In America, it might be all about the Benjaminｓ, but in Japan it’s all about the Mentsu メンツ. 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 embarrassment 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.
This giving, losing and taking of Face is generally associated with Asian cultures, especially China, which is much less westernized than Japan and where face remains the number one motivation for doing most anything, or so I’m told by my friends of Chinese descent. In Japan, however, I think they have a watered down version of Face but still it has a very significant influence on the behavior of Japanese people, including, I theorize, their treatment of foreigners.
I for one refuse to build my whole life around the opinion of others, but I must say some of what I do and don’t do is definitely influenced by how it will affect my prestige. And though I’m apt to act a fool sometimes just for the hell of it, sometimes without even realizing it, I do tend to avoid embarrassment. That is, if by avoiding it I’m not sacrificing the achievement of goals I’ve set for myself.
Now, how does this concept of face affect my life here? As you might imagine, it’s difficult to say definitively. But, I have hypothesized the following based on my experience over the course of the past 5 years (and I’d be curious to hear what some of the Ex-Pats here think about this):
Most japanese avoid drawing attention to themselves and the incumbent embarrassment of being in the spotlight. However, westerners in Japan, by virtue of their strangeness, intentionally or not, invariably attract attention in a way that most Japanese wouldn’t wish on their worst enemies. We embody embarrassment, we’re walking talking losses of face…something most japanese would jump in front of the next Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to avoid becoming.
Also, while being with foreigners can raise one’s prestige, for the presumption is that if you are with them then you can communicate in what the japanese deem to be the universal language, English (very prestigious in japan,) it can also have the undesirable effect of diminishing your prestige because you are seen as trying to stand out, not unlike a shameless, Mentsu-free foreigner. I’ve found that most Japanese feel foreigners have no concept of Mentsu, have no face to gain or lose, have no stake in Japanese society aside from their capacity to cause loss of face to the Japanese people they come in contact with…thus we are considered an anathema to most people here; and, in my opinion, will continue to be until the definition of Face changes.
The idea of Face dictates most Japanese interactions with foreigners, I believe. It has to. If you ever spend anytime with Japanese you will no doubt notice that they are in tuned with the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese people around them. 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 graffiti on the wall (metaphorically speaking) 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.
And I suspect this wall was erected in part for the sake of Mentsu…In order to save face many Japanese will sacrifice much. And openness to and tolerance of foreigners, which serves little to no purpose to most Japanese, is an insignificant sacrifice most are willing to make.
Of course, this is only a theory.