Blog Post #5: Retrospective and Analyzing Cultural Dimensions

Just earlier this week, I arrived back in America after being in Japan for about 40 days. By utilizing every scrap of spare time and doing some independent travel after the end of my internship, I was able to see a fair portion (still not enough, so I will have to return someday) of the country and was able to meet so many great people from all over. With these experiences, both by traveling independently on my own and by interning in the office, I have been able to see so much of the Japanese culture, history, and landscape. With this post, I will be doing a retrospective reflection on some of the cultural elements of Japan.

Decades ago, Geert Hofstede conducted research and composed a theory about the dimensions of national culture, creating a spectrum to evaluate the generalizations of how people in a country tend to behave or think. Some of these include: Collectivism vs. Individualism, Power Distance, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long-term vs Short-term orientation, and Indulgence vs. Restraint.

Power Distance

Looking back on my experiences, the cultural dimension of “power distance” has the most immediate difference between American culture and Japanese culture. Built within the Japanese language itself, one must acknowledge their own power dynamic with the listener in every instance of speaking. On the one hand, there is the casual speech, “tamego” which should only be used when speaking with those that someone is familiar with or those who can reasonably be deemed your subordinate or social lesser. It inherently implies that you see the listener as an equal and someone with whom you do not need to acknowledge a metaphorical distance. On the other hand, there is the polite speech, “keigo” which is used with strangers, superiors, or your seniors. There are many levels of being polite, with the language used in customer service being one of the higher levels. Therefore, just by relaying the most trivial of things with another person, you implicitly establish what you believe to be the power dynamic between yourself and whom you are speaking to.

For an example of this, my Japanese tutor abroad described to me that when speaking to a stranger at a bar, you will likely begin a conversation in polite language. However, as the evening goes on and you want to bridge the social gap and imply a sense familiarity between the two of you, you may switch to causal speech during the course of the conversation. I also had many conversations with strangers during my time abroad where the topic would come to language, and I often heard the observation that the lack of a clear-cut difference between casual and polite speech in English was fascinating to many Japanese. From the majority of people I spoke to, they actually prefer this as it allows them to be more open and frank without having to worry about social divides and accidentally offending someone.

Another very present element of the power distance is the usage of bowing in Japan. There are many different levels of bowing, from a slight head nod to a sustained 90 degree bow. The level of respect that is to be conferred with a bow is based upon that power dynamic between parties.

One example of this came occurred during my internship where we visited a stock trading. We spoke with the CEO as invited guests, and afterwards we met with one of his right-hand men. Because we were “esteemed guests” and welcomed by his superior, the subordinate was staggeringly polite to us. He rushed through the halls to get the doors for us, pressed the elevator button so we could leave, and held a nearly 90 degree bow until the elevator doors closed. Afterwards, I just felt bad that he had to go through so much effort for us.

Another example that combines both of these facets of power distance in Japan happened as I was walking through the streets of Tokyo with a friend. We went to a few shops and cafes together, and after an encounter with a store promoter on the street corner where I tried to politely say “no thank you” to the promoter’s advertisement, my friend told me that I was being overly polite. As the customer in all of these situations, I was apparently afforded some level of being able to speak plainly. Because I am very cautious of the overseas perception of Americans being loud, obnoxious, and culturally insensitive, I tried to be as polite as possible as often as possible. According to my friend, what I was doing was not wrong, but how polite I was being with doing small bows shop clerks after purchasing, using polite speech with promoters, and asking questions to the waitstaff using indirect language was a bit over-the-top, as I was the one that was supposed to be the higher in the social dynamic in those situations.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Seeing as this post has already gotten fairly long, I will make this one quick. Compared to Americans, the Japanese are much more risk adverse. I saw examples of this primarily within Japanese business. In my internship, I learned about how Japanese companies will often send food or merchandise to shareholders as a gift for owning their stock and as a deterrent to ever selling their stock, even if the companies’ financials start to decline. The companies do this gesture so that they can mitigate the uncertainty that comes with an inherently volatile stock market.

Another example I found after speaking with an American business man with decades of experience in the Japanese economy. At his advice, I looked into the publicly accessible financial statements of major Japanese companies and compared them to American companies. The dividends and payouts to shareholders were lower for Japanese companies, but what was most striking was that Japanese companies had a ridiculously high cash buffer in their financial sheets. In simple terms, this means that Japanese companies are sacrificing making major, possibly risky investments, or giving away greater dividends to possibly attract new investors, and they instead are choosing the status quo and shoring up a safety net to protect against future downturn. According to the man I spoke with, this is almost certainly a result of the Japanese financial crash in the late 20th century. Companies now favor absolute certainty and financial protection so that the company could survive for years of losing money rather than try to take a gamble to grow and become more profitable, something that would assuredly happen in an American company.

These are just two of the 6 mentioned cultural dimensions and the differences that I noted between American and Japanese culture, but I find them to be some of the most easily recognizable differences. I think these two dimensions are also very helpful to understand for understanding Japanese culture as a whole. For example, being able to understand the power distance will allow you to avoid coming off as insensitive and be able to observe relational subtext beyond just the words being said. Understanding uncertainty avoidance can also explain some of the more enigmatic things that someone may come across in Japan. For example, there do exist restaurants and shops in Japan that do not allow foreigners as customers. I actually had this experience in Okinawa when I walked into a bar and was immediately told that they did not serve non-Japanese. I used my most polite Japanese possible and said “No worries, I will go” but still was followed until I left the premises by one of the staff. Before even arriving in Japan, someone once explained the existence of these places to me, and they described their existence as a result of many Japanese being fearful of not knowing much about foreigners. This fear of not being able to communicate, accidently making a faux pas, or the possibility of the foreigner unwittingly being rude makes it so that these shop owners prevent this from ever being a possibility. They want to avoid the uncertainty of these potentially uncomfortable situations before they occur. That’s why I believe that these are important facets of understanding many things within Japanese culture, so that you can read the cultural subtext in these scenarios.

Blog Post #4: Social Observations and more travel

Recent Travel

I will be starting with the light-hearted topic of my travel with this post. In the recent weeks, I decided to do a somewhat spontaneous trip to Nikko, in Tochigi Prefecture for the entire weekend. I wanted a place to go hiking, and I wanted a place to see history, and Nikko did not disappoint on either of those. On my first day, I took an early morning train up into the mountains of Tochigi and started hiking around the Chuzenji area. As someone from Indiana where the tallest point is likely a cornfield somewhere, seeing the colossal mountains, waterfalls, and nature all around was beautiful. I even got to see deer roaming the plains of Senjougahara, and I saw wild monkeys for the first time near Ryuzu Falls. I hiked around 20 miles my first day, going through the mountains, woods, and along the scenic edge of Lake Chuzenji. That night, I got my first experience of going to a private onsen, a hot spring. The ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that I stayed in also provided a yukata to wear outside the onsen. Side tangent, but I had a funny experience leaving the onsen where I walked past a man in the narrow hallways and said the usual “Sumimasen” (excuse me) to get around him, and got a response of “No worries, bro” in perfect English.

On my second day, I spent more time seeing historic sites. I saw the Jizo statues of Kanmangafuchi Abyss, I saw the beautiful, sprawling masoleum of Toshogu where the famous uniter of Japan and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is buried. Interestingly, the famous saying of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Say no evil” accompanied by the three monkeys originates from a mural on the side of a stable at this shrine. Afterwards, I saw Buddhist temple Rinno-ji, the Shinto shrine of Nikko Futarasan, and the mausoleum Taiyuin where Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu, is buried. All in all, I walked another 15 miles the second day.

Observations of Work Culture

As someone who loves to frequent the izakayas and yakitori restaurants of Tokyo ( Japanese pubs and grilled chicken places) and as someone who is interning at an office in the corporate heart of the city, I have been exposed to much of the Japanese corporate culture and its intriguing overlap with nightlife. One thing of note is that while many Japanese offices do not have a strict dress code of any sort, one look around Chiyoda-ku at rush hour will show you that there is a strict social sense of conformity in uniform. White shirts with black or gray pants and black dress shoes makes up at least 85% of men’s clothing, and white shirts with black skirts makes up a substantial portion of women’s clothing. Therefore, its very easy to see the waves of Japanese businessmen going to the izakayas and bars after work. In Akasaka, for example, which is near the corporate center, it may be hard to find even a table for food after work hours as they are completely filled by businessmen going out together after a day at the office.

Now, what is interesting is the strong culture of heavy drinking and fraternizing with coworkers any, or every, day of the week. Many times, the audio levels of the restaurant will slowly but surely rise to shouting as they order more and more drinks. While I knew that drinking with coworkers was an aspect of Japanese business, I did not know how prevalent they were, how often it happened, and how intense they get. Again, it is not uncommon to see businessmen blacked-out on the side of the road after midnight in places like Roppongi, near where I live. It goes beyond the American concept of going out for a few drinks, and instead takes the form of what appears to be an extreme form of catharsis.

I have spoken with American and Japanese businessmen in Japan about this topic, and they confirmed my suspicions. The intensity of the Japanese workplace, with an overemphasis on hard work, and the social ostracization of those who are deemed to not be carrying their own weight leads to immense pressure that has to be released in some way. Additionally, mental health care is nearly unheard of here. As opposed to many places in the United States, mental health professionals are scarce and unutilized. When people have stress, anxiety, or worse building up over the course of a career, many Japanese businessmen use heavily drinking on a frequent basis as that release. In the past, I saw the crowds of office workers going to the izakaya as a fun form of coworkers hanging out, but now I have a sense of sadness as I wonder how much pressure they are experiencing and how many have to find their solace in alcohol.

Blog Post #3: Recent Activity and Talking about Stereotypes

In few weeks here, I have been trying everyday to encounter the culture of Japan in as many ways as I can. This blogpost has been in the works for a while as every time I think I am ready to post, I speak with some more people and modify a bit more. While I can make any number of generalizations, even within the city of Tokyo, perceptions, standards, and even clothing has such a wide array of diversity for such a homogenous country.

To speak of my own preconceptions of Japan, I had done months of reading and watching content about Japan in preparation to be here. Some of the expectations I had was that people would be very quiet and reserved compared to what I am used to. Seeing as Japan is around 98% ethnically Japanese, I thought that I would receive stares or otherwise.

While it may be true that, on average, the Japanese people I have encountered are less rowdy than many Americans that I know, one trip to Shinjuku, Roppongi, or Harajuku will quickly make you realize that the stereotype of the quiet, reserved, and overly serious Japanese person definitely is not the rule. On my first night in Japan, I went to an underground rock club with live performers, and the entire audience was up on their feet dancing, clapping, and singing along to Wham’s “Wake me up before you go-go” near Roppongi. In Harajuku, I saw all different types of crazy clothes, blasting pop music, along with trendy shops and bakeries. In Shinjuku, I was accosted by promoters for lively (but sketchy) clubs and bars. In Nakano, a friendly stranger leaned over to me in the izakaya and started chatting with me, and we ended up seeing a jazz performance together and split a platter of food. In my time so far, I have come to understand that these stereotypes fail to recognize the diversity of people that you will come across and people of all types of interests, professions, and dispositions can be found anywhere.

Stereotypes about Americans

Now recently, I have also asked some of the people around me about their perspectives on Americans. I have talked to a few strangers and friends, and I have many coworkers with whom I can ask their thoughts. These coworkers work at an American company’s Japan office, so they all can speak at least a bit of English, and the majority are extremely proficient and have even spent time abroad.

When asked what their thoughts were on how they would describe the typical American, I got many similar answers. Among one group I had asked, the answer was that Americans were generally loud, decently unhealthy in their drinking and food, were polite, enjoyed partying, and were often large, whether it be in height, muscles, or fat.

I asked a Japanese friend of mine, and he said that they were loud, overweight, but generally kind people. I also asked a few strangers in addition, and I received much the same. One group I had spoken with for a while actually described Americans as conscientious and more accommodating than the other Japanese people they knew, which surprised me.

About America as a whole, a typical theme I heard is that America makes a lot of movies and popular music, is huge geographically, and has had a significant impact on the world. I have heard the term “occupiers” used once or twice, specifically referring to the military presence in Okinawa and around Yokohama.

I have heard a wide array of opinions and stereotypes about Americans and America, but they have been generally pretty positive as a whole. The people I have met have been very accommodating, and I can only mention a handful of times where I can say otherwise. Like I stated before, I have received stares, and I have been to restaurants that have signs outside that state that if you cannot speak Japanese, then you probably should not enter, but these are so far and few between I cannot call it the norm. I have found that when you are sitting at the counter in a hole-in-the-wall izakaya and chatting with some locals, you will find some of the most genuinely interested and talkative people around, and I am always looking for an opportunity to practice speaking Japanese.

Recent Activity

This post is already long, so I will keep it short. Since the last post, I have done a lot more sightseeing and traveling. For example, one day, I hopped on the train and went to Kamakura, a small town by the ocean that used to be the nation’s capital many centuries ago. There, you will find an 11 meter tall, bronze statue of Buddha from the 1200s. There are many beautiful temples and shrines. Just a few minutes away on train is the island of Enoshima, which can be reached by bridge. More beautiful shrines, great views of the ocean and Mt. Fuji, and a sacred cave system are some of the highlights. Another day, I went to one of the most famous areas of Tokyo, Asakusa. I saw Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji, walked around the Ueno Park, and went up the Tokyo Skytree, one of the tallest towers in the world. And of course, everyday I have been seeing more and more of Tokyo, which I will likely explain more about in my following posts.

Blog Post #2: First Week and more

Shibuya Crossing

In my first week of being in Japan, I have been working on maximizing every second of free time with as much exploration as possible. While I have gotten a few stares here and there (some less concealed than others), overall I feel very welcome here.

Because I am interested in the culture and history, I have also been to a few Shinto and Buddhist shrines. Honestly, these have been the most prominent times when I feel out of place. For example, early into my time here, I want to a small shrine buried in the concrete jungle of downtown Tokyo. Because I did not want to be perceived as a gawking tourist nor as someone who is committing offensive acts, I took the stance that I would when entering a church: being very quiet, keeping my head down, not waving my phone’s camera at those in prayer or at the inner places of worship. I noticed a sign next to a large circular door/arch that talked about etiquette for entering the shrine and how to properly worship here. I immediately went to the side and started reading. It included rules like how you are to properly purify your hands with water in a certain manner, then you are to enter the arch a total of three times, looping back around after entering, and then you are ready to approach the main altar. While I was reading this sign, I noticed two foreigners just walk right in, go through the arch, and then stand at the altar, looking around them with a camera in hand (only a few feet from the “no pictures” sign). It made me feel embarrassed as I was now one of three foreigners present, and the local people who came to pay respects at the shrine began to throw their glances my way as well. I felt out of place as not only did I feel as though I was being lumped in with the other foreigners, but I also knew that I was not familiar with the proper etiquette and did not want to commit any faux pas. Looking back on it, there was not really much I could have done. I just gave a short bow to those that were staring at me, and I quickly made my escape. If I had to describe the cultural interpretations at play here using a metaphor, then the culture here was layered like a cake. I had no idea what to do with this “cake” and had never seen one like it before, so I decided to stand to the side and try to examine the layers which were all new to me so I could properly understand what it was before I took my next action. The tourists nearby saw an “exotic cake”, walked up, took a bite, and walked away, never stopping to see what they were even seeing or doing.

Anyways, I have been working on my Japanese everyday and trying to put it to use whenever I can, and I can already notice improvements in my listening and speaking skills. Additionally, I have had the chance to get to meet my coworkers who are at the office that I am interning at. So far, I have met only very nice and welcoming people from Japan, Hong Kong, and America who all work here. In fact, after the second day of work, the other intern and I went out for food and drinks with some coworkers. We got to learn more about their interests, their time at the office, and I got to try monja and okonomiyaki for the first time, and both were great. Everyday at the internship, we have been able to meet fantastic people: from kind coworkers to retired CEOs, I have had such a great time meeting new people.

Lastly, I just want to add a little bit about some of the places that I have seen. So, I am living in Roppongi, a neighborhood known for many expats, foreign embassies, expensive condos, and sketchy nightclubs and jazz bars. But, I have also done been to Shibuya (the place with the crowded crossing), the Imperial Palace (wow, it was huge), Jimbocho (a neighborhood known for bookshops), and Naka-Meguro (a place further afield in Tokyo that has a small river flowing through it). I have done quite a bit of what I call “wandering”, where I will just take off walking in a direction and make it back some time later, stopping at whatever interests me on the way. At the cost of my legs aching all the time, I have been hitting 7-20 miles of walking everyday.

PS: I am writing this nearly two weeks in, and I will update the blog soon enough with my experiences of my second week, so stay tuned. I have been keeping a detailed journal of what I do everyday to refresh the memories too. (I also forgot to add that I went to Disney Sea Tokyo)

Entrance to Disney Sea Tokyo

Tsukiji Fish Market
Imperial Palace
A Rock Bar in Roppongi
Naka Meguro

Blog Post #1: Pre-Departure

こんにちは みんなさん!Hello everyone! My name is Grayson Gabet, an accounting and Japanese double major of the Class of 2025. This summer I will be interning with a Notre Dame alumni, Daniel Kerrigan, at Interactive Brokers, a finance company with an office in Tokyo, Japan. I have studied Japanese independently for around three years, but I have only recently started taking classes, and since then, I have seen my progress greatly increase under the instruction of professors at Notre Dame. Foreign language, global relations, culture, history, and geography are some of the topics that have always interested me most, so the opportunity to travel and intern abroad is a dream for me. I have studied foreign language abroad before with learning Spanish in Madrid, but now I have the chance to see another part of the world and get hands on experience with business and meeting new people.

During this internship, I will be learning more about the international business world as well as more about the Japanese culture and language. At my internship, I will be learning business Japanese as well as conversational skills, and we will also be utilizing the city itself as our textbook. We will have guest speakers coming in to highlight key concepts in the world of international business, finance, or Japanese culture. In addition, we will be exploring various sites across the largest metropolitan area in the world such as famous neighborhoods like Roppongi or Shibuya, going to historic locations, and maybe even catch a baseball game in the city, the most spectated sport in the country. This summer, I am hoping to immerse myself into Japanese culture, experiencing all that I can and see as much as I am able to. After the end of my internship, I will be spending a few extra days to see more natural and historic sites across the country, which I hope will also expose me to regional differences, subcultures, and great new experiences. And to be entirely honest, I also hope to try PLENTY of new foods from all over the country!

I will also be conducting research abroad examining the differences of Japanese and American workplace culture in international business, while also taking a examining the influences from cultural norms and historical developments. I understand that I have only seen a fraction of the world and interacted with a miniscule population, but I want to broaden my horizons and be challenged with leaving my comfort zone as much as possible. I want to be exposed to lifestyles, ideologies, and perspectives that I have never had the chance to before. I hope that by the end of the summer, I can come back as a person with greater understanding, cultural competency, and broadened perspectives.

I add this last bit in the few remaining days before my departure. I have been keeping up with studying every day and have been talking to myself in Japanese as I carry out other tasks, probably looking a bit crazy, to practice pronunciation and speaking as a whole. I must admit that as the clock counts down, I have been getting more and more excited but also nervous. I look forward to meeting so many new people and being thoroughly shocked by new experiences and most likely a culture shock or two . . . or twenty. I will update my blog with my new experiences and plenty of pictures soon after I arrive.

Until then, またねー