Between China and Japan–A Tale of Two Cultures


Yesterday, I performed my first professional speaking engagement, by being the Master of Ceremonies for the 50th wedding anniversary of the parents of the person who was hosting the celebration.    She chose me because I was a member of Toastmasters and therefore used to public speaking, and because I was fluent in Japanese, because her family is Japanese-American.

At the party, I met the daughter of a family friend whose father was Chinese and whose mother was Japanese.   I told her that at the University of Illinois, I had studied both (Mandarin) Chinese and Japanese in graduate school to get my Master’s Degree in Asian Studies, and often felt torn between which culture I enjoyed exploring the most.   I told her that it was like being the parent of two children whom you both love equally well despite their very different personalities, and the fact that they do not always get along well with each other.

She knew exactly what I was talking about, because she was curious about both the cultural heritage from China through her father and the cultural heritage from Japan through her mother.    She, like me, was fascinated with them both but realized that they were so different that she almost felt schizophrenic for being drawn to them both.

When we talked about the differences between the two, we first of all talked about the similarities.    Yes, relationships (guanxi in Chinese and kankei in Japanese) are very important and must be nurtured with constant care almost in the way that you would tend to a garden.    Respect for status with regards to one’s age, and a respect for the value of education, are both things we encountered as being valued in either culture.   But once we went down the list, it turned out many of these similarities were in fact legacies that China had given to Japan culturally.    When I was living in Japan, the fact that much of Japanese culture has its own origin in Chinese culture was not something that was admitted very freely or openly.    It’s kind of like how Americans think of their culture as unique, when it really derives primarily from European culture.

Regarding the differences, though, it was interesting that we both agreed that Japanese were more reserved than the Chinese, meaning that it took more time and effort to break through the outer wall that many Japanese erect within themselves against outsiders.    Breaking the barrier with Chinese, especially urban Chinese, didn’t seem to be quite as difficult.   However, once you are able to go beyond mere acquaintance to friendship with a Japanese person, I found them to be more steadfast and loyal friends.   Americans are more “easy come, easy go” when it comes to friendships, and Chinese are probably somewhere in the continuum between Japanese and Chinese.

Japanese behavior in public places such as restaurants, coffee houses, or offices tends to value silence more, whereas Chinese tend to be more “rowdy” or energetic in such places.    If they were to be described as a person, you might describe Japanese culture, at least in my experience, as being introverted, that is, gaining energy in silence and solitude and expending it in social company, whereas the Chinese seem to gain energy in social company.     My friend liked my description of the difference in energy level between a Japanese and a Chinese coffeehouse being like that between a cathedral and a gymnasium!

This is obviously just my take on the difference between the two cultures, but since I myself am more introverted (INTJ in the Myers-Briggs typology) I tend to find myself more comfortable in Japan, but that could obviously be a product of the fact that I lived there for 5 years whereas I have never lived in China.   If I were to live there for two years, I might feel differently.

In any case, we both found ourselves fascinated by the respective histories, language, and literature of these two countries, and felt that it was a privilege rather than a burden to be “between China and Japan”.   Being able to relate to them both, especially in today’s more intricately-woven world, should be an increasingly important asset in the next few decades!

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