Why do many Japanese houses have frosted windows? 2nd attempt

In my first attempt I seem to remember writing about the similarities to traditional shoji paper windows and in both cases the aim being, in typical Japanese style, as much to stop you inconveniencing others by looking into their gardens and houses as to stop them looking into your living room (especially if you live in an apaato which your neighbours built in their garden to get some extra cash). With this attempt I want to go a bit deeper, and as is often the case the insight (if it is that!) was prompted by asking the opposite question- Why do we only put frosted windows in our bathrooms?

My own reaction to completed closed shoji or frosted windows is an extreme version of a typical Western one, to feel trapped and claustrophobic, as I’d imagine a prisoner lusting after being able to see a centimetre of sky from their window must feel. Claustrophobia, however, is very much not a Japanese concept. In fact, I often think that the Japanese family and family home are supposed to promote an atmosphere that is inward-looking and shutting out the outside world, the most extreme version being the hikikomori who seal off their windows and doors. I humbly offer the theory that shoji and frosted windows are a part of that, along with less tangible things like dropping all keigo and other standards of polite behaviour at home, especially for small kids.

Hmmmm, that seemed like a logically coherent concept when it popped into my head this morning, but certainly doesn’t look that way now on the screen. Maybe I’ve been reading too many Japanese and Korean newspaper editorials?? Still pretty sure there is something there though…

Why do Japanese companies not want to hire older workers?

I don’t know if it still happens, but two years ago I was still seeing lots of job ads clearly saying “35 years old or younger”. The main reason is that the company will have to pay an increment for age and possibly having dependants, as described in the post before last. All this extra outlay would come without any guarantee of being a better employee than someone straight out of college, as job references don’t exist and people mainly leave good companies for bad reasons.

Japanese companies also seem to prefer employing “blank slate” graduates who they can then train into the company way and slot into the company wherever they like, graduate recruits not being given any hint of future job title. Actually, train is probably the wrong word as, just like Japanese society generally, new employees are supposed to pick up what to do by example and other forms of osmosis rather than actually being told anything. This is obviously even trickier for older people to manage. There is also the problem that seniority gets confusing when age doesn’t match with number of years in the company, as it would if everyone was recruited straight out of university. In another post I came up with the very hesitant theory that maybe Japanese men usually dye their grey hair as they’d be embarrassed to be thought of as old and still in a lowly position in the company. There was a funny sketch in the excellent show Salaryman Neo where a new employee kept on being mistaken for a manager in this way, and most Japanese men I know with natural grey hair are in more creative jobs.

Why would anyone coat a park in grey dust?

My twelve month old daughter loves the local parks here in Tokyo. In fact, so busy is she sitting on the ground making grey dust clouds, putting grey dust on her clothes, tasting grey dust etc, that she doesn’t find time to try any of the swings, slides etc that she used to explore in our neighbourhood parks in Seoul (which were coated in undistracting soft matting of some kind). Not sure the local government specifically set it up for the entertainment of one year olds. The only possible reasons I could come up with:

– Kids less likely to hurt themselves than on most surfaces (obviously the most important thing in Ni-go-chuu-i-kudasai-ppon)

– Less likelihood of permanent stains than on grass

– Cheap and easy to maintain (an influence on so many things with a flat economy for basically twenty years and totally squeezed government budgets that are not helped by the profligacy of the bubble years, bubble years that local ward governments in Seoul seem to be going through in Seoul right now…)

Much more colourful and amusing posts on parks from the much missed Englishman in Osaka:

Playgrounds of the world

Puny parks

Why do/ did Japanese companies increase pay with age?

I was very surprised to learn that it was, according to Kazutoshi Koshiro in A Fifty Year History of Industry and Labor in Postwar Japan, the result of union action and with the aim of redistributing wealth:

“In the fall of 1946, a labor dispute in the government-operated electric power industry led to the institutionalization of an important age-based component in wage determination throughout Japan. Densan, the electric power industry union, demanded not only a large wage increase, but a “living wage” in which a large portion of wages would be determined according to age and the number of dependant family members irrespective of skill, work experience, and educational background. The idea of a living wage quickly spread around the country, bringing a reduction in the wage differentials between blue- and white-collar workers” (page 11)

Unfortunately, one result is that Japanese companies try to avoid hiring older workers, especially those with children. More on that in the next post.

Why the Japanese obsession with quality and reliability?

“On the expressways of Tokyo, where there is no room for a shoulder on the roadway, one stalled car can back up traffic for miles- in itself enough to require that Japanese cars to be reliable” Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan (1990)

Not convinced by that, as it is far from limited to the car industry and in that industry more than others the drive to quality was driven by export demands rather than domestic ones. The same book does have some more likely candidates for explanations, though:

– “In many Japanese organisations, employees are judged by the mistakes they make in the course of their careers rather than by the accomplishments” (page 25)

– The Japanese level of customer service makes responding to quality concerns very expensive and therefore best avoided at all costs- “For example, when a customer’s computer system goes down, the manufacturer of the system sends an engineer immediately and also keeps the engineer on the scene until the problem is fixed… Such an approach is costly for the manufacturer and thus underscores the need for quality products from the start” (page 96/97)

– The Japanese emphasis on conformity (wearing uniforms, group exercises etc) makes it easy to concentrate on quality and less easy to build originality etc

All those cultural factors fail to explain, however, why Japanese companies were known for making cheap, low quality crap from Meiji times well into the 1970s, and why Toyota is only the highest profile example of shocking lapses in quality control in many Japanese companies recently, especially food companies.

My favourite explanation is that it all goes back to that reputation for cheap, shoddy goods and a patriotic desire to do away with that picture of Japanese products once and for all. That tied in nicely with Zen-influenced ideas like attention to detail, but other factors like being able to ignore short term profitability and share price were much more important. When the obsession moved onto other things, e.g. Toyota trying to use becoming world number 1 as their new employee motivator (in place of decent pay and conditions with job security, obviously, as those were being cut), then quality soon suffered.

In other words, historical, economic and accidental factors might have been reinforced by cultural ones, but were much much more important than “the Japanese way”

Why do the Japanese not speak better English? 2nd attempt

Finally found a written source that agrees with my own favourite theory:

“Not only do they not practice speaking English, but they do not wish to become too good at it for fear of becoming outcasts in their own society. I have found that business-people from the newly industrializing economies speak much better English, mainly because in their societies they get positive reinforcement for speaking English”

Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan, pg xx

Here is my first attempt over on my English teaching blog TEFLtastic:

Why do the Japanese not speak better English?

Why is the foreign source of something often still marked in Japanese words?

The one that always surprises me is youfuku (洋服ー ようふく- Western clothes) when it would seem to be more sensible nowadays to mark out the very rarely worn Japanese clothes for a special name, but there are a few more such as using gaisha (外車ーがいしゃ- car from outside, or foreign car) much more than “foreign car” or “imported car” would be used in any other language I know.

The book I’m reading says that gaisha is a way of showing off because even recently non-Japanese cars were rare and almost always expensive imports (Korean cars and European hatchbacks being rarely if ever sold here), but I’m not convinced that this is still a factor, even if it was in 1990 when Gaishi- The Foreign Company in Japan was written. I also don’t think that 1% of Japanese using the word youfuku are actually thinking of jeans or a suit as foreign. Maybe it is simply that two kanji expressions like this are just two syllables and so as easy to say as kuruma (車ー くるまー car), if not easier.

Why are the Japanese so into robots?

According to Jennifer Robertson (Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan) on the latest edition of the ever-fabulous Thinking Allowed (Radio 4, latest edition available as podcast for a week), it probably has something to do with the Japanese still believing in the animist religion that is Shinto and so easily believing that a robot can have a soul. Sounds like a load of tosh to me, but all explanations of things Japanese are welcome on JapanExplained! She also mentions the more humdrum reasons of wanting to solve the shortage of manpower without immigration, and the Japanese government trying to find a high-tech industry that they can still dominate when the Koreans and then Chinese are catching up with everything else. I’m sure she couldn’t suggest that Japanese service already has a robotic quality to it on the BBC, so let me be the first to do so here…

More on the main topic of her research:

Gendering Humanoid Robots: Robo-Sexism in Japan
Body Society June 2010 vol. 16 no. 2 1-36
doi: 10.1177/1357034X10364767