Rant Time! Individuality vs. Freedom

Heavy topic! Not so heavy content!

In order to talk about what I have on my mind, I’m going to reach into personal anecdote and be very vague.

I volunteer at a learning center that helps kids in many ways, but I specialize in writing tutoring. (No ribs on my English, this is strictly Japanese writing.) Lately I’ve tutored a student who is the same age range I am in, but still older than me. I would have refused to have done it, but that we’re actually pretty separated and I have more experience in our common meeting purpose so I’m okay with it.

There was something of a small incident a while ago, wherein this student had read a short story with me, came up with a good writing prompt that was quite far-fetched, but plausible with the proof he gave. One of the other tutors (whom we’ll call Tsuyoshi) had to take over the writing one day and I came back to find that he changed the student’s thesis because he thought it was not right.

My idea had been to encourage this student to express whatever was on his mind as long as he had evidence to back it up and thought it through logically, because this student does have a problem with both. It was no one person in particular’s fault, but the essay came out very disjointed.

Recently I did that again, by encouraging the student to write about why he liked one of his hobbies better than writing. It was continued by another tutor (whom we’ll call Makoto) who is way older and more senior than I am and together they had come up with lots of evidence and great reasons why he liked his hobby better. Then Tsuyoshi came along the next day and had him rewrite it because he didn’t think it was appropriate to express that opinion at a center that helped with writing.

I can see his opinion, but I can also see that lots of students get turned off on writing because they aren’t allowed to express what they want to say and don’t understand well what they are forced to write about. So my idea was to get this student to write about things he believed in, because he’s very timid and show him that it can be done, as long as you’re doing it right.

I think there’s value in both of our approaches, but I’m not going to say anything because Tsuyoshi, while not as old or as superior to me as Makoto, is still older than me and superior in society. Even though Makoto seems to agree with me on how to teach the student.

One day I mentioned this dilemma of protocol (not the actual situation but the idea of keeping reserve due to social stratification). He disagreed with me. He asked me why I thought the way I did and I told him my basic reasoning, but wouldn’t go further and argue against him, because well, its obvious.

Makoto happens to be American and he mentioned that that’s why Asians tend to lack individuality. Which a statement that always tends to irk me. I really cannot agree that the more freedom you have, the more individuality you can have and vice versa. Its not that binary.

Just because you don’t rail against the system, or shout your views to the rooftops all the time, or you may hold back what you want to say, does not make you any less an individual. Nor does following the general flow of your society’s rules. You may call that conforming, but its not a black and white issue. While obviously its not something you should all the time, conforming to the norm can be awfully good sometimes.

I can’t tell you how much it annoyed me sometimes in classes when one person in particular will persist on giving their opinion and hold up what the teacher has planned to teach the rest of the class, all in the name of speaking their mind. (Provided it isn’t a discussion time.) They are hurting the majority by expressing their individuality, which is wrong. At another time, it may be right. Again, not black and white, there is no iron clad rule that says expressing who you are in blazon glory is ALWAYS the right thing to do in every situation.

It just ain’t that simple. And I would have a lot of people reflect that they conform and are similar in more ways than they think they are. And they are also different from others in more important ways than they realize without needing the freedom to express it.

Show me in this case, where any of the four of us have not been being who we are, even we can’t exactly express that within the situation. Japan’s societal codes on the issue may cause a problem for either me, the student, Makoto or Tsuyoshi. On the other hand, they may prevent it by getting all of our messages through to the student and having the value of each one related (instead, of say, confusing him and giving him mixed messages). If it comes to the point where I think I have to bring up our disagreements to somebody within our circle, I’ll be doing something wrong to somebody, but no rule was ever made to never, ever be broken and you can’t make a cool action scene without breaking skulls.

Okay I’m done now. ^_^

-Kitsune

My response is based on 2nd hand experiences. In the past I have dealt with people who’s job it was to recruit workers, manage them, or were corperate problem solvers. I also have friends who anthropologists and are employed in the international busniess scene to help deal with cultural problems that crop up with multi-national companies. Also my response is from my personal american point of view of what is right and wrong.

From the coperate world with reguards to Japan, it has been long seen as major problem in Japan of having a lack of creativity on a very high level. Japanease workers / coperate officers, are very good at reworking a concept and improving greatly upon pre-existing ideas. However, when asked to come up with somthing radically new, they fail time and time again.

Much of the really cool gadgets and stuff that comes from Japan actually did originate in America, only the American’s foolishly developed some idea and said “No one would ever want this.” and then threw it away. Meanwhile Japan comes along, picks the item up, polishes it, and sells it back to us 100 differant ways. While America is the leader in dropped ideas, perhaps the most famous dropped ball was the ‘stero belt’ invented by a german guy, who eventually failled to get some short-sighted american firms to manufacture the product. Sony picked up the idea and made the Walkman, and made millions on it.

Anyway the point is that Japan didn’t think of it. They recognize this and tend to import a few creative minds for these tasks. American’s are highly prized in corperate Japan for thier ability to come up with ideas. The question everyone asks is, why can’t the Japanease have thier own people fill this role?

It is strongly suspeceted to be the culture of Japan itself. American’s of Japanease decent tend to have the same creativity of other Americans. To me, that is a pretty clear indicator of the reason.

Indivuduality vs Creativity:
In some of your examples, such as the student who wished to discuss his point of view instead of just accepting the lesson the teacher had, is a very good metric of the possible problem. I ask you, did the student have a good point? Was is line of reasoning sound and logical? If the answer was yes, then he should have been encouraged along with the discussion. I know in our institutions of higher learning (and some better high-school teachers) really do encourage such discussions.

As an American, the fact that such a discussion was frowned upon, is disturbing to me (assuming of course the discssion had merrit). What you are really saying to me, is “Do not think for yourself. If you have a differing point of view, do not discuss it. Do not bother others with such an idea.”

All your examples you provided, from the essays, to the student, to the ‘social stations’, etc… seem to say, do not be an indivdual, think and do like the rest of us. Be one with the culture, do not question it. If you say to someone, you can have your own opinions all you want, just never express them, its the same as saying, do not have any other opinions.

Another thing I find disturbing, again as an American, is the reluctance to question people in a higher social station then you or even the fact you look at someone as more senior then you, therefor their opinion is more important then yours and in some cases trump it. I am not talking about the fact that a team leader says do X and a team member thinks he should do Y, but more like Team member A (who has been on the team longer) has his views taken over Team member B because he is more senior in some reguard.

Its just wrong. We would like to think someone who is older is also wiser, but that is frequently not the case. As an American I strongly feel everyone should be measured by his or her individual abilties, not by how much money they make, thier political connections, or by thier age.

It seems to me that in Japan that is the case. You have some social rank based on some facts beyond your control. Your age, the time you have worked somewhere, maybe even your familly name (I have no idea if this is true). In America, such things are absurd. I am not saying they never happen, but the average american does not automatically feel someone else is better then them becuase they are richer or thier last name is Dupont, or whatever. If you are better, you must prove it.

Of couse that isn’t how it actually works here, but thats the way it is supposed to work. My perception of Japan, however, is that is not the way it is supposed to work.

In conclusion, my answer is that the people doing the the papers should have been left alone and not told to change thier subjects, and the student in class who asked questions and expressed his opinions should have. Individuality and freedom go hand and hand.

I hope this helps.

More than that, we should try to avoid judging ideas based on who presents them. Anyone can say something idiotic, even experienced, intelligent people. In the long run, it helps no one if they don’t get called on it. The truth survives close examination. The best working relationships are when you can think about the idea, without having your mind crowded by a bunch of social calculations.

Social status? Superior in society? Could you perhaps elaborate a little on those concepts because the way you present them seem utterly alien to me.

Sure.

For social status, the grand, general way it works in Japanese society is that you are either deemed a person who contributes to society (an adult who has a job and works at it) or not (anyone else). If you’re somebody who contributes to society, then you are in a different class and to be respected by those who don’t.

On the flipside, there are many different types of people in this world, right? Just because you contribute society doesn’t mean you can do and say whatever you want and have it be respected, so you’re restricted to your role. Anything outside the role is to be approached with caution, given the benefit of the doubt and a maximum of politeness. So say you’re a writer for a company, you might be in the writer’s role and thus can speak more intimately with writers, but people from other companies you must raise your level of respect for, and they for you, precisely because they/you aren’t in your situation and don’t have a full awareness of everything that’s going on.

So while someone who contributes to society is in general supposed to be respected above who doesn’t, if, say, they’re going around criticizing your interest in baseball and you are a kid (and thus not someone who yet contributes to society) then you don’t have exactly put forth a great deal of trust into what they say, though you still have treat them politely.

Superiority only refers to experience, not like in a discriminatory, whites are better than blacks dumb way. If someone has been in a position for a longer period of time than you, than you defer to them. That’s also true for age.

Its assumed the older you are the more experience you have and thus know of some things that younger people can’t quite grasp yet.

In this way, it is often the older more experienced person responsible for the younger who gets punished, because they should have known better to guide you better, but at the same time, it reflects on the younger person because they should have been representing their role and group better.

So in this case I defer to Tsuyoshi and Makoto even though they disagree with each other and I won’t be bringing up any of my thoughts, because 1) They’re both contributing to society as writers, while I am not 2) they are older than I am and have lots of experience in the way of the world 3) they have lots more experience teaching kids than I do. I’m assuming that if I start something, it will only cause trouble and if there was any need to do something, these two would have thought of it or will think of it and act. (Beside the other two people who are in charge of this particular student.)

Thus for me to speak out on this would be called something namaiki, which means I’d be arrogant to assume I know better.

Its not iron clad, its just the general societal rule that you follow. People who don’t follow it can go up in society, people who do can still be seen as rude, its there and everyone has their own interpretation on how to follow it. It was mostly developed out of religious practices and Confucian ideas such as filial piety.

Is this enough to show what I was operating under in the original post? My point being that following these values don’t make you any less of an individual or free.

-Kitsune

But it does. You assume someone who has been in a job longer then you is wiser.

What if they arn’t?

You assume an older person is wiser in the ways of the world.

What if they arn’t?

Ill give you a real life case and point that happend to me:

Some time in the past, I got a new job with a very small software company. I was the new guy. The project leader was also a teacher who taught programming at a university (not a colledge). He was also one of the original guys on the project and was older then me, but not by much.

From what I take of Japanease culture, from what you describe, is that this guy should be totally superior to me. He is older, he also teachers, was in the superior work position to me, and was on the job longer. He should have my most utmost respect right?

After several months on the job my opinion of the guy has gotten very low. Nothing big, just lots of little things. One thing that irritates me is that he looks for answers in books for everything. I do not mean he frequently consults books, but any algorithmic problem, he has to find it in a book. In other words, he can not invent his own solution.

Samples of code he has written are cut and paste from books, almost litteraly. One day when trying to debug his code, he showed me where he got it from, and it was some text book. His code was identical, to spacing, to variable names, everything.

The one day, the shit hit the fan. Kurt, the programmer in question here, got back from vacation. Another programmer, named Dirk, a german guy, went on vacation. We had trouble with the server code, which Kurt and Dirk jointly managed. Kurt couldn’t fix it, and after a week for 80 hours and a full weekend of work, he gave up. He was totally useless. Now I remind you he was the project manager and a server programmer. He should have had a clue. Dirk gets back from Germany, and fixes the problem in about 15 minutes. A few weeks later, Kurt was fired.

How is this handled in Japan? He has all the things going for him, yet all of the classic indicators here (age, senority, etc…) were wrong. Are we to be polite and not disagree with people like that?

I got into huge fights with Kurt before he left. He would tell me how to code and demand I do things his way. I ignored him and did it my way, and in the end that turned out to be a very very wise course of action.

Throughout all this, some very senior people at the company came to respect me alot. There are other programmers here who are both older and been working longer here then I have. Yet who do the owners trust? Me. When I disagree with a course of action code wise, it is my opinion that carries the most weight. It does piss some people off, but they have no legs to stand on.

Now you might wonder what I did to get on the good side of the upper management and owners. Its simple. I did a very good job. I wrote solid code with very few bugs. I write code quickly. When there are bugs, the resolution time is usually in minutes. Finally, I am very honest with management and tell them I think doing X will not be easy, or Y is a very bad Idea, and we should do it like Z intead of like X. I tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. In the face of that, the other programmers can not compete with me.

How would all this work in Japan? It seems a lot of stuff in Japanese culture is based on assumptions. Older is wiser, Senior is more knowledgable then Junior. For the most part, that is proabbly true, but not always. How do you cross these lines in Japan? Sometimes something needs to be said, and there is no polite way to put it. Sometimes you may have a great idea that is not in your field, how do you voice it? Will the average Japanease person just keep silent and keep to thier social station?

Kitsune, IMHO, I think you were right to tell your student to write about what intrests him rather then what some tutor dictates. I think it is wrong to automatically acquiesce to a serior persons suggestion if you disagree with it.

You should have challenged him, in private, and you two should have discussed it. If he was right, he would have sound reasons and put your reservations to rest. Instead that didn’t happend. You just assumed he was wiser and therefore gave in.

There was another failure here that also has been overlooked. The student himself. If I was being told to write a paper and it could be on any subject, and then started writting it about a subject I liked, and then someone suggested I write about something else, my first instinct would be to tell them to fuck off. If thier suggestion had merrit then I might change, however, it would not be simply because they had a higher social rank or something like. He should have instinctivly stuck to his guns, but he didn’t. Why not?

So Kalle did you have any input on this or were you just wondering about the assumptions behind my reasoning in the first post?

-Kitsune

Keeping in mind that I am a grubby, xenophobic American Kitsune, and am unfamiliar with Japanese societal/sociological variations from Western culture.

IMO, Tsuyoshi is a loser and I would like to stuff him in a garbage can with something unpleasant and preferably rotting and bloated with maggots for being such a tyrant. I find his guidance an abuse of his position as a tutor, and the man (let’s say) couldn’t think outside the box since the day he was born and came out of one, as far as I’m concerned. But, you know, maybe that’s the Japanese way, or one of the many Japanese ways, so I don’t mean to offend. The ways, anyway, Hell if I care about offending Tsuyoshi. Seriously criticizing a body of writing because it’s about how much the writer would rather do something other than write? Horrors! How can you dare get assistance in writing if it is not your greatest passion above all else? Please. Man, I wouldn’t be able to get classes in anything but Acting Like a Poser to Get Laid if that’s how things were done.

I can see his opinion, but I can also see that lots of students get turned off on writing because they aren’t allowed to express what they want to say and don’t understand well what they are forced to write about.

I can see his opinion too, and it sucks like a two-dollar whore with a 20-spot in her pocket. Poor explanation/comprehension of the subject and suppression of free verse (that’s “free verse,” not “Free Verse,” you pedantic bastards)? Man, really? That just sucks, Kit. That’s like the one-two punch to kill the writing bug in any soul.

So my idea was to get this student to write about things he believed in, because he’s very timid and show him that it can be done, as long as you’re doing it right.

I’m with that. I’m with everything you’ve said about yourself and your approach, incidentally. I hope it doesn’t get you like thrown in a gulag or exiled to Nippon or something.

I think there’s value in both of our approaches, but I’m not going to say anything because Tsuyoshi, while not as old or as superior to me as Makoto, is still older than me and superior in society. Even though Makoto seems to agree with me on how to teach the student.

Go Makato! No offense Kitsune, but like almost nobody here knows what “superior in society” implies. You’re both tutors, right? Is he a Hirohito, or something? His dad own a golf course over there?

One day I mentioned this dilemma of protocol (not the actual situation but the idea of keeping reserve due to social stratification). He disagreed with me. He asked me why I thought the way I did and I told him my basic reasoning, but wouldn’t go further and argue against him, because well, its obvious.

Makoto happens to be American

Aha! Next time, go with “Steve” for an alias, if you like.

and he mentioned that that’s why Asians tend to lack individuality. Which a statement that always tends to irk me. I really cannot agree that the more freedom you have, the more individuality you can have and vice versa. Its not that binary.

Huh what? Its not about binary, Dawg. It’s about synergism, or laying the proper foundation to maximize your possibilities. Or something. I mean, if you are allowed more freedom, you merely increase the chances that you or whomever else might do something with that leeway of freedom, as opposed to the uphill battle of railing against it. Man, it’s hard enough to express one’s individuality when you’re allowed to, you know? Most people are terrible at it. But when there is fear or trepidation of repercussions for doing so, it’s like “Take the path of least resistance,” you know?

Just because you don’t rail against the system, or shout your views to the rooftops all the time, or you may hold back what you want to say, does not make you any less an individual. Nor does following the general flow of your society’s rules. You may call that conforming, but its not a black and white issue. While obviously its not something you should all the time, conforming to the norm can be awfully good sometimes.

Unless the norm is something craptacular like…oh, I don’t want to go all Godwin here. Pet rocks? Parachute pants? Mop top haircuts? SERIOUSLY GUYS YOU LOOK STUPID. But regardless, suppression can easily lead to atrophy of the will and it can become a habit to not think independently.

I can’t tell you how much it annoyed me sometimes in classes when one person in particular will persist on giving their opinion and hold up what the teacher has planned to teach the rest of the class, all in the name of speaking their mind. (Provided it isn’t a discussion time.) They are hurting the majority by expressing their individuality, which is wrong.

Er, IMO they are disrupting class with poor timing and lack of respect for what the group time is meant for, not by expressing their individuality per se. I’d try to not dismiss free expression outright simply on the basis of improper timing.

At another time, it may be right. Again, not black and white, there is no iron clad rule that says expressing who you are in blazon glory is ALWAYS the right thing to do in every situation.

Of course. But again, it’s more about time and place - and, you know, helping ensure there is a time and place. IMO, creative writing would be it.

It just ain’t that simple. And I would have a lot of people reflect that they conform and are similar in more ways than they think they are. And they are also different from others in more important ways than they realize without needing the freedom to express it.

Show me in this case, where any of the four of us have not been being who we are, even we can’t exactly express that within the situation. Japan’s societal codes on the issue may cause a problem for either me, the student, Makoto or Tsuyoshi. On the other hand, they may prevent it by getting all of our messages through to the student and having the value of each one related (instead, of say, confusing him and giving him mixed messages). If it comes to the point where I think I have to bring up our disagreements to somebody within our circle, I’ll be doing something wrong to somebody, but no rule was ever made to never, ever be broken and you can’t make a cool action scene without breaking skulls.

Okay I’m done now. ^_^

-Kitsune

You see, Kitsune, not everybody is as on top of the situation as you are. People can be easily discouraged, and are more than willing to stifle themselves if they think it will make their life easier. In other words, lots of people don’t think like you do - I guess that’s one of those individuality-type things, yes? - and a lot of people will let themselves be ruled, even in their own private thoughts.

You know Kitsune, I was trying to find something to say in my reply but I just couldn’t think of anything worthwhile. I don’t want to talk about stuff I don’t know anything about, and Japanese culture as you describe it definitely qualifies as stuff I have a hard time understanding.

But my opinion, for what it’s worth, is that Japanese society seems to make a stifling rule out of what I’ve always seen as common sense. Deferring to people with more experience and/or skills is common sense. Simply assuming that they have that experience on account of their status or whatever you call it is just plain dumb.

Are you less free if you follow these rules? It would depend on the individual, but it does seem to breed a conformist state of mind.