A Collision at the Crossroads

Why Japan and the West Rarely Meet on Equal Terms

"Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that complete absorption can only be achieved through complete immersion."


The crossroads where East meets West is a dangerous place. The encounters that occur at this cultural intersection can be dynamic and exciting, but they are rarely smooth. Standing here at the crossroads, as I have done for almost 40 years, I am witness to a massive ongoing collision of cultures that occasionally results in productive couplings, but more often leads only to friction and heat.

Successful meetings at the crossroads can be hugely productive, more because of the diversity they bring to bear than in spite of it. The clashes and failures generally serve only to increase distrust and strengthen the conviction that those “other people” are impossible to deal with, lessening the likelihood that there will be any further progress and, in the extreme, creating fertile ground for the growth of xenophobia and racism. To be successful at the crossroads you need to bring a willingness to accept cultural differences and, within that framework, the capacity for open-minded communication.

The key is communication, with emphasis on “open-minded” communication, because the rules can change dramatically in different cultures. The obstacles to reaching a mutual understanding across the yawning cultural divide should not be underestimated, and special care must be taken to ensure that even if an agreement is reached both parties don’t walk away with totally different interpretations of what has transpired. The troubles we have making ourselves understood within our own culture are trivial by comparison. Speaking the same language helps, but it is not enough. The language must be spoken with the same meaning and intent on both sides, and this is rarely the case when one or both parties are not native to the language used. The vocabulary and grammar might be the same, but the cultural backgrounds – the thought processes – that are behind he words are likely to be quite different, imbuing the language with meaning that is more obvious to the speaker than to the listener. Implication, intimation, and even body language complicate things even further. And of course some concepts, such as certain types of humor, simply don’t translate well at all, even if expressed in a common language. The cultural crossroads is a minefield that must be negotiated with great care and, whenever possible, a reliable map.

Most people feel that they are in touch with their own culture. For many it is a matter of pride. The flip side, an aspect that is generally not sufficiently acknowledged where understanding is the goal, is that most people are not truly in touch with other cultures and need to be fully aware of that fact when attempting any kind of communication outside their own sphere. The assumption that all people on the planet have, or should have, the same hopes and ideals and want the same life is a monumental mistake that in extreme cases leads to war and genocide. Recent history provides far too many examples. While intimacy with one’s own culture is as easy as growing up, the fact that we only grow up once, and usually within the confines of a single culture, makes an equal understanding of other cultures next to impossible. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that complete absorption can only be achieved through complete immersion. You can’t pick up culture from a book or movie. You can learn what it looks like superficially, and even mimic its external appearance, but to really understand you would have to spend a considerable amount of time living in – immersed in – that culture. An Elvis impersonator is not Elvis (now there’s an example of a culture-centric concept … fortunately Japan has its share of Elvis impersonators, so the analogy is not entirely inappropriate). This applies directly to modern “Westernized” Japan. It looks like a Western society in many ways, and as a result many Westerners approach it as such, only to find that things don’t work as expected. The opposite is true as well: many Japanese believe themselves to be thoroughly Westernized, and attempt to handle relations with the West without realizing that they are actually dealing with something very different. Both parties are often surprised to learn that they are not being understood, and attribute the problem to the individual they are dealing with rather than the cultural upbringing that informs the individual’s perceptions and interpretations. It is necessary to look a little further.

Under its thin veneer of Westernization, Japan is very, very Japanese. This is good and as it should be, but it is easy to get confused. A collision course is established when, due to ignorance, arrogance, or simply being fooled by external appearances, one or both parties fail to acknowledge and allow for the fundamental, underlying differences. The key to effective inter-cultural communication is in understanding and working with the differences. You certainly can’t change them. Fortunately, you don’t have to change your religion or devote a large portion of your life to living in and absorbing another culture in order to achieve effective communication. You do need to be observant, open-mined, and willing to examine ideas in a new, unfamiliar light, even if your culture-formed gut reaction tells you they’re wrong.