Too Much Help
Japanese are very kind people and helpful to strangers, especially Western foreigners who - they often rightly suppose - have more difficulty than others communicating, understanding signs, directions and instructions in Japanese. (I must admit that Japanese people do pretty well understanding my hopelessly mangled Japanese speech.) Many anecdotes have been told by thousands of others before me about helpful Japanese going out of their way to escort them to their destinations when verbal directions fail. But what you don’t hear about, although it happens daily, is the Japanese who try so hard to help you that they interfere with you and make things worse.
This often happens to me - even with my own wife. I want to do something or I want to know something, and I need instructions/directions. So if I have a need and know I have to ask a Japanese for help I always try to put it in the simplest language possible. Even among English-speaking foreigners I usually tailor my queries to simple Yes/No answers. I figure that the simple polarity of it should suit Japanese well since this kind of duality flourishes in this culture. But I have problems when Japanese try to explain things to me. I don’t understand Japanese well enough to understand explanations, and knowing this beforehand is the reason why I ask simple questions, hoping/wanting to go directly to the nuts and bolts of a matter with simple answers.
It happened most recently when I went to the local city office to register a change of information on my Alien Registration Card. I changed jobs after many years working for the same company, and I thought I had to register that information. So I went there one muggy morning. I filled out the appropriate form with the correct information, signed it, dated it, took a number from the machine and waited in the waiting area to be called to the counter. The Nakano Ward public worker behind the counter looked at my documents, then consulted briefly with a colleague before turning back to me, pushing my Alien Registration Card back into my hands and launching a lengthy monologue that I could not understand.
Right away I thought I understood the situation. It seems that because I have a Permanent Resident Visa I do not need to
register my employer on my Alien Registration Card. That is no longer a registered item - not since I changed from a Spouse Visa to a Permanent Resident Visa a few years ago. So I asked the woman, in functional Japanese, if it was unnecessary for me to register this change of information? It was a simple Yes/No question. But instead of answering the simple question she felt obliged to be so helpful as to explain why I did not have to alter the registered information. Her incomprehensible speech was completely unhelpful.
Often times when dealing with Japanese we find that they try to please us by saying/explaining what they think we want to hear. In
addition, to feed the cultural myth of harmony, I think they have an instinct automatically to offer explanations in order to garner understanding. For Japanese, understanding equals agreement, and agreement equals social harmony. Several years ago one of my private adult students - a woman whose English was pretty good (she lives in Boston today with her American husband) - was very surprised when I told her that to “understand” and to “agree” were not the same thing, and that I could understand her perfectly while still disagreeing with her. It was a new concept for her and is probably not only unheard of, but unimaginable to most Japanese.
One thing that sometimes happens in the guise of“assistance” is when Japanese knowingly and deliberately give me false information. What they are trying to do, of course, is to please me and to keep (at least the appearance of) a harmonious relationship in the moment by telling me what they think I want to hear. Never mind that I will base my actions on their false information and that later I will be angry. Japanese attention is usually more in the present to the exclusion of the future than most other people’s.
There is an important lesson here for anyone who follows Japanese foreign relations. I have written about it before. If a Japanese politician or prime minister speaks to the media in America or Europe and says that he wants to work hard to achieve understanding on some bilateral issue, what they mean is that they want to work to make foreigners agree with them. The idea of changing their position or compromising through negotiation is usually not in the cards. Remember this when you read about, or see on television stories on trade negotiations, import/export tariffs, foreign aid, environmentalism, fishing, whaling, copyrights and intellectual properties, space exploration, high school textbook content -
everything. Within Japan itself, “negotiation” usually means people acquiescing to the will of the “sempai,” the socially senior person in a group or a relationship. Take my employment, for example. I live from year-to-year on one-year renewable contracts. Every spring my Japanese boss calls me in for new contract negotiations. What that means is that he explains what he is willing to pay me and what the conditions will be and then I can either lump it or leave it. (It means that I have no job security.)
There is another thing to remember when Japanese politicians speak about wanting “to work hard to achieve understanding” on some bilateral issue. For Japanese the emphasis is mostly on the appearance of “hard” effort. Actually achieving something is less important that appearing to work hard/sincerely at achieving something, because cosmetic appearance is more important than actual content.
Finally, the dynamics of assistance are an interesting thing. At my junior/senior high school I have grown wary over the years asking Japanese teachers for assistance. First, because no teacher can ever answer my questions without calling a huddle of others to get a group consensus about how to help Piper. It wastes too much of my time. Second, because over the years I have learned for myself how everything works, where everything is, and what the procedures are better than they, so they would do better to ask for my assistance sometimes.