Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Several people have asked me to comment on an article in the NYT about the reaction of to the Japanese people to the three Japanese taken hostage in Iraq. The article describes how everyone including the politicians in Japan are angry at the hostages for causing trouble to the Japanese government and being irresponsible.

There are many conflicting reports about whether they were reckless or not and what their motives were so I won't comment on that. I also don't feel strongly personally on this issue so I'm not going to make a judgmental point either. What I would like to describe is a bit more background on how Japanese think about responsibility and apologies.

I think one of the things that made many Japanese I know upset were the parents of the hostages making public statements about how the government should help get the hostages back without apologizing first about causing trouble for the government. Even if they didn't believe it, it would be proper Japanese etiquette to say this first. It's quite cliche, but it's true that if you get into an automobile accident in Japan, even if you think it's probably the other person's fault, you apologize first. Japanese are warned not to do this in the US because apologizes imply responsibility. In many cases, apologies in Japan are a formality and skipping them is rather rude. I think many people thought these parents were "rude" on a national scale. Another example of a throw-away apology is that when you ask for a waiter in a restaurant, you say, "I'm sorry... or excuse me." We often apologize profusely when in doubt or are requesting any kind of favor.

An important psychological element is that even though we are individuals, we often represent the group. I have something like 16 or so generations before me on my gravestone and I often feel like a mere blip in the history of my family. Taking risk or tainting my family name is not something that I can freely do without feeling the guilt and responsibility to my ancestors.

It's also interesting to note that most Japanese children's cartoons have story lines where they are a team. Often one of the members get in trouble or drop out of the group and the whole show is about how the group tries to help the drop out get back in tune with the group. It's usually the group saving the single "problem" member. On the other hand, many American cartoons are super-heros who are independent and save the world through taking risk and being different. I know I'm generalizing here, but people who watch a lot of Japanese TV will understand what I'm saying I think.

I once talked to one of the directors of the Sumo Wrestling association. She said she always had a great deal of difficulty explaining one of the core principles of Sumo to foreigners. Sumo wrestlers are not supposed to show anguish when they lose or happiness when they win. They are to be emotionless and stoic. "Like a rooster carved out of wood," she said. This is a very central theme to many of Japanese aesthetics. This Japanese stoicism is central to much of the Japanese lack of sympathy to heroics, I think.

Although I understand what the NYT article is saying and I don't necessarily agree with the way the hostages are being treated and picked on right now, I think that lack of initial apologies and the feeling of Japanese to heroics in Japan is behind the reaction. Having said that, I think this attitude is what is hampering Japan's entrepreneurism as well as Japan's ability to participate as a leader in global affairs. It's a fairly deeply rooted cultural theme that won't change very easily though.

As usual, I'm happy to hear dissenting opinions.


Joi: Fascinating description. Thanks for posting it.

On a side note, your comment about saying "excuse me" when calling a waiter interests me. In my chunk of the U.S., that's standard operating procedure... so it doesn't seem nearly as alien to me as anti-heroism, for example.

Yes, this cultural difference of group-centred and individual-centred etiquette between Japan and the US & Europe (I'm British) is fascinating, isn't it? In fact, my own study of Japanese language (of five years' standing) is motivated in part by an interest in exploring how these cultural norms are rooted organically in linguistic structures. For instance, in Japanese one often leaves out the personal pronoun, which is implied by context. A wealth of sentence endings provide a fluid spectrum of subtle nuance from vagueness to assertiveness for a statement of opinion—colouring that is often much more laborious and unsubtle in English.

At the risk of generalising—Japanese people have this amazing ability, it seems to me, to simply be with reality, pleasant or unpleasant, and to filter their actions through their sense of identity of an individual within the group (family, company, nation etc.). In terms of Western psychology, that would be termed denial or supression. Having grown up in an environment where emotional individualistic self-expression (often in a theraputic setting) was construed as healthy, and having seen experienced the narrow self-centredness and self-absorbtion this can lead to, as well as the benefits of such expressive freedom, I find myself with a foot in both worlds, so to say...

I have a hunch that Japanese society has much to teach us in the West about organic social networks founded on mutual interest. Then again, as you say, the benefits of the American way in terms of encouraging entrepreneurism are clear to see.

Finding a way to harness the best of both cultures would be a fantastic contribution to humanity—and social-software based networks are beginning to evolve in just this direction, putting the "I" in the context of the group. Having said that, it seems to me that there remains much clear thinking and thorough re-evaluating of various key underlying concepts of social connectivity within a network to be done...

Interesting, I always wondered whether the importance of the group vs. the individual in Japanese culture was real or a Western cliche. It certainly casts a movie such as Battle Royale into a different light.

Fascinating... we have 3 Italian hostages in Iraq now (1 was killed last week), and all the country is up in arms, with street demonstration for peace and some people protesting agaisnt the government. Even if they weren't soldiers, but private mercenaries that chose to go there for money. We take the contrary view here in Italy: the person first, and the government is always wrong.

I bet a lot of people in the US would be equally upset with, say, Jesse Jackson, if against several government warnings, he decided to go to Iraq to "work for peace" and got taken hostage.

Hmm, group vs. individual mind is a bit old-fashioned style of discourse. You can't classify the German with it. (Google "nihonjinron" for the established tradition of studies onto the structure of Japanese mind, and meta-studies onto such studies)

That said, as Giordano tells for the hostage from his country, if one of Japanese hostages is killed, it would be whole new level of fuss in Japan (the government party would have to take responsibility and so on). As long as they are not killed, politicians moan about the big amount of tax money spent in negotiation with some middle-man who is Islam religious leader VERY close to the terrorists / local Iraqi thugs.

Joi, have you watched Imai and Kouriyama’s interview on TV today ?
It looks like the trio were actually quite careful when planning their trip into Iraq, and decided to proceed only after their local contacts and their driver — who had done the Jordan-Baghdad trip several times — opined that it should be fairly safe. The trio’s assessment that hostility by the insurgents towards the Japanese should be limited was also ultimately proven correct. This undermines one of the ignorant criticisms voiced by some Japanese do-nothings, viz. that the trio were “reckless and ignorant.”

Cultural background notwithstanding, I have but contempt for the Japanese who criticize the trio, or complain about the (petty) money spent by the Japanese government for their transport and health checks. I don’t consider that the Japanese government played any meaningful role in their “rescue,” as it appears that the Iraqi cleric association, not the Japanese diplomats, was the main actor behind their safe release.

Anyway, the fact is that the trio’s widely publicized adventure has increased the sympathy for “ordinary” Japanese people throughout the Middle East, an oil-rich region with which it behooves Japan to maintain good relations.
One should ask the Japanese who are critical of the hostages whether they have any idea what Humanitarian Assistance and compassion means, and what these critics have done themselves in their minable lives that would ultimately contribute to Japan’s national interests.

To pick up KL's observation about the limitations of "group-mind versus individual-mind" as a limited style of discourse: you're right, in that human beings are human beings, and have to function as individuals within group contexts in every culture.

Isn't it rather a question of self-expression as a set of culturally-informed "performance styles" related to social context? In other words, a Japanese person might typically "perform" the individual and group aspects of her identity in quite different spheres from those that a Western person would. And of course within the broad generalities of any culture there are manifold (and increasing) subsets of such "performance styles".

A concrete example of both the prejudices of the West to Japan regarding "group mind" and the more subtle reality is the discussion of the Second World War (in which my grandfather was embroiled as a POW of the Japanese).

The general perception in the West is that the Japanese as a nation are in denial about the less salubrious aspects of their involvement in the war (the Rape of Nanking, the Burma Railway etc.), but the reality (my friend Philip Shaw studies this area as his academic speciality) is that the debate in Japan, in academic articles and books and the national press, continues to be far more diverse and active—and with many individuals' voices—than that in the West, which, in terms of America and Britain at least, seems largely constellated around a set of racial and cultural sterotypes of the "inscrutable" and essentially inhumanly cruel Japanese versus the moral crusade of the liberating West.

And it is the language barrier that prevents the diverse currents of the less obvious—and to my mind, more individual-centred—aspects of Japanese culture, such as the debate on the war, from being known about and engaged with in the West.

Ironically, the cultural construct of "America", informed by a marriage of Christian values to its particular brand of consumer capitalism (which we in Britain seem to want to throw ourselves into unreservedly also) could be seen to be a manifestation of the "group-mind" phenomenen at historically unprecedented levels of power and influence.

Joi is careful in writing this. His posting has a descriptive component, which explains why Japan is reacting the way it is (Kikuchiyo's blog has another explanation: and concludes his posting with a normative component, saying why he thinks this is problematic.

Joi, you locate the problem of the Japanese response as being a reaction to a lack of apologies and this certainly explains a lot. However, I think the issue goes broader than this. As you hinted by mentioning the controversy over whether they were irresponsible, a look at the Japanese media and political responses shows that they are not just talking about apologies. This is an all out attack.

I believe that central to this attack is the idea of 自業自得 (jigôjitoku or "reap what one sows"). You may remember this old saying could be seen on several of the signs that protesters held when they "welcomed" the hostages home from Iraq. On Wednesday, I discussed this whole problem with a former Japanese prime minister. He was at first quite angry at the hostages. When I pressed him to define exactly what was problematic, he explained that it is like a man who climbs a dangerous mountain, has an accident and needs to be rescued. This man acted selfishly and must therefore accept responsibility.

In response to his explanation, I suggested the analogy doesn't hold water at all. Even if they are anti-government, and may have been less than fully prepared for the dangers of Iraq, they are emphatically different from those hostages some years ago who were caught hiking in the mountains in Kashmir (was that where it was?) and were killed one after the next. The supposedly "selfish" NGO and journalists who went to Iraq are 5 individuals who may or may not have been wise or sufficiently safe in taking precautions. However, they are part of an army (part of it literally so) of Japanese volunteers, NGO workers, journalists etc. There is a hidden mechanic of legitimacy at work here, I would suggest. Those who are "legitimately" working in the dangerous field, and those who are not.

I personally believe that this response shows a deep incompatibility (and here is where our normative arguments agree completely) between what Kikichiyo's blog points out as the "Jizo-san babies going to hell for causing worry for their parents" phenomenon, and Japan's strong desire (as seen in the sending of troops) to take its role as a "normal" country which can positively contribute to humanitarian efforts in the dangerous and troubled regions of the world.

I think you have accurately located the initial surge of anger against the hostages as arising from the apology issue. However, I don't think this can sufficiently explain why they have even been called han'nichiteki bunshi (anti-japanese elements) for their opposition to the sending of troops (and perhaps the fact that the parents of one/some are communists). The fact that these 5, international actors, stepped out of the community, out of the care and protection of their country (without the legitimate sanction of government legitimacy), and "selfishly" marched up the mountain to pursue their ideals in a far off place ironically produces shame in one country, while in others (like Norway and the US, that I am familiar with) they are more likely to be viewed with pride and sympathy for their suffering.

Deeply rooted culture or not, like all social change, Japanese need to ask themselves, Where do we want to go tomorrow?

Kmlawson: Deeply rooted culture or not, like all social change, Japanese need to ask themselves, Where do we want to go tomorrow?

Interesting observation indeed, but I think you have to consider more historical facts. Japan has the bitter experience about terrorism in the past, which is called Dhaka Incident in 1977, when the Japanese government resigned to the Japanese Red Army to help its action in Middle East and got criticism from around the world. The Japanese Red Army is well-known in the Middle East, and it adds popularity of Japanese in the area ironically. But that the Japanese are relatively vulnerable to terorrism is another known fact.

As you know, Japan can't have its own army because of the Constitution written by the US as the consequence of WWII, but had to deploy those in SDF for humanitarian work (yes, the same kind of work those NGO etc. want to do), to accede to the US and others, though it is said that the Japanese government paid huge money to local Iraqi leaders ( In this situation, Japan has no better way to act, since whatever direction it takes it will be criticized by someone. Impatient politicians will complain to come clean in public, though it should be incapable as policitian.

When a Japanease assume him/herself as one of Japanese citizen, he/she should know how to behave as a representative of his/her own country with all histrical lessons. (The Japanese are often criticized by people from other Asian countries on the points about incidents in WWII.) If you see this phenomenon only from transcendental point of view it may be seen as some cultural issues and so on, nevertheless considering historical context, there's cold logic in attack on those Japanese hostages who are almost the human shield action members. In other words, even the general public are too socialized in Japan and can't afford naive and humanitarian attitude unlike those in other countries because of piles of criticism on lack of action in international politics. The unfortunate thing is, this time the world criticized Japan again :)

This blog details the return of an American Marine, killed in action, to a small town in midwestern America. It's very long, but quite interesting in that it shows how much respect was given to the soldier, by everyone from the pilots of the planes to the ground crew at the airport.

Interesting to see it after reading about the Japanese hostages on this site.

I have an impression if the sister's hair was long, and the brother shaved his face at the first place, this whole thing did not upset me so much.

Joi, my experience with group psychology in Japan is that the group is as likely to spend a lot of effort bullying the perceived wayward member as it is helping a dropout regain group membership. I think the treatment of the returnee hostages reflects this penchant to bash group members who are have stepped out of the mold (or were never in the mold), for whatever reason. I have seen such bashing happen in too many situations too many times to believe otherwise.

So why would a people so quick to say excuse me and sorry before everything have such a problem saying it (and essentially asking for or giving forgiveness) after something happens?

In this case, I can't see any harm for the government and others to say 'we're thankful they're home and wish them well.' It could only help to reduce the threats and mental anguish against those families.

Similarly, it seems odd in such a polite and civilized society that the government will probably never acknowledge and apologize for war crimes against other asian peoples. It makes you wonder if a solider said 'excuse me' before forcing a chinese/korean comfort woman to submit to him.

Similarly, it seems odd in such a polite and civilized society that the government will probably never acknowledge and apologize for war crimes against other asian peoples.

I suppose if a lie is repeated often enough, it will start to be accepted as truth.
A string of Japanese prime ministers have issued apologies for Japan’s WW2 exactions. I see no reason to lend more credence to Chinese or Korean politically-motivated anti-Japanese propaganda than to the Japanese government’s or prime ministers’ pronouncements.

There is a lot to understand in Joi's reference to children's television.

When Japanese people grow up on a diet of stories about how a group can (by hook or by crook) 'rehabilitate' deviant members of the group who strike out on their own, it's not surprising that they might use the same narrative framework to understand what is going on when some Japanese people leave Japan against the advice of the government, and end up in trouble.

I think there might be some parallels between this type of behaviour, and the way some women who are raped end up being blamed for what happened.

The opposite point of view (that is backed up a lot by stories in Western culture) is the individual that stands up against the prevailing culture and is right. (The black woman who wouldn't sit at the back of the bus, Nelson Mandela, Columbus etc.) (A lot of the time we *see* the story in this way even though it might not be actually backed up by historical fact.)

Where I come from, there is a lot of talk about role models for youth (particularly in business/NGO work or politics, rather than music/entertainment.) I guess the idea grows out of a view that the individual that stands up and changes the culture is very valuable. Does this kind of phenomenon exist in Japan?

I've just come across this site, doing some research for a project I'm working on. The comments have been helpful. I wonder if any contributors might have thoughts and reflections on the similar-to-the-Iraq-hostage shame heaped on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For years following the war, these Hibakusha (survivors) were seen as symbols of Japanese defeat. They were not given respect and even necessary medical care. This situation has changed. Now they are mostly recognised as leading voices for nuclear disarmament. Here we have an example of the societal mind, the group-think changing over time. How? Why?

Also, the fact that the Japanese Prime Minister has violated Article 9 of the Constitution received little public rebuke. Who determines what is right and proper?

why then did the parents who are japanese not respond with japanese etiquette. it seems we should understand the reaction in context of the culture, yet the parents are of that culture. imagine the heartache, they spoke from their hearts. why did they defy their own culture then if it meant they would be so badly misunderstood - there must be more to this

Weaverluke comments that there is more diversity of comment in Japan than in the west with respect to Japanese atrocities during WWII. The articles and books he refers to apparently do not include Japan's official school textbooks. One can confirm this by talking with a twenty-something Japanese who is more likely to condemn the atomic bomb while denying the rape of Nanking.