Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Follow-up to "There's No Rule"

One of the great things about bad experiences in life is that you an milk them pretty effectively for humor. When things go well, you find that the comedy cow (that's probably an actual god in some religion somewhere) isn't going to give up much, no matter how hard you squeeze those metaphorical udders.

You might take that first paragraph as an indication that my second round in the ring with Japan Post was rather less aggravating than the most recent one. This time they didn't even put up a fight. I'm happy to report that the second attempt at a different post office went the way that the first one should have gone had it not been staffed by people who apparently reside in a reality where exploding soda pop bottles are a normal and greatly feared part of their existence. That is to say that they took the box, put it on the scale, told us the price, allowed us to pay, and will be ferrying it to a magical land where people working for major bureaucratic agencies don't make up the rules as they go along (that's America). My husband and I are fortunate in that we live close to two post offices so it was possible to easily try the other one. Most people don't have that luxury and probably would just have to give up if they were faced with someone who lives in an imaginary world where life or death circumstances surround the shipping of PET bottles of carbonated beverages.

This experience beautifully illustrated one of the particular unpleasant realities of life in Japan that you will know and come to be put out by if you live here long enough. That reality is that Japanese people lie. They lie a lot. They lie often. And, more often than not, they lie transparently expecting you to want to avoid confrontation as much as a Japanese person so you won't call them on it. Lies are woven into the fabric of the culture as being not only acceptable but desirable as part of the tatamae (public face) and honne (true face) culture.

The reason they lie is because they don't have the same attitude toward lying that the West does. This may be because they don't have Judeo-Christian principles underlying their culture and aren't afraid God will smite them because he's had to put too many hash marks in the "false witness" category of his book of sins. It may be because the desire for social harmony outweighs any notion of honesty. It's likely that most principles can be sacrificed on the alter of not causing anyone any trouble, and that would include telling the truth. At any rate, the "why" is less important than the point that it is a fact of life here.

The problem with this is that there is a lot of lying based not on social harmony, but self-interest. One of the reasons I can't help but scoff when people gush about how great service is in Japan is that I've been lied to so many times when receiving or attempting to receive service here. If you ask a question and someone doesn't know the answer or isn't interested in troubling themselves to find the answer, they just lie. They'll either make up something ridiculous or say "no" or the equivalent.

This type of lying while supposedly attempting to provide a service is what the fellow at the post office was engaging in. Rather than verify the real situation regarding the safety of sending bottles of carbonated beverages, he just made something up. With a Japanese customer, this likely would have worked since they'd almost certainly not argue about it and accept what he said whether they believed it or not. The Japanese know when they're being lied to, but they tend not to challenge those lies. We foreigners, on the other hand, don't take nearly so well to it. I guess that's part of why we're such a troublesome lot.

(A little postscript to the "anonymous" person who made a rude comment on the last post without any sort of evidence or argument to invalidate what I said - seriously, you were already warned you weren't going to get through and the least you can do is make a counterargument and link to a user name with your own web site so I also get the chance to go offer insults at your posts. If you don't have the balls to stand behind your comments enough to open yourself up to the same sort of scrutiny at the very least, then don't bother. You're not getting past moderation, you big loser.)


Sherry said...

Case by case, sometimes it works for you and sometimes it works against you? LOL!

Kelly said...

That's weird. Who was the loser poster?

You know Orchid, I knew about the honne and tatemae, but I didn't realise or think that Japanese people lied so much, but you're right, they do. And here I was thinking it was only to foreigners, but yeah, I think now that you say it, Japanese people would just accept it.

What a weird world!! It makes me think how happy I am to be brought up in a place where we were taught to "question" things that don't seem right. You know sometimes I have said to Yasu about something in Japan, like "do you think that's right?" and he will answer "I don't know, it doesn't matter anyway, it just is that way", like there is no question of questioning it even if he doesn't agree!!

Emsk said...

I'll never forget the time the girls in the Internet cafe in Kitakyushu tried to help me burn a CD while not knowing how to do it. They not only managed to bring about the breakdown of the PC I was already on, they got someone on the phone who knew even less. Here it would've been much more productive to say sorry, but we don't know how to do it.

When we teach business English to Japanese students we include a selection of phrases designed to get them telling the truth, so that people like Germans - surely their polar opposite in terms of directness - understand the deal that been struck - or not.

On the other hand I can't help but agree that a degree of dishonesty is imporant for social cohesion, and I do it myself at my discretion. I do think there are times when honesty is over-rated. Having said that, the use of honesty does require a thoughtful approach. As I mentioned in one of my blogs, I had a rather blunt friend who succeeded in rubbing everyone up the wrong way because of her inability to tell the odd social lie.

I imagine that love relationships between Japanese and western people must be challenging for this reason. How could I be sure that hubbie really does mean he'll change the baby or he really does love having my parents to visit? Hopefully that nice Japanese guy who said he was looking forward to seeing me again meant it though :-).

Orchid64 said...

Sherry: My husband has discussed this with students and one of them said that being vague on the customs tag is the way to go because that absolves them of responsibility. If you don't tell them, they can't be responsible for allowing it through. This shows the insight they have into their own culture that we lacked!

Kelly: The person who did that essentially just requoted something and said it was stupid and posted anonymously. I don't mind people disagreeing with me if they have a point to make and if they're at least willing to stand behind it enough to put their blog out there. However, when all someone does is pull an elementary school insult game (you're a stupid head!) and do so hiding behind a total cloak of anonymity, then I'm not publishing what they say. I know we all have to hide our identities to some extent, but people can at least open up their content to scrutiny under their alias as well.

Part of me thinks that the Japanese have a point about not questioning what they cannot change, but part of me thinks that the reason things don't change is that they aren't questioning things. It's like giving up before you try vs. accepting the inevitable and knowing it's not worth trying. In my experience, the Japanese on the whole tend to just give up before they try (hence the corrupt politicians who stay in power). They figure nothing will change, so why bother.

Thanks for your comments!

Cailean said...

While I've run into the vagueness, or the "I don't think we can do that here..." I've never been outright lied to. I've been here seven years, I'm sitting next to a co-worker who's been here six, and by comparing notes, we can reliably say that we've either never been lied to or the lying was so expert that we went on our merry ways being none the wiser for it.

I've got a few other people I can check with and I'll make an honest effort to do so, but my gut feeling is to say that perhaps it's regional, rather than national. As far as Osakans are concerned, they're pretty reliable and as honest you could hope for.

Orchid64 said...

I sometimes forget that I cannot speak for all regions of Tokyo. I've heard that people in Osaka are much more straightforward than those in Tokyo. My friend Joseph recently remarked that he is lied to and has been asked to lie quite frequently.

I've also talked to students, as has my husband, about a variety of hypothetical situations, and many of them say they would either lie by omission, or outright lie in various circumstances.

Mainly, I've found lies tend to take the form of saying something isn't or can't be so when it clear can or is. For instance, when our gas water heater was malfunctioning, the gas service people kept insisting it was due to poor ventilation and implying that we didn't use the exhaust fan enough or right. This didn't explain why we'd had no problems for the past 20 years using the fan properly. They insisted that nothing else could possibly be wrong with the heater.

They made us fight with the malfunctioning heater for two months and then we had the landlord contact them again as it was getting worse and worse. Only then did they even bother to check anything else and found out one of the internal sensors was dirty or messed up. They then replaced that element and it worked perfectly again. They clearly lied to us initially about nothing else being wrong. They just didn't want to bother checking it in the first place.

You may ask why they didn't check it and I'll tell you that the problem occurred on December 30. I think it's also possible that a lot of people don't use their fans properly and they just don't want to waste time checking everything until they're sure you're sincere enough for them to take the time.

I've had lots of this type of experience in Japan. People put us through a ton of hassle or trouble and essentially stall on doing the proper thing until we wait out a certain period of difficulty or insist they do something. They often say "can't be helped", "can't be the case" or "no way" when it's clear that they never even tried to fully investigate a problem or solve it.

That's just the service side of the lying. I would need a novel to talk about the working side lies that I've been told.

Orchid64 said...

Bah, I meant "all regions of Japan", not "Tokyo".