One of the problems that some foreigners encounter when living in Japan is how to discuss political and ethical subjects with Japanese people. Exchanging smalltalk and simple ideas usually will not be taxing (aside from any language barrier) or pose a problem, but once the speaker graduates from basic conversation to challenge more difficult topics, the possibility of conflict arises.
Take for example the internationally hot topic of dolphin or whale hunting. An ethically interesting and pertinent subject to tackle, but one that beckons conflict with both hands. As foreigners living in Japan, one of our first inclinations is to stop and ask those around us their opinion on the topic. After all, in many overseas media outlets, the issue is framed as a Japanese problem, bringing the whole race unfairly into question.
Why not go to the source directly and ask: What do the Japanese really think of this issue?
Naturally not everyone will want to discuss such topics, and being a politically and ethically sensitive issue, it is bound to ignite a more animated discussion than smalltalk about the weather. However, it seems fair game. After all, it’s in the news. It’s shocking. It’s simple enough that everyone can have an opinion on. Why not talk about it, right?
But already we’re unwittingly walking a precarious line. Broaching a topic such as this, while admittedly not your average dinnertime conversational piece even back home, is considerably easier among groups of likeminded westerners. Political and ethical issues are among those that are not easily discussed in Japan.
Of course, that’s not to say that Japanese people do not speak of them! Quite to the contrary, locals can be quite vocal about political issues affecting them and are not shy to rise up and let the government know with demonstrations.
But among coworkers and casual friends – the sort of people that we meet regularly but do not maintain a close level of intimacy with – these issues are altogether best avoided in the first place. Perhaps even with those Japanese people we are intimately close to these issues are best left unspoken.
Unlike many western countries where a casual pub debate would end at the bottom of a glass, fiery topics in Japan can leave lasting and unwelcome impressions on the Japanese participants. What seemingly should just be a free exchange of ideas, opinions and facts with the aim of perhaps going home a little smarter and more informed has a tendency to act as a catalyst for not speaking or socialising again.
Why is this?
In part the problem is caused by the way westerners are brought up to discuss such topics and, in turn, with the way Japanese people are used to discussing them. Many westerners are used to debates and free exchange of ideas, even to the point of talking over colleagues and making their opinions and supporting reasons clearly known. The goal is often to prove themselves right and win a discourse, or perhaps in a more noble light, to see the absolute facts prevail.
Such is the free nature of this sort of exchange that, sometimes, the person with the most commanding voice or assertive nature is known to dominate, quite irrespective of whether or not his or her ideas are well thought out.
In contrast, in Japanese ‘debate’, emphasis is placed on maintaining a level of harmony with the other person. Rarely is a person’s opinion directly challenged or refuted. To avoid discord, what often happens is that the listener will tend to agree with the speaker’s points, sometimes in such a roundabout and acquiescent manner that a third party might mistake them for actually agreeing with the speaker!
After softening the blow however the listener will then proceed to give their own opinion, often while noting similarities between their position and the speaker’s, and advance a slightly different viewpoint. To which the speaker will perform the same sort of dance, yielding while simultaneously disagreeing.
This ebb and flow of ideas serves to save face and build consensus wherever possible between participants. There are of course situations where an impasse is reached and neither person can advance their opinion without disagreeing outright with the other. Such scenarios usually end in a deflation rather than an explosion (as we might see with two westerners clashing in the heat of debate), leading to a rather unresolved situation that trails off, hopefully to be replaced by a safer topic.
It is however important to remember that not everyone is going to fit these vast generalisations. There are Japanese people who will happily engage in debates, and in turn there are foreigners who crumble when challenged directly. Notably, the general use of the word ‘westerner’ here encompasses so many different countries and cultures that it cannot possibly hope to represent the entirety of foreigners here in Japan. Nevertheless, understanding the observed patterns here will help us to avoid the worst possible scenario where we inadvertently offend and alienate our Japanese friends and colleagues.
On such a topic as arguing in Japanese, it difficult to recommend any specific phrases or speech patterns a foreigner in Japan can learn to avoid such an outcome. Rather, it is the entire mindset towards having such a conversation that must be grasped.
The first rule of thumb would be to avoid talking about such heated topics wherever possible or unless you are absolutely sure the other person is open to discussing it with you.
The second would be to approach any ‘argument’ as a way to bridge ground with the other person. They are not your ‘opponent’ in a debate, but rather your ‘partner’ in a discussion. What are the similarities between your own opinion and theirs? What points did they make that are deserving of merit? Could it be that you actually share the same opinion but are just approaching the issue from different angles? And so on.
Thirdly, when disagreeing, be sure to verbally note where you partner succeeds, in some cases complimenting them on their insight, before gently introducing an opposing viewpoint. Even here, ‘opposing’ would be too strong and the most effective method would be to offer an alternative way of looking at things.
Have you had any experiences where a conversation went wrong? What happened and how did you resolve it? Let me know in the comments!