The Internationalization of Japan: Going Beyond Ikebana and Tea Ceremony

Life is about making judgments. In order to fit things into our internal schema, and thus come to an understanding of the world around us, we have to make thousands of judgments based on our past experiences and education. We look at an object and immediately start to make judgments based on its appearance. (Do I like the object? Do I want it? Could I pick it up? Have I seen one like this before? Is it safe? Can I ignore it?) We encounter thousands of objects every day of our lives, and each of those objects is subject to judgment. This act of judgment is what gets us through our days. In a world containing billions of people and thousands of cultures, it is probably one of the immutable laws of human nature. “I am, therefore I judge.”

This is why it is not surprising that problems arise when cultures come into contact. Being raised in a certain cultural setting provides a set of experiences that can be used as a basis for judgment. A single object, seen from two different cultural perspectives, can receive entirely different, even opposing, judgments. And, to complicate things, a single individual can have entirely different feelings about the same object depending on its setting. Consider how you feel when you see a frog in a pond versus how you would feel if the same frog were served to you for dinner. The frog hasn’t changed, but the setting has, and that has an effect on your own judgment. Now consider how someone from a culture that worships frogs would feel in those two situations. (Okay, I don’t know any frog worshipping cultures, but you get the idea!) The situations haven’t changed, but because the cultural perspective has, judgments are also effected.

This is one of the fundamental issues at play in internationalization. The variables of cultural perspective and setting (amongst others) come into play when making judgments about the people we meet every day. When we meet a person, we immediately set to work trying to place them our mental categories (good person, lazy person, someone to avoid, possible mate, etc.). Thanks to the incredible powers of the human brain, we are able to make decisions like this in fractions of seconds.
If you only ever dealt with people from a similar background as your own, these decisions might not ever need to be questioned. However, in today’s society, with the information superhighway at our fingertips and international flights at prices accessible to a large portion of the population, the chances of you never coming into contact with an “outsider” are very slim indeed.

So what can a person do to overcome the natural urge to judge? First of all, we have to learn to separate our perceptions from our judgments. Perceptions reflect what we see and, in the ideal case, do not contain any emotional triggers. Judgments, as we have seen above, are tightly woven into our own cultural and educational backgrounds, and do generally come with an emotional response (I like this, I don’t like it, I’m scared of it, etc.). Considering the frog in the above example, we can try to separate our perception of the frog (green, making a sound, sitting on a lily pad in a pond) from our judgment of it (dirty, noisy, peaceful). If we apply the same mental exercise to our encounters with humans, we can see how we need to stop momentarily at the point of perception before we leap to a particular judgment. We need to consider the actions and appearances of other people carefully before we let our hyperspeedy brains lead us to false judgments.

Consider the following situation: a tired-looking woman in a grocery store with two young children who are making a fuss. We might quickly jump to the conclusion that she is an overworked mother with badly-behaved children. However, if we took a bit more time to look at the situation, trying to perceive what is going on rather than make judgments about it, we might come to realize that the woman is not necessarily the mother. She could be the children’s grandmother or babysitter, or she might not even have any connection to the children at all. She could just be a random person who happened to be standing near the children. Or she might be trying to console them because they can’t find their parents. The children are now getting more upset because they are being spoken to by a stranger and the woman is looking even more tired because she is just here to pick up her brother who manages the store so he can drive her to work, and now she is running late.

This may seem like a trivial example, because random people in grocery stores don’t have anything to do with our daily lives, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make rather well. We took one look at the woman and made a number of potentially inaccurate judgments about her (she’s married, she has kids, she can’t control her kids, she’s shopping, etc.), and went away satisfied that we understood the situation. We have her pegged as a certain kind of person and yet we never even spoke to her! We make these kinds of judgments all throughout our day without ever really “thinking” about them.

I don’t think it is possible to stop ourselves from making judgments, since as I said, we need to make judgments to help us understand the world around us, but it is possible to start recognizing when you are making judgments (according to your culturally-based interpretation of your perceptions) and try to think of other possible conclusions.

In English, we have an expression that is useful in this situation: “giving someone the benefit of the doubt”. First of all, before you jump to any conclusions, try to introduce some doubt into your mind. Is there any possibility that you are misinterpreting the situation or the person? Is there any way to re-interpret the situation? If so, give the person the benefit of the doubt and assume that he or she likely has better (or at least different) intentions than you are assigning them.

Another way to train yourself not to judge so quickly is to try to catch yourself making assumptions. Assumptions are like mini-judgments that lead to bigger judgments. For example, it is easy to assume that everyone around you thinks the same way you do. In Japan, it is even easier to make that assumption, because at first glance, it may seem that everyone around you is Japanese. However, even if there are no “obvious” foreigners around you, there could be some non-Japanese Asians blending in to the scene. Or even some people who are 100% Japanese by blood, but who were born and raised in another country. And in any case, even if all of the people around you are in fact Japanese, they still don’t all think like you do. If you have ever traveled in Japan, or even watched a Japanese television show, you know that people from different parts of Japan have different traditions, different ways of thinking, and even different words for the same object. The assumption that you are surrounded by people who think and act like you do, even if they resemble you in appearance, is inherently faulty.

Internationalization is not just about introducing foreigners to tea ceremony and ikebana. It is about learning more about ourselves and learning to be more considerate and respectful of those around us – regardless of their race or creed. So, the next time you encounter someone (or happen to see a frog in a pond) remember to pause and reflect on your perceptions before jumping ahead to any culturally-based judgments. The frog may not notice that you have become a better person, but the people around you certainly will!