The Great Wall of Japan

Loco has an interesting article over at Black Tokyo on the idea of Mentsu, or ‘face.’

In America, it might be all about the Benjamins, but in Japan it’s all about the Mentsu 面子. Mentsu, or Face for those of you not familiar with the concept, is very similar to what’s known as prestige or honor, or its downside, loss of face, which is akin to embarassment or humiliation. In some Asian countries, it’s essential to protect and maintain face and avoid loss of face because it affects every facet of the quality of your life, including your status, power and influence among friends, family, co-workers, and the society at-large.

From The Chrysanthemum and the Sword to Kurosawa movies to my own experiences in Tokyo, this rings very true. Social capital may have its place in western society, but it’s not nearly as rigidly governed or desperately protected as it is here.

He goes on to postulate that mentsu is the line between Japanese and non-Japanese, the foundations of a wall between Japan and the rest of the world:

Anytime a Japanese person speaks of his or her proclivities, the pronoun “We” is invariably used. I used to trip out on this “We” business. Who the hell was this “We”? This “We” is the strongest statement Japanese people make. It’ s a wall they’ve erected around their culture that cannot be scaled by foreigners (aside from other Asians engulfed in the culture). Sure, you can spray paint your name in graffitti on the walls, and sometimes if you’re clever or lucky or come across a traitor in their midst (there are a few, male and female) you might steal a glimpse over the wall. But for the most part foreigners are perpetually barred.

We build walls of a different nature in America. In Japan, whether you’re in-group or out-group depends, essentially, on your quantifiable relationship with the other party. Family, coworkers, and schoolmates are all in-group in one context or another, and you’ll find that most peoples’ closest circle of friends is drawn from one of the two latter groups. Outside defined organizations of which you’re both a member, or formal introductions by someone you know, there’s very little interaction with strangers.

In America, though, I feel like there’s more of an ambiguous separation of in and out, one based more on recognizing displays of shared culture than anything else. Whether it’s the spontaneous bicycle gang that springs up on market street every morning in San Francisco, hipsters at a concert flocking together by subculture, two black guys who have never met greeting each other like old friends, or identical T-shirts that spark a conversation, we group with no formal relationship whatsoever. In Japan, you’ll usually get a blank stare if you try to start a conversation with someone with no defined relationship to you. In America, you might get the same stare with someone who feels your appearance or dress out-groups you.

I have scaled the wall of the Japanese, but only with young people. It grows with time, and unless you’ve made it over early in their life, it may be tough to climb later. Inside the wall, though, friendship is rock-solid, and it’s hard to find companions more trustworthy and loyal.

Loco’s full article is good; head over to Black Tokyo and give it a read.