The Japanese—Still Unknown
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 26 Apr 1979, p. 339-350
Suma, His Excellency Michiaki, Speaker
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Reference to the Summit Conference of seven industrialized countries, including Canada, to take place in Tokyo for the first time, over the course of the next two months. The subject of the address is the country and people of Japan, a poorly understood culture, that understanding necessary to building a stronger association between Canada and Japan. The premise that people are greatly affected by their geography and climate. This premise in relation to the Japanese. The double nature of the Japanese. An examination and explication of the Japanese people and culture. The concepts of "vertical" and "horizontal;" the division of work and home; the relationship between boss and subordinate. Qualifications and characteristics of leaders in Japan. Japan's position in the world. Goals for the future of Japan.
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26 Apr 1979
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Full Text
APRIL 26, 1979
The Japanese--Still Unknown
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald W. Lewis


Your Highness, Your Excellency, distinguished guests, members and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: To a Japanese the name of his country is not Japan but "Dai Nihon" or "Nippon," and it is from the meanings of these two words, "dai" meaning "great" and "nihon" meaning "origin of the sun" that we get the phrase which is as familiar to us as is the name of the country, "the land of the rising sun." And The Empire Club of Canada is much honoured today to have as its guest speaker the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to Canada, His Excellency Michiaki Suma.

To the average North American, the Far East, the Orient and Asia still evoke a sense of mystery, excitement and adventure brought on largely by popular novels and Hollywood movies. Nor is this concept of the Far East necessarily dispelled when we see the words "Made in Japan" on a wide variety of goods which are equally exciting and mysterious to most of us. There are very few Canadian homes that do not possess at least one example of the electronic or photographic wizardry now synonymous with the excellence of Japanese craftsmanship and design. Many of us will never master your language, Sir, but rest assured that names like Sony, Nikon, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Honda have become integral and prestigious parts of the English language.

I venture to suggest that our guest may himself have played a rather significant role in the emergence of his nation as an industrial and commercial giant. He entered the diplomatic service on graduation from the Faculty of Law at the University of Tokyo and rose through progressively more responsible offices in his country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1961 he began a phase of his career that would see him holding representational posts in almost every continent, first as Consul in New York, as Counsellor in the Netherlands in 1964, as Deputy Director General for Economic Affairs in Tokyo in 1966, as Ambassador to Tanzania in 1969, as Consul General in Hong Kong in 1972, as Ambassador to Malaysia in 1974, and in 1978 he was appointed to his present post as Ambassador to Canada. We are indeed fortunate that a diplomat with such a distinguished record of service to his country has found time in a very busy schedule to address the members of The Empire Club of Canada.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured at this time to present to you the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to Canada, His Excellency Michiaki Suma.


Mr. President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: Great is the honour you bestow on me by your invitation to speak today. It was indeed a surprise to be asked to replace Mr. Ushiba and to be encouraged by him and many others to accept this invitation to talk before the prestigious Empire Club. Mr. Ushiba, former Minister of State for External Economic Affairs, deeply regrets that he was unable to come to Canada due to late developments in the Multilateral Trade Negotiations for which he was responsible. He wishes me to extend to The Empire Club of Canada his sincere apologies.

I hope that you, who had been looking forward to enjoying a play performed by a renowned actor and who have suddenly been obliged to listen to it performed by the understudy instead will bear with me.

There is a story about a candidate being examined for the diplomatic service in Japan. It was before the war when Japan still had the old constitution. An examiner in English conversation asked an applicant "What is the content of the Emperor's Diplomatic Prerogative?" The applicant answered according to Article 13 of the Constitution and mentioned the Imperial prerogative of declaring war, etc. He then went on to explain that another was that the Emperor appoints an Ambassador--and also disappoints an Ambassador! Former Minister Mr. Ushiba appointed me to accept this pleasant duty, but I hope that does not mean I am to disappoint this distinguished audience.

As you are well aware, in the course of the next two months the Summit Conference of seven industrialized countries of the world, including Canada, will be held for the first time in Asia, in Tokyo. Mr. Ushiba for the last two years has been actively negotiating with other industrialized nations involved in the Multilateral Trade Negotiations for the preparation of such a conference. Only backed by such extensive experience could he have made a speech on the subject which has been announced in your circular. As I lack this immediate experience and as I was told that I could speak on whatever topic I might choose, I would like to revert to an entirely different subject. I believe it is an aspect of international relations that is as important in its way as are economic problems.

My subject is "The Japanese--Still Unknown." I selected it because a better understanding of my country and her people is essential if, together, we are to realize the full potential of the association between our two countries.

Just in case you might think that the Japanese Ambassador is a very brilliant man, I must confess to you that I have drawn on many gifted scholars and writers in organizing my remarks, principally Dr. Watsuji and Professor Chie Nakane.

The products of Japan are widely known in the world. People everywhere are familiar with Japanese brand names and the quality of their contents. Of the Japanese people who have produced this merchandise, however, little is known. Few people actually know the location of Japan on the globe. The typical face of Asia, particularly I think to Canadians, is that of the Chinese people. Japanese culture is hidden behind the façade of the culture of China and is identified with it.

I was greatly surprised that, last autumn while before a gathering of Torontonians, I was introduced as the Chinese Ambassador of Japan. I cannot blame that individual for his mistake because many Canadians might make the same error. If you allow me I will tell you one more story in this regard.

When I served in Tanzania, East Africa, between 1969 and 1972, I was at a gathering of the diplomatic corps when the French Ambassador approached me and said, "Hello, Ambassador of an ultra-capitalistic country. How do you do?" I replied by saying, "When you began to speak I thought you might have asked about the progress of my French." A Charge d'Affaires of Belgium standing nearby, listening to our conversation, related a conversation he had had with one of his African employees. "Just a few days ago this employee asked me: `Baroji!'--meaning Ambassador in Swahili--`why are there two kinds of Chinese in Tanzania? One kind wears dirty clothes, looks poor, but works very hard; another kind wears a good suit, rides in a modern car with a camera on his shoulder, and looks like an American."' As you will recognize, this was a comparison of the Japanese and Chinese. It emphasizes the confusion in the minds of many people as to just who the Japanese are.

In a conversation last year, your Prime Minister told me that Canadians are not much interested in the outside world. I did not take his words at their face value, but I do believe that interest, as it concerns Japan, may not go very deep. I presume many of you have had contact with Japanese, in a social or business way, and some of you may have negotiated with them since the relationship between Canada and Japan has become so close. But do you really know very much about them, what makes them tick? Does the average Canadian, for instance, know why the Japanese flock to British Columbia with bundles of cash to buy "herring roe?" They are frantic to buy this delicacy and many people find it hard to understand. This is a simple matter of a difference in taste, but there are many other, more fundamental differences. These can only be understood by explaining something of the history and development of Japanese society and culture.

It goes without saying that a human being is affected in his mode of life and also in his mode of thinking by the natural features of the region where he was born and lives. We can safely say that East Asia, including China and Japan, belongs to the monsoon area. Scientists tell us that the people who live in the monsoon area are weaker in their resistance to nature compared with those living in cold climates or in the desert.

They attribute this to the constant humidity. Such humidity is most trying and almost impossible to avoid. Therefore humidity becomes a major influence on human thought and behaviour. It is a power strong enough to discourage human resistance. It makes people subservient. Generally speaking then, we can say human beings living in the monsoon area are passive and subservient.

Nevertheless, we cannot define the Japanese people only in these terms. The abundant humidity brings about, on the one hand, seasonal but abrupt changes such as typhoons, a force incomparable in its fierceness. On the other hand, humidity often takes the form of a rare but heavy snowfall. Japan, therefore, has a very peculiar climate which, because of dense humidity, can give both heavy rain and heavy snow. It is a double structure with both tropical and frigid conditions.

The double nature of the typhoon, seasonal and abrupt, is reflected in the nature of the people. This duality--passive and subservient, tropical and frigid--is basic to an understanding of the Japanese people. As the seasonal typhoon is sudden and fierce, so the sentiment of the people reveals an unexpected and deep intensity. The intensification of the Japanese people's sentiment often finds itself in this abruptness and ferocity. It is a Japanese characteristic to acknowledge and respect this intensity of sentiment, but to deplore its being prolonged. The cherry blossom has a special significance to Japanese. The cherry blossom represents this characteristic in its deepest meaning. It blooms suddenly and with a great show, but does not bloom tenaciously. It blooms quickly and then simply fades away.

When this characteristic is applied to the relationship between man and woman, as we find in many old love stories, it is depicted as a quiet love, keeping passion under control, in a manner aggressive, yet at the same time one of simple resignation. This illustrates typical Japanese love. It exemplifies itself in a double suicide, expressing most eloquently a simple resignation. It affirms love as a negation of life.

What I have said is still basically true. In modern Japan, however, where more than half of the population was born after World War II, numerous metamorphoses are taking place. There may no longer be a "quiet love."

I have placed strong emphasis on climate as a governing factor in character development. But it may be found in family life style, in the houses of Japan and China. The Japanese have, through the ages, always tried in family life to avoid selfishness. A most remarkable feature in our history is that one sacrifices his whole life for his parents, and for his family name. This is one of the reasons why the rate of crime is low in Japan. It is the result of a man's effort to control himself in order not to defame his family's name. In the phenomena of our daily life we understand "uchi" (house) as "uchi" (inside). The world outside of "uchi" (house) is "soto" (outside). Within such "uchi," an individual's differences disappear; for a wife, her husband is "uchi"--man of "uchi" and "taku" (house); for a husband, the wife is "kanai" (within the house). The family is also the men of the house and explicitly disguishes itself from outsiders, but the distinction within is ignored.

By "uchi" (inside), one can understand the entity of a family as a relationship without any fences, separated only from the outside world. You cannot find in the European or American languages such a word which designates the difference between "uchi" (inside) and "soto" (outside). "Uchi" (house) is clearly separated from outside. No locks are on the rooms, but always there is a lock against the outside world. In addition to this, "outside" of the house, you may find fences and sometimes thorny hedges or even a moat to keep out the outside world. If one comes back from "outside" he takes off his wooden clogs or shoes at the porch and clearly divides the "outside world" from his "inside world." In Europe and North America, leaving the room means just what the Japanese do when leaving the porch of their house. Within his room a person can be naked. If he leaves the room and joins his family he has to wear proper attire. Once he leaves "the room" it doesn't make much of a difference whether he is in the family dining-room or in a public restaurant.

The Japanese may appear to have studied the western life style, but they do not live it. Restricted by the concept of "uchi" (house), the Japanese have not been westernized in the sense of adopting a community life, something which is individualistic and social.

This basic concept of "house" and the distinction between "inside" and "outside" have given rise to the Japanese worker's fidelity towards the company for which he works in our modern life. He works in the company, "uchi," for his entire life, bringing about congenial human relations between the worker and his employer.

For the Japanese a unit, from the standpoint of a social unit, is not an individual as westerners believe, but a small group. It is almost tantamount to the term "primary group" in sociology. This means it consists of a small group of people who, almost daily, see each other at work and live together. The prototype can be found in the family "house" which I have just described.

A typical example may be found in a house of a traditional farm village. I do not mean the relationship between family and working companions, but a group of people that try to accomplish a goal through co-operation.

In abstract terms, human relations can be divided into two categories, "vertical" and "horizontal," according to the way in which ties are organized. For example, the parent-child relation is vertical, while the sibling relation is horizontal; the superior-inferior relation is vertical, and the colleague relation is horizontal. Both are important primary factors in relationships in a society's structure. They are particularly so in trying to understand Japan and the Japanese people.

In the vertical relation, in which Japanese social groups are formed, an amazingly delicate and intricate system of rank takes shape. One can list any number of examples to illustrate this. But to sum them up, it is a fact that, even among people with the same status or qualifications, there is a constant consciousness of distinctions based on ranking, which is critical to understanding Japanese social behaviour.

In every society, seniority and merit can be found as part of the social structure, though their relative weight varies. In Japan's case, the seniority system has always been of immeasurably greater significance. But even without turning to the seniority system, which is an institution that developed in modern Japanese society, we can find sufficient examples in the people's daily lives, with their time-honoured traditions, of the deep-rooted inclination toward rank in Japanese society.

In the first place, a Japanese cannot even sit down or talk without being conscious of rank. The traditional arrangement of a Japanese room is a decisive factor in relating seating practice with rank and, when speaking with anyone, the subtleties governing the use of honorific expressions must be observed, the order of precedence and the time allowed each speaker, according to his rank.

In any society, it is impossible for everyone to move upward. Moreover, every society needs middle-school graduates as well as university graduates. Nevertheless, in Japanese society, where the vertical movement upward is intense, a person who remains in the lower strata suffers under a very heavy psychological burden. For, since he is aware of an upward route, his current low stratum will carry the implication that he has lost the race.

I believe such competition between individuals or groups on the same level has made a great contribution to the modernization and, particularly, the industrialization of Japan. The fact that people constantly face upward enlivens their activities. It seems that competition works effectively on individuals and groups as a stimulant and becomes the impelling force in getting things done. At the same time, however, competition can be a shortcoming. This, of course, takes the form of an unjustified waste of energy. It is a matter of common knowledge that in foreign trade, firms that are similar to one another rush to the same buyer and engage in suicidal rivalry--just as in the case of the Japanese chasing after "herring roe" in British Columbia.

As regards leadership, the points worthy of note are that in the vertical type of group it is extremely difficult, though not impossible, to change the leader, and that there can never be more than one leader. The structure of the group makes it quite impossible for two or more persons to hold the same rank at the same time.

For example, in a vertical structure, the relationship between the highest position and secondary positions in the order of rank is not the same as the relationship between the highest position and a third ranking position. The latter can only be established through the secondary position. That is to say, if the relationship between the top position and the secondary level is broken, the third ranking position will no longer be connected to the highest position. Control of the third level is only possible through a secondary level and this means that the stronger the power of the topmost figure in relation to the secondary position, the greater will be the control that position can exercise over the third level. Conversely, if the leader is weak in his relations with his secondary level people, his control over the third level will cease to be effective.

The bureaucratic system is a modern institution, but it shares the same principle as the indigenous system symbolized in the "oyabun/kobun," boss/subordinate, relationship. Consequently, the Japanese type of group structure, which we are analyzing here, is not something that can be dismissed lightly as "feudal" or "pre-modern." Its principle is, in a sense, modern, and it has proven to be a very effective system. The merits of this structure are that it enables the leader to communicate swiftly with every member, including even the most insignificant, and it is a highly effective means for mobilizing all the members.

Work in Japan is, in fact, carried on by making use of great numbers of people organized in this manner, and I believe the Japanese system is unequalled for smooth vertical communication and speedy mobilization.

The vertical structure is conducive to the smooth and speedy attainment of "unanimity of opinion" within a group, as I have explained already, but it makes things extremely difficult for the group to reach an agreement of views with other groups.

Therefore, unlike leaders in other societies, the Japanese type of leader, no matter how capable, cannot freely put members of his group into action to get something done in accordance with his plan if it is against the strong wishes of other members. He is not only prevented, in this way, from exercising dictatorship, but he is confronted with difficulties in ignoring the general good.

Sometimes there emerges a leader who is known as. a "one man" autocrat. But this is limited to cases where the leader's ability is overwhelmingly superior to that of his immediate subordinates, and he has the fullest confidence in his personal relations. Even in such instances, however, he by no means enjoys as much freedom of action as would his counterparts in other societies.

In point of fact, it is better that the leader or "oyabun" should not be a man of genius. If his mind is too sharp and his competence makes his work too efficient, he may alienate his subordinates or "kobun" by giving them a feeling they have lost some of their "raison d'dtre." The common psychology in the "oyabun/kobun" relation is that, besides depending on his leader, the subordinate wishes, at the same time, to be depended on by him. Everything the leader does and thinks must make sense and appear reasonable to the subordinate.

Rather than a phenomenal ability, the most important qualification of a leader in Japanese society is a personality endowed with understanding and tolerance. No matter how great someone's influence, ability and financial resources may be, he will not make a good leader unless he can gain an emotional hold on his subordinates and, thereby, establish an affinity with them in forming the vertical relationship.

I have attempted to portray in some detail the characteristics of the Japanese and the structure of the Japanese society. I am afraid, however, you might still entertain many questions about Japan and the Japanese. For instance:

"Why do the Japanese love travelling so much?"

"Would it be possible to gain respect from abroad by working only?", for working like ants might appear ghastly to the western world.

"Why don't the big-shots of Japan have personal charm?" There are exceptions of course.

"Although Japan wants to be recognized as a major political power, comparable to her economic strength, where is she heading?"

"In spite of her abundant information on international situations, why is the Japanese analysis of the world situation so simple and emotional?"

"Without the support of a formidable GNP, could such an unappealing nation interest westerners?"

"Why do the Japanese have the queer habit of going in a group on a honeymoon trip?"

The questions could go on indefinitely, far beyond the time available.

We, the Japanese, are presently reflecting as to whether we are on the right course in many areas. Those of you who have been to Japan might have been surprised that there are throngs of people in the concert halls, museums and galleries of Japan. We cannot deny entrance to even the young wife of the "green grocer" who, with her child on her back, attends such performances to satisfy her intellectual curiosity, and who seeks to know herself and her heritage better. This, too, is an aspect of our search. There are many others.

I need not dwell upon the heavy dependence of Japan on the outside world for her subsistence; wheat and rapeseed for food, lumber for our houses and oil and iron ore for our industries. Being so dependent on others, how can Japan act other than to seek friendship from all corners of the world?

Because of physical and resource restraints, Japan is compelled to try to avert economic conflicts with other countries. Carried far enough, these might develop into cultural conflicts. The inost important goal for Japan at present, I believe, is to try to create a better understanding in foreign countries of Japan and the Japanese. I hope that I have been able to make a small contribution toward this end today.

There is one posture in Kendo, Japanese fencing, called "Happo Yabure No Kamae." If translated literally, it means a position where all the weapons are broken, and one stands "defenceless on all sides." Japan's position in the world is very similar to this posture. We have to stand on our own feet, but the only way we can live in the modern world is by friendship, and friendship, to be strong, must be founded upon understanding.

I hope I have brought to you this afternoon a better understanding of my people and, to you, from all my people, I offer friendship.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Mr. Sydney Hermant, a Past President of The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Japanese—Still Unknown

Reference to the Summit Conference of seven industrialized countries, including Canada, to take place in Tokyo for the first time, over the course of the next two months. The subject of the address is the country and people of Japan, a poorly understood culture, that understanding necessary to building a stronger association between Canada and Japan. The premise that people are greatly affected by their geography and climate. This premise in relation to the Japanese. The double nature of the Japanese. An examination and explication of the Japanese people and culture. The concepts of "vertical" and "horizontal;" the division of work and home; the relationship between boss and subordinate. Qualifications and characteristics of leaders in Japan. Japan's position in the world. Goals for the future of Japan.