Uchi Soto and Japanese Group Culture
By Yumi Nakata
The concept of Uchi Soto is one of the most unique aspects of Japanese culture. This concept is the key to understanding Japanese society and it explains why Japanese people behave the way they do and how they view foreigners in Japan.
So what is Uchi Soto? Uchi (内) literally means home, while Soto (外) refers to outside. The core concept revolves around the idea of dividing people into two groups, a in-group and an out-group.
Your family and close friends are considered uchi (in-group), as well as your co-workers and superiors at work. However, your clients are always considered “soto” (out-group).
When speaking with someone from an out-group it is important that the out-group be honored, and the in-group humbled. This is done through the use of Japanese honorific language (“keigo”). Although many young people don’t embrace this tradition as much as the older generations does, uchi/soto is still the big part of the foundation of Japanese business culture.
Japanese customer service is known for its high quality and I personally feel it is a little excessive especially with this uchi/soto custom. In Japan, customers are to be treated with the utmost respect. If you are a sales person, you are expected to use honorific wording at all times with your customers.
One way to do is to speak humbly about your boss and colleagues who are a part of the “uchi” category. So if your manager’s last name is “Suzuki”, you would refer to him just as “Suzuki” in front of your customers and not as “Suzuki-san”. It is a little strange, but you are basically respecting your customer by lowering (humbling) your manager’s position.
When Japanese people have a chance to talk with foreigners, they feel lost for not knowing how to appropriately interact with them.
So how does this all relate to the “Gaijin Complex”? Foreigners, tourists and customers are always considered “soto” in Japanese society. Many visitors to Japan are generally impressed with the level of customer service, as Japanese people are generally polite to soto people, but it does not mean that their politeness and friendliness are sincere and they are genuinely trying to be your friend.
Some of them may be truly interested in getting to know you but most of them are simply following the custom. So when Japanese people have a chance to interact with foreigners outside their work, they may feel lost for not knowing how to appropriately interact with them. Outside the work, this uchi/soto relationship is vague and it becomes even more confusing with foreigners.
This is also why foreigners (soto) have a hard time being truly accepted into Japanese society and those who wish to become Japanese citizens (uchi) face many obstacles.
This is a very unique aspect of Japanese culture that I am not necessarily fond of. I do not want to speak humbly of my boss if he is a successful businessman but at the same time, I understand the importance of following such custom in Japanese business culture. In America, this uchi/soto system does not exist and I do refer to my boss with Mr./Ms. to make sure that our customers are aware of my bosses prestigious positions in our company.
The concept of uchi-soto also applies to another significant Japanese custom, the practise of honne and tatemae. I will discuss honne and tatemae in more detail in an upcoming article but the basic concept of how it applies to uchi-soto is:
When you are in your group (uchi), you can be honest (honne), but when you are with strangers (soto) you tend to be more honorific and avoid saying things directly (tatemae).
I hope this explanation of uchi-soto has given you some insight into Japanese culture. Do you find this practice of uchi-soto strange? Tell us in the comments below.