Waseda University

Article for Waseda University International Division News, no. 40 (August 1, 1997)

Joseph Adler, Resident Director
GLCA/ACM Japan Study Program

You Gotta Have Wa is the title of a popular book by an American expatriate, Robert Whiting, about Japanese baseball. Wa, of course, is the "harmony" or "team spirit" that baseball players in Japan must cultivate and demonstrate on and off the field in order to succeed and to be accepted by the Japanese baseball establishment and public. Those who cannot or will not submit to the exhausting schedule of practice during the year and the mindless and sometimes humiliating public appearances during the off-season can either try their luck and skill in American baseball (like Hideo Nomo) or find some other line of work.

Many Westerners who come to Japan for extended periods have an intellectual understanding of some of the fundamental concepts and values, such as wa, that shape Japanese society. But we soon learn the meaning of the cliche that experiential knowledge is quite different from intellectual knowledge. When I came to Japan last August I had only a little personal experience, having spent five weeks here once before, and a fair amount of theoretical knowledge of Japanese culture. I knew about such things as the importance of social harmony, the network of mutual obligations that binds individuals together, the preference for indirect communication, the aesthetic appreciation of subtlety and impermanence, and so forth. I was, and still am, full of admiration for these and other characteristics that more or less define Japanese culture. While every culture is unique and valuable in its own right, I especially found the Japanese emphasis on the social dimension of human life and the aversion to aggressive behavior a refreshing change from the excessive individualism and violence of contemporary American society.

But learning through experience offers not only a deeper understanding of a culture but also, paradoxically perhaps, a more ambiguous one. Seeing wa in practice has reminded me that complex social phenomena, even those seemingly imbued with life-affirming human spirit, can have certain dysfunctional aspects.

Wa, as I have come to see it, is connected with the Japanese preference for indirect communication, which is often used to avoid potential disagreement, confrontation, or negative emotions -- thus preserving, at least on the surface, social harmony. But the result is often that what could be a very simple and effective communication or negotiation becomes a problem, fraught with misunderstanding or miscommunication, involving more people than those directly involved, thus multiplying the possibility of miscommunication. The potential problems are often so complex -- with the number of people whose hypothetical feelings have to be taken into account, and the various permutations of possible misunderstandings that can be envisioned -- that in fact nothing is done. In this way, the most trivial interactions (from a Western perspective) become problematic, and real problems are often left unsolved.

I suspect that this is part of the reason why so many Japanese people have little confidence in their government to make fundamental changes, e.g. in the educational and political systems, which so many say are in need of change. Japanese bureaucracies operate by the same principles as Japanese society at large; the bureaucratic inertia caused by the need to achieve consensus and avoid conflict is overwhelming. Thus people consider it a truism that paralysis is the normal state of affairs, and that real systematic change is excruciatingly slow. It doesn't matter whether a young, relatively iconoclastic man becomes Prime Minister: nothing will change. A Socialist as Prime Minister? Nothing will change. (And in fact nothing did.)

But no culture is static; even deep-rooted values can change. The recent scandal involving sokaiya, or "corporate racketeers," illustrates both the old and the new. Their employment by company executives to suppress dissent at stockholders' meetings is an example of the dysfunctional aspect of wa. But at least the system and the public have deemed this unacceptable. Perhaps the superficial concept of wa -- a surface harmony that disguises or ignores real differences and unpleasant facts -- will eventually give way to a more realistic and effective goal of a harmony of wills.