Taking the tribal theory to the Japanese

As they say in show business, it's not what the dog says but the fact that he says anything at all. And as they say in the world of real business, invent a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to. your door.

Put the two together -a talking dog who thinks he has a better mousetrap -and you have some idea what it's like to be a foreigner in Japan who speaks Japanese and who by -some chance has created a new theory to explain the Japanese to themselves. Not so long ago I went into print with the theory. Since then I seem to have done nothing else but travel in Japan giving lectures about it. Farmers, doctors, businessmen, scholars and even poiticians-you name a group and at some time or other I've been standing in front of them describing why we foreigners find Japan so difficult to understand, and yet how the Japanese in fact are the world's easiest, people to understand since they have simply retained the emotional, human-relations values found in any tribal society and developed them to allow the organization of a large and seemingly very successful modern society.

But the strangest part about it all is that I never knew that this other Japan-the lecture-circuit Japan-'even existed. It was only after I had published a book claiming to know A about Japan that I began to discover it.

"....One aspect of Japanese 'tribalism' is
the strange propensity for booms, moods, panics and
other fonrns of mass psychology."

My first audience I won't forget too easily. It was down in Nagasaki where despite (or because of) being atom-bombed they still see themselves as more intemational-minded than the rest of Japan. About sixty well-to-do gentlemen were waiting in the banquet hall of the main hotel (I remember it even had chandeliers). They were, I was told, the carefully selected representatives of local business and social circles and they had white flowers pinned on their lapels to prove it. Immediately a large red flower was pinned on my lapel and I was propelled towards the biggest lecture pedestal I have ever seen under an even bigger cloth banner announcing my name and topic: "Japan, is it a tribal society?"

Panic. I tell the master of ceremonies rapidly that while I have a few ideas on the subject they are hardly fit to be turned into a public lecture. What I had really expected was an intimate question and answer session where I could make my points and quickly clear up any misunderstandings. No, my hosts said, they would prefer me to stick to what has been arranged-a full one-and-three quarter hours on the pedestal with five or ten minutes for questions at the end. And, of course, it will all have to be in Japanese.

And so began my introduction to the lecture circuit. Today, some 200 plus lectures, discussion groups and TV performances later, I feel I can finally handle the subject. Indeed, I would like to go back to Nagasaki someday and give them the lecture as I should have given it. But would anyone come to listen? They suffered enough the first time.

How does one go about telling the intelligent and sensitive people of Japan that they are really a tribe that kept on growing? The first discovery (though it should not have been since it is implied by my theory) was that the Japanese have no prejudice against the word "tribe." It is a quite neutral term. The second was to take the advice of the theory and not get too intellectual. Five minutes is about as much as the average audience will take without getting restless, which is also probably the limit for most audiences anywhere. Practical examples, diagrams and humor are all badly needed.

Humor? For someone like myself who can't even deliver a joke properly in English, that is a problem, particularly in a country where the TV concept of humor rarely goes beyond puns and the Japanese equivalent of the custard pie-a folded fan brought down sharply on an exposed cranium. Then by accident I found my answer.

One aspect of Japanese "tribalism" is the strange propensity for booms, moods, panics and other forms of mass psychology. The golf boom of the early '70s was one good example, and to prove the point I once set out to give a slightly exaggerated account of my own experience: how I had been stampeded by the atmosphere of the time into buying a golf club membership for a price about sixty times higher then what I would have had to pay in another country. Then came the oil shock and the end of that particular boom, so that all I have today is a piece of paper that says I can travel several hours out of Tokyo any time that I wish to play on an overcrowded golf course, and instead of having to pay out $100 each time as a visitor, I can go round for a cheap $25, assuming that I have paid my hefty annual dues as well.

At that rate I will have to pl ay golf every week -for the rest of my life to get half my money back.

Anyway I am halfway into this saga and I find the audience is collapsing with laughter. Near the end of my story there is hardly a dry eye in the house. Later I discover I have killed two birds with one stone. The Japanese like slice-of-life anecdotes. And they like it even better when people expose their weaknesses in the process. It lets them empathize.

Today I have a repertoire of these self-flagellating anecdotes. Another one they like tells how I first arrived in Japan and assumed that, as in the West, eating at a counter in a restaurant was cheaper than eating at a table. Most of Japan's sushi (raw fish and rice) houses have a counter and since I was short of money it seemed to me to be a good reason to eat sushi. But before sitting down I decided to check and was told that counter eating was "okonomi" which I decided was the Japanese version of "economy" and yet another transplant from English in the everyday language. I was wrong. It means "according to your honorable wish," or, in other words, a free and unlimited choice of raw fish and other delicacies. Such special services carry a very high price tag in Japan, as I painfully discovered.

Who organizes these talkfests anyway? Certainly I don't. But I never turn down an invitation either. The pressure of having to stand in front of a roomful of Japanese and convince them in their own language to take a radically new view of who and what they are does far more to help me crystallize my ideas than sitting in front of a typewriter. I should be paying my audience to listen.

In fact it is very much the reverse. And the lecture requests still flow in - everything from women's clubs and YMCA branches to the Society for the Study of the Future. Most come from the regional newspapers. Japan's big two news agencies-Kyodo and Jiji-provide a wide range of services to attract and hold their regional clients. One such service is providing lecturers to monthly "economic and political discussion" meetings arranged by the regional newspapers in the various towns and cities that they cover (sometimes it is even in the villages). Everyone gains. The newspaper projects an image of lofty concern for the state of the nation. It also gets a story to help fill its inside pages - The audience gets a free lunch and, occasionally, an interesting talk. The lecturers get exposure and publicity.

But that is not all. From the moment you arrive you are looked after as if you were the Prime Minister himself: a large, black chauffered car at the airport; a suite at the best hotel; lunch or dinner with the president of the local newspaper and other bigwigs, usually at the most exclusive eatery in town and complete with geisha attendants; a tour of the local countryside and sights; and an expensive present to take back to your family afterwards to compensate them for having been deprived of your presence. The financial rewards are also more than adequate, being delivered formally in cash (tax deducted) in the traditional decorated envelope as soon as you finish your labors. In short a large number of persons go out of their way to make you feel much more important than you are, and then they pay you for it! I have always found this an excellent way of making a living.

In any case I now know how Japan's army of so-called commentators or hyoronka manage to survive. For a -nation which is supposed to dislike open expressions of opinion, Japan does seem to have a remarkable number of these gentlemen, and ladies. They claim no other employment. They simply announce that they are fit to "comment" on some topic - politics, gardening, baseball or in one case "home entertainment" (the Japanese have been told how we foreigners have our dinner and cocktail parties at home and they want to learn how to do it too). And thanks to the circuit they do very well out of it.

One of the more intelligent questions I once got from one of my smaller audiences set me to thinking about the hyoronka phenomenon. If Japan, I was asked, is unique in the way it operates mainly on the basis of mood and human relations why is lobbying a profession in the United States, and not in Japan? After some trouble I realized the answer: it is precisely because Americans are trained to handle everything in terms of "dry" laws and principles that an opening exists for anyone prepared to move into the "wet" world of wheeling and dealing. In Japan everyone is his own lobbyist; every firm has its own personal link to the world of politics. One rarely feels the need to go out and hire someone to do the job.

Conversely with ideas. Precisely because Japan is not an "ideas" society, an opening exists for anyone who claims to have a few of them. In the U.S. everyone has his own opinion, on everything. The idea of paying someone to provide you with one or two more, not necessarily to your liking, seems absurd. But in Japan commentators are everywhere. No television show is complete without a gaggle of them to lend weight and respectability. And I, it seems, have joined their ranks.

The audiences, and the questions, vary. Some of the younger audiences get quite vocal. But with older Japanese the lecture will often end without questions even being called for. That, after all, is part and parcel of what makes the Japanese different: you are supposed to be able to "feel" what persons think without having it put into words. And such in fact is the case; audience reaction as you lecture tells you quite a lot. Talk about prewar Militarism turns the older audiences off, not so much that they deny it but they simply do not want to be reminded of it. Younger audiences get a bit restless when I blithely assume that they still adhere to the traditional giri-ninjo (obligation-compassion) values; if anything the postwar values have become even more tribal in the sense of being based almost entirely on mood and feeling. Heavy, involved sarcasm is definitely out, and not just because it is difficult for the Japanese to understand. Any irony must be simple and gentle.

On the other hand heated strictures against the passive, arbitrary, emotional and unprincipled nature of their foreign policy, the mistakes of their diplomats, and the national failure to learn foreign languages properly are certain crowd pleasers. They want to be told how hopeless they are in their dealings with the outside world. Turning to home they like to be told that they are really quite an idle, feckless people even though they sometimes like to pretend otherwise; that the only reason for their economic success is the way the family-tribal style of enterprise management concentrates the emotional energies. And they almost long to be criticized for their exclusiveness to outsiders, the shambles in their agricultural policies and the bad behavior of their politicians. Often in questions it is they who insist they are an irrational, illogical people and I am left with the job of pointing out their emotionalism is balanced by a very rational pragmatism, just as the logic of non-Japanese is balanced by a very irrational dogmatism at times. Irrational people do not create economic miracles.

In short, and with the exception of some younger audiences, the Japanese want to be rebuked. So who am I to deny them? The only problem is that I now realize that we in the West are looking for ways to move back to a "Japanese" pattern of society, where instinct and human relations play more role and dry ideologies and laws less. Tribal, to put it bluntly, is becoming beautiful. So I should praise the Japanese for being one step ahead of us. Or rather for having kept some of the things we want to come back to.

But Japan, it appears, is not ready for that message. When the lecture is over the MC will take the microphone for the usual message of thanks: "We are most grateful to Clark-sensei (teacher) for making us self-reflect on our ways and our society. He has said things that are mimi ni itai - hurtful to our ears." And then the entire audience will applaud loudly and cheerfully.