese are trying to accomplish in their life, whether successfully or unsuccessfully.
Lately, it seems that wa/harmony has been less obvious in the overall scheme of Japanese life… it’s something I’ve been thinking about since about the first month in Japan after I learned of the concept back in 1990.
For me, while a half-full kind of guy, I strangely wondered if the influx of all of us gaijin/foreigners into Japanese society to teach them about internationization, was somehow going to destroy Japanese culture.
I argued within my own echo-y brain that maybe that was a good thing, after all Japanese culture had so many faults… such as women being treated like second-class citizens… the lack of immigration… and this dull, if not boring need to point out that everything they use in their daily life is Japanese.
"This is a Japanese kimono."
"These are Japanese chopsticks."
"This is Japanese rice."
When you hear it everyday as a foreigner in Japan, not only does it become tiresome, but you start to think that the Japanese are so full of themselves, and they need to get out and experience the world of internationalization a bit more… hence the early days of the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, which gave us the dual job (1990-1993) to teach their students better English, but also to let them know that the Japanese were actually a part of an international community.
We were missionaries, putting forth a belief in a different faith.
And then, being a smart guy who enjoyed playing devil’s advocate (and still do - which is what keeps me open-minded), I wondered if my view was correct.
Pride in all things Japanese… not showing off… maybe a little… but pride.
A pride in their culture, that I found refreshing.
I have long been amazed at the fervor my American cousins to the south have when it comes to being proud of being an American, and have shaken my head in disgust sometimes at how little my fellow Canadians felt something similar about their own country.
While I did think the Americanisms sometimes went too far, and Canadianisms not far enough… I thought there could be a happy medium.
Despite their constant prattling about Japan this and Japan that, I quickly realized that they were simply talking that way to teach me about their country… and that within their own daily discussions about the world did NOT talk about themselves in that singular “Japan No.1” way at all.
Had they found a balance… a wa?
Sort of… if there was true harmony and everyone thought exactly the same, it wouldn’t be wa… it would be brainwashing and there would not be any concept of free-thinking… and while the uni-mind way of thinking (think, work, eat, play together) is something Japan tries to follow… I wonder if the constant influx of foreigners and their way of free-thinking has altered the Japanese concept of wa… where the country no longer has harmony.
Wa, according to Wikipedia, “implies a peaceful unity and conformity within a social group, in which members prefer the continuation of a harmonious community over their personal interests.”
Wa is considered integral to Japanese society, and derives from traditional Japanese family values.
But what are those family values? Respect and honor.
It’s why I understood why my fiancé Noboko would forgo a happy and fulfilling life with me in order to please her father, who didn’t want her to marry or date a foreigner because it would make him look bad amongst his underlings and co-workers.
Say wa - ? Sure... if his single daughter is dating a gaijin, then she must be sleeping with him, because that's what all gaijin want - sort of yeah... but so what?
Well, if she's sleeping with a gaijin (hauuuuwch - ptoieeee!) then we know she is no longer a virgin, and the gaijin brings shame upon your daughter and she, by allowing herself to be soiled before marriage, brings shame upon you... and if you can't control your daughter, how can you control the employees under you?
It does all make sense in a warped way, because in Japan... sins against wa are magnified.
For the record, I never slept with a Japanese virgin ever.
Young unmarried couples in Japan have long slept around... it's what you do... it's primarily why they have a 'love hotel' industry in that country worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The thing is... couples are pretty much expected to have unmarried sex... but they are also expected to NOT go around making it a publicly known occurrence.
If a Japanese person is dating a foreigner... they MUST be having sex, because that's just common sense.
It's not a given, of course... and in my case it was true... but how dare a culture assume a stereotype to be 100% correct?
Not being Japanese, and not being brainwashed into such Japaneseisms, I initially had a very difficult time with Noboko not willing to sacrifice everything that made her Japanese to be with me.
Yeah... wa is a major component of what it means to be Japanese. I fugging hate wa... even though I respect it.
... just not when it affects me in a negative way.
You know that the true definition/translation of gaijin is "outsider" - hence the subheading under the title of the entire Rife blog.
Having my own wa - don't assume the Japanese are the only people on the planet to have harmony, it's just that I don't need anyone to formalize what my harmony should look like - Japan's wa was a point of contention to my wa - not all of the time, but in just a few of the important times.
The fact that Noboko would go out with me… would hide that relationship from her father for a long while… implies that I, the foreigner, had impacted upon her concept of wa.
Then again… she was previously engaged to be married to a Japanese guy her father had approved off, but broke it off… stepping on the family wa. Note that I was nowhere in the family picture at that time… I arrived in her life a couple of years later…
Noboko had her own concept of wa that flied in the face of traditional Japanese family wa.
So… why was Noboko already questioning the Japanese concept of wa within her own family?
Because she was a free-thinker? She was living away from home in Kobe… a long distance from her father’s sphere of wa? Maybe. Kobe was also a hotbed of internationalization in Japan… much more so than in the rural confines of Tochigi-ken…
I don’t know.
But I do know that within a group: a work group… a classroom… family…. whenever an individual breaks with the established concept of wa within that sphere… the rest of the group will bring that person back into the fold by correcting them overtly or covertly…. by the leader of that group.
Wa therefor implies structure… with the lowlies following the lead of the leader.
Individuality is frowned upon in Japan… as there are rules for everything… from how you bow, to how you speak to a superior, to how you dress… to how you do everything you do, because everybody does the same thing all the time for every situation one could ever come across.
But us gaijin/foreigners/outsiders really mucked up that concept… even after all these centuries… as our free-thinking ways keep throwing a proverbial monkey wrench into the system.
That’s good, right?
From Monty Python’s: The Life of Brian:
Brian: “You’re all individuals!”
Crowd: “We’re all individuals!!!”
Lone voice: “I’m not.”
Or, if you prefer, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan:
Spock: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Kirk: “Or the one.”
Kirk’s comment may sound weird… but in this case, he means the “needs of the one” outweigh the needs of the many. Sometimes that trumps all. Sometimes.
The Japanese are expected to follow a hierarchy of command… it’s military-like… then again… pretty much every culture in the world follows that hierarchy within a family… until they decide not to and form their own family where they are the boss… shunting the old, former boss (usually the father), aside.
That’s good right? Progress, right?
The major flaw with the way the Japanese concept is blindly followed in Japan is of course the fact that sometimes the leader isn’t always the smartest one in the group…
Then again… sometimes the leader is Kirk. Or Brian.
But I am,
Andrew "wa-wa-wa" Joseph