SOURCE: Bycina, D. (1979). JALT Newsletter, 3(3) CULTURE/JAPAN


Five Jewish intellectuals discussed in heaven the essence of life. Moses said, "The essence of life is in your head." Jesus Christ said, "No, Moses, you're wrong. What's most important in life is this (the heart)." "Karl Marx said, "You're both wrong. The most important thing in life is here (the stomach)."

Sigmund Freud said, "Gentlemen, you're all mistaken. The most important thing is further below the belt." Albert Einstein said, "You're all completely off the mark. Everything is relative." The only Japanese intellectual present at the meeting kept silent, with an enigmatic smile on his lips, nodding in assent all the time.

So one of them asked the Japanese, "What's your view?" "Pardon?" "What they feel is what I feel." "Whose view, specifically?" "If I think in my head, Einstein's. But if I think in my HARA (abdomen), nobody's. Why? Because they're all thinking in their heads."

"What's wrong with thinking in the head?" "Because such thinking gives rise to yes and no." "What do you mean?" "The essence of life is not yes or no, but yes and no." "Why?" "Because yes means no and no means yes."

SAAAA! SO DESU NE. Such is the essence of HARA-thinking. Mr. Matsumoto, an ASAHI journalist, endeavored to explain why the Japanese think as they do, why HARAGEI works, the two types of HARAGEI, and its probable future.

In one of his article for the ASAHI, Mr. Matsumoto suggested that HARAGEI is the product of a farming culture where farmers are expected to group themselves together to "group think," "group feel," "group behave," for a mutually shared goal. Climate and the religious traditions of Japan, especially Zen, have played their part in shaping this characteristic mode of expression. On the latter point, Mr. Matsumoto once wrote:

HARAGEI and ZEN mix well, for ZEN training begins with a rejection of intellection... including logic, reason, and any art of conceptualization or even verbalism. The more eloquent or more articulate you are, the further you tend of get away from the truth.

The school system has also left its mark. Japanese students are not encouraged to analyze things, much less to think on their own. They are supposed to feel. And this is at the heart of the matter. HARAGEI involves the communication of feelings and requires a good deal of sensitivity and intuition. This is perhaps best done when drunk, when the reason is paralyzed. But, drunk or sober, the goal is to merge on an emotional level to achieve an identity of feeling.

The Japanese are particularly adept at this because they are a cohesive and homogenous society. In a playful, but astute analogy, Matsumoto likened Japanese society to NATTO, a fermented soybean cake. Plucking at an actual NATTO cake, he explained that, just as each bean is welded to the whole by a sticky, tasteless paste, so, in Japan, the individual is bound by social connections to family, company, financial world, and government. All are interlinked. All are one. Conformity, and communication, are assured by these bonds and by the common assumptions held by all Japanese. Borrowing a term from anthropology, Mr. Matsumoto asserted that a high context culture, such as Japan's, doesn't need why questions and because answers. Empathy is all.

In his discussion, Mr. Matsumoto distinguished between two types of HARAGEISTS: the KABUKI type "who talks a lot but says little" and the NOH type "who talks little but says a lot." Passing quickly over the KABUKI type, he offered Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira as an example of the NOH type. Ohira, "the slow ball of Japanese politics," is a typical HARAGEIST because he is inarticulate, expressionless (like a NOH mask), able to accommodate diverse points of view, vague and noncommittal.

HARAGEISTS, by nature, refuse to be pinned down, to answer YES or NO, to dichotomize and polarize. The reason is not deliberately to obfuscate, but rather to avoid delineating differences, to diminish debate, and to promote harmony.

America, and indeed the West in general, has a "why/because" culture. Debate, definition, distinction, and delineation are encouraged. But, not so in Japan. Japanese prefer the vague, the imprecise, the unspecified, the elliptical. (The essence of life is not YES or NO, but YES and NO.) Illustrations abound even in everyday conversations. The simple word WAKARIMASHITA can, in the mouth of a Japanese, take on a vast range of connotation. It can signify, " I understand," " I agree," "I hear you," "Forget it," or "The case is closed."

This characteristic of Japanese communication, perplexing--if not aggravating--to foreigners, is the beauty of HARAGEI. It allows the listener to fill in the blank, to provide his or her own interpretation. "It gives the opportunity to others to think on their own, or feel on their own, more precisely."

Westerners would be well advised to develop the sensitivity needed for this kind of communication. Business people (and news-people too) tend to get bogged down in facts and figures. They should become more aware of the unspoken aspects of communication. Japanese on the other hand, should pay more attention to cultivating the rational faculty, while, at the same time, preserving their skill at HARA-language. Japan and the West are different, and it is important to understand these differences in order to go beyond them to unity and harmony. In this endeavor, HARAGEI may be able to play an important part.