Monday, April 13, 2009

The "Case By Case" Culture

Back in the days when such statements were not considered racist, people in movies, television, and various other media used to say that the Japanese were "inscrutable". I'm not sure exactly what aspect of Japanese behavior elicited this widely held observation, but the statement is supposed to reflect the idea that the Japanese are difficult to analyze and understand. One thing I can say for certain is that it does not have anything to do with language. Plenty of people learn to read, speak, and write Japanese language. Another thing I can say is that the idea that Japanese people are incomprehensible to outsiders is one that the Japanese themselves love to perpetuate.

Part of the reason I believe that the Japanese believe that outsiders can't understand their culture's depth and breadth is that they lack perspective on outside cultures. They don't know how their culture differs because they don't have intimate knowledge of other cultures as a point of reference. They can't explain the differences because they don't know what is different except in relatively isolated cases. Few people in either culture have a macro view of the mechanics of the cultures they're trying to understand so we are left with a lot of micro views of things like deference to authority, respect for the aged, notions of homogeneity and conformity, etc.

I'm sure that somewhere someone has written books explaining the things I'm about to say and that someone in an academic ivory tower has made it their life's work to understand and explain such things. I'm not attempting to compete with such authorities or to say I know what they know, but there are some things I've realized which have provided me with a different perspective and a better understanding of a particular aspect of Japanese culture which tends to drive many foreign people who live here mad. That is the way in which the Japanese handle matters of rule and law on a "case by case" basis. That is, they have rules which they will recite chapter and verse, but then they will bend those rules on a whim.

For foreign folks, the "case by case" culture is maddening because we never know where we stand and we always expect to be standing in the line which says, "you're going to get screwed over." The latter is a bit paranoid, and probably fueled by errors we make when dealing with Japanese business and bureaucracy, but I'm sure that prejudice is applied at times as well.

Just to be clear, I will offer an example of a typical "case by case" situation which affects our lives as foreign folks. This is the immigration situation and the requirements for visas and visa renewal. When you apply for a visa, you get an application form and a list of documentation that you must submit. In the vast majority of cases, you hand over the documents and you get your stamp and move along. However, as part of the information you receive, there is essentially a statement that the immigration office can demand any other documentation of you that they wish and can refuse you for any reason whatsoever. They don't have to point to any rule to demand that you offer up your mother's birth certificate, your foreign bank account's address, or your grandmother's marriage license. If they want these things, they have every right to request them because they have the power to handle every situation on a "case by case" basis. There is no promise that you will be treated equally to other applicants or that the same demands will be made of each applicant. Now, I don't think that such demands are made, though I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if certain people were refused renewals based on this flexibility and power.

The interesting thing about the "case by case" culture is that it can benefit as well as take away from you in a given situation. People who have power to make life harder for you also have the power to make it easier. They can waive punishment if you apologize or they can make your case an exemption when the other 1000 cases before you had to do exactly the same thing. This does happen in Japan and I think it'd probably happen more often for foreign folks if they knew how to show regret and accept responsibility in exactly the same manner as Japanese people do.

Unfortunately, we foreign folks, by and large, are accustomed to rules that are hard and fast. We like our rules this way because they guarantee that each person is treated exactly the same and that we are all equals. Without such rules, there is the possibility of prejudice and abuse of power. We like to have everything spelled out for us so that we can operate under the expectation that we can be guaranteed a certain result when we cross all of the "t's" and dot all of the "i's". Under such a system, we have the power to control the outcome because we know exactly what to do and we know that no one in an authority position has the power to deny us if we do everything we're supposed to.

If you compare the usual Western structure to the Japanese one, you'll notice that the Japanese situation places a great deal more power in the hands of the authorities making the decisions. You are, essentially, at the mercy of their whims should they choose to exercise them and you are powerless to do anything about it by tapping on a rule book or quoting a law because they have a trapdoor in most cases which allows them to say 'and whatever else we want from you or want to do to you.'

Fortunately, most of the time the people who have the power do not abuse it nor do they use their power to make your life difficult. Generally speaking, everyone just does what they're supposed to do and all goes smoothly. Mainly, in my experience, knowing about the way the case by case culture works helps when things go wrong. If you approach the person in authority in a manner which does not challenge their power and places you firmly as someone who is of inferior status, highly apologetic, and sincerely regretful that something has gone awry, that flexibility is used to help you rather than harm you.

Unfortunately, most expatriates don't approach dealing with various authorities and businesses in Japan in this fashion. Because we are accustomed to knowing exactly what our rights are and what sort of power we have, we get aggressive and insistent about what is supposed to happen and what is "right". In other words, we challenge the person in authority's right to make various requests and choices which only serves to make them all the less likely to want to help us or let us off the hook.

To us, following the Japanese way is degrading. It makes us feel like we're allowing ourselves to be cowed into submission or lowering ourselves in order to cooperate. In American culture in particular, the whole idea of figuratively kneeling before an authority in submission or putting yourself at their mercy is repugnant, cowardly, and a surrender of your independence and rights. In the end though, it's not about your ego. It's about a culture that is comfortable with having two faces, the true face (honne) and the public face (tatamae). The Japanese don't feel degraded by having to use a different face in order to make things operate smoothly in most cases. Their core ego structure is not centered around the public face. It's just something they put on when needed and take off when unnecessary. They oil the wheels when needed to make things go smoothly and move on to other things.

In the end, we can only be true to who we are. As an American, I don't know that I could ever be entirely comfortable with the "case by case" nature of Japanese life. However, one thing I've realized is that this system is not in place as an excuse to be prejudicial. It's about power, not prejudice, and keeping it in the hands of one group of people rather than in the hands of the average person. It's something that has developed as a result of Japan's history just as the egalitarian nature of America's laws has developed because of its history. If I want to continue living here, it serves me far better to accept that rather than to fight it.


Kelly said...

You didn't publish my that because i disagreed with you?

Orchid64 said...

No, that was because when I attempted to "moderate" the comment, Blogger claimed it had already been moderated and I lost it.

Did you disagree with me?

Kelly said...

I thought I did. Oh well. I didn't realise it had happened like that. Silly me. X_X I should have asked before i wrote.

Orchid64 said...

It's okay. I don't remember precisely what you said, but I think the gist of it was "I prefer the case by case way", which is understandable.

Sometimes, I prefer it, too. However, it's often disconcerting not to know where you stand when you face a situation.

Sherry said...

Case by case can be frustrating, but you can also use it to your advantage and refuse to do things or cooperate with people when the mood hits. Of course, that won't work if you are the one in need of something, but it comes in rather handy with customer service people at time.

I think that it is always important to keep in mind that as a white American woman married to a Japanese man the case by case thing is often used in my favor so of course I don't have big problems with it. I think at times it is in fact used to discriminate against other foreigners here though.

Girl Japan said...

It is used to discriminate here in Japan LARGELY so. I could say the case by case has worked for me but that is not fair to others.. it really isn't.

Things like getting PR earlier because my husband works for so and so and others having problems... I have noticed that because of HIS job, he get's trusted and is "IN" very easily, which is not fair to others working for private or commercial companies. So for me, the case by case works in my favor..but honestly, I don't like it.

I prefer black & white with exceptions.

Orchid64 said...

I think that it is often used to the advantage of the "favored" foreigners and to the disadvantage of those that are not wanted. I can't say I can recall a case where I've been especially disadvantaged or advantaged by it, but I do know that it greatly increases the stress in my life every time visa renewal comes up because I feel like my future is up for grabs at the whim of whoever my husband or I happen to encounter at immigration.

It can also be maddening because every time we ask a question, the answer is, "it depends on who you deal with" and we can't choose who we deal with. Because of my back issues, we're hoping they'll let my husband submit my renewal application and the application forms do allow for a proxy to submit such forms. However, when he asked the immigration officials about this (when he went there for his visa renewal), they essentially said it is up to the person at the counter who you happen to deal with - in other words, "case by case". This makes things really hard because the immigration office is out in the middle of nowhere and expensive and time-consuming to get to...and you have to wait hours and hours just to submit the application. Yet, we don't get an answer to a simple question because of this wishy-washy nature. Either my husband blows an entire day hoping the person he gets will consent, or I go in great pain unnecessarily because we can't be sure.

I think that it's a reflection of the lack of rights we have, but I think many Japanese people also have fewer rights than people back home. The difference is that they are comfortable with the paternalism and lack of personal power that is prevalent in their culture and we are not. At least those applying for visas in the U.S. know that they will not be arbitrarily denied and that they have a recourse if they are denied and they did everything "right", and they can get a straight answer to a simple question rather than "it depends".

Emsk said...

I think we Brits are the 'good gaijins' in that case, perhaps for being a fellow tea-drinking, overcrowded island nation with a Queen! Seriously though, I certainly think that caucasian Brits have it easier on the whole in Japan than many others.

Case by case worked for me fantastically once when a gallery owner bumped some other artists' exhibitions forward to allow me a fortnight to have my own show in case I had to leave soon after. As it happens there was no damage to other participants so no one was the worse.

I noticed that I would be bumped to the front of the queue as well if I stood there looking confused.

How different from the treatment handed down to the Calderons who came to Japan on fake visas but nonetheless worked and contributed to the Japanese economy then had a child who to all intents and purposes is Japanese. I was hoping that case by case might have let them stay (while still stating that their action of sneaking into the country in the first place was not right), but sadly their child is now in Japan without her parents.