Japan Today



Maybe it’s high time 'majime' Japan turned 'wagamama' (Part 1)

By Michael Hoffman

Some words lose everything in translation. Others keep their meaning but lose their salt. Wagamama, for instance. “Selfish” would do (and usually does) but misses the “spoiled child” nuance and its implication that only spoiled children are selfish so snap out of it.

The opposite of wagamama is majime – another example. “Serious” – yes, but also cooperative, easy to get along with, yielding to the point of self-denial. Is that good? Yes, Japanese culture down the ages has said. Not necessarily, counters President magazine (May 31). Maybe not at all. Maybe it’s high time majime Japan turned wagamama.

It boils down to this: should I live for myself, or for others? For myself, obviously; otherwise I cheat myself; I owe myself everything I can do for myself – don’t I? Yes, but humans are social animals, the Japanese maybe more social than most, the country being small and crowded. We’re not self-sufficient, we need each other, we consider others and expect consideration in return. So – live for others, then; but in doing so what becomes of me?

How much of myself must I yield to the community? I obey the law, pay my taxes, do no harm – isn’t that enough? No, Japan as a whole has traditionally asserted. A homely example: you’re off to lunch with a colleague who proposes Italian food. “Sure,” you say, forcing a smile. All through lunch you’re thinking, “I was so looking forward to a Japanese lunch, why didn’t I say so, why is it always me who yields? Because I’m majime – well, next time I’ll be wagamama! But then, I said that last time too…”

It’s easy for the beasts. They do everything on instinct. We have intelligence instead, whose ambiguity permits or imposes (depending on point of view) choice. Alone or with others? For myself or for others? Biologist Kiyohiko Ikeda, in his contribution to President’s feature, surprisingly says nothing about wagamama and majime in the animal world but deplores the negative connotations Japanese culture has heaped on the former. It makes for harmony and consensus, so much the better as far as that goes, but the self-suppression necessary to sustain them is stressful at best and corrosive at worst. Should I keep a good but unconventional idea to myself for fear of disapproval? Yes, says the majime ethic. Is that why Japan, so bright with promise in the 1970s and 80s, has languished since? Maybe.

Why do Japanese keep their opinions to themselves?” asks psychiatrist Shion Kabasawa. For one thing, because “children are not praised for being self-assertive,” and the brain configures itself accordingly. From childish obedience to adolescent revolt is a natural progression, but beyond it one becomes a shakaijin, another untranslatable – literally “society person,” in a society in which signs posted at every turn read “Don’t rock the boat.” The majime shakaijin recognizes the virtue of yielding self to organization. There’s a living to be made; only the very talented can make it by being wholly themselves; for the rest of us, the less “ourselves” we are the more of a living we make, and even those who are not employed, full-time housewives for instance, have their mamatomo to deal with, the mothers who bond and socialize along the same pattern as their children, cracks in the harmony potentially rippling into their children’s lives and therefore papered over as soon as they appear, as hopefully they never do.

The hoary old Japanese proverb about the nail that sticks out getting hammered down still holds. Online bashing is bashing modernized, a new hammer. The principle is the same, as old as the village ostracism of premodern times. The damage it does – to those who expose themselves to it, to those who shrink from doing so, and to society as a whole – was painfully evident through the Covid-19 pandemic, when the so-called “mask police” rampaged like a virtual lynch mob. Lay low, is the message it spread. Get out of the firing line. Be majime. Shut up. Smile.

Wagamama personified is – and yet is not – the athlete. Who is more self-centered, more self-fixated? And yet who at the same time is more self-denying? Former world-class sprinter Dai Tamesue, 46, reflects for President on his own career. Every moment of every day involves intense focus on me: my weight, my heart rate, my breathing, my reflexes, my speed. How do I feel, what’s this pain here, what’s causing it, what does it mean? And so on. “On the other hand,” writes Tamesue, “everything in life apart from athletics – going out for dinner, falling in love – is under rigorous self-suppression. You could call it,” he smiles, “a slightly twisted wagamama.”

Self-suppression in any form takes its toll, as anyone who has ever tried it knows. Is it good discipline, or wasted stress? Have times changed to the point of relegating majime to redundancy? Shall we usher in a new age of wagamama? President adds this to the equation: wagamama types are richer and live longer than their majime opposites.

 Part 2 will appear on Monday June 3. Michael Hoffman is the author of “Arimasen.”

© Japan Today

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Why do Japanese keep their opinions to themselves?” asks psychiatrist Shion Kabasawa. For one thing, because “children are not praised for being self-assertive,” and the brain configures itself accordingly.

"Learned helplessness" and apathy is something the LDP loves to inculcate in the Japanese populace.

I am actually positive that Japan, though the time is past to be "Japan as No.1" can be the "Japan that can say 'No'".

The economic situation is right for Japan to go back to the social agitation that characterized the 60's and 70's.

Not just the piddling squabbles outlined in the article.

-4 ( +5 / -9 )

I am really looking forward to hearing from Japanese here about this, instead of them just downvoting any comments others might make.

-6 ( +9 / -15 )

Japanese society is an anarchy barely controlled by rigid self-restraint. Understand that there are purposes behind seemingly nonsensical self-restraints and conditions and try to learn what they are. Without them, this society would soon fly completely off-kilter.

-11 ( +5 / -16 )

Is this a Japanese thing or an age thing? When you get into your 40s and 50s you realise how short life is, how stupid humanity is, endlessly repeating its mistakes, and how incompetent its leaders are. At which point you may decide to do whatever the hell you want, without caring what others think. Because you have realised that nothing you do (or don't do) will make much of a difference, and we are all a long time dead. The onset of this phase is often termed a mid life crisis. Perhaps 'epiphany' is a better term.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

If we suppress any opinions long enough, we end up not having any at all. It works the same way for our feelings.

-2 ( +7 / -9 )

If we suppress any opinions long enough, we end up not having any at all. It works the same way for our feelings.

I feel what you are writing Moonraker and I personally usually up vote your posts.

I also have this same take and it is a point of pride.

It is all about looks and people are looking at your posts.

There are other who game this ((you may know who they are on the authoriroan right and establishment lovers)and and game on the downvotes.

-4 ( +5 / -9 )

Did anybody else from the UK & Ireland click on this thinking it was about the UK restaurant chain "Wagamamas"?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )


Top remarks once again.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )

I find the tendency to navel gaze (self analyze) and constantly ask foreigners their opinion of Japan one of the least interesting and attractive things about the country and Japanese culture. I think it is neurotic.

"We Japanese are this and foreigners are that" type comments are almost always based on characature versions of Japan and whatever is being presented as gaikoku. The question "Why do Japanese keep their opinions to themselves?” can only be asked by someone who, for example, has never seen "Curb Your Enthusiasm", a comedy show whose comedy is mostly based on the social awkwardness of its character's inability to keep his opinions to himself in, yes, gaikoku.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I don't quite agree with the explanation of wagamama in the article. The times I have heard it used are mainly by parents or other family members to a child. And it's not that the child is spoiled, but that he or she is being selfish and wanting to be spoiled. I think "Don't be selfish," would be equivalent in my country.

As for not giving opinions, is that really the case? Is it not more that people are less likely to argue over opinions? I can remember a number of company meetings where I worked, and everyone was asked their opinions on some matter or other. People gave their opinions. We all listened, but generally they weren't challenged. The meeting leader would conclude something based on the opinions and perhaps the head-nodding that occurred when people spoke.

I used to teach English to company employees, mainly technical people. Part of some of the courses involved having discussions. It could be pretty dry if the topic was something like "What do you think of capital punishment?" "It's not a nice thing," might be the first opinion. "Sometimes it's necessary," would be the next, and the discussion ended - "it's not a nice thing but sometimes it's necessary" would be the conclusion. But if the class were split into two groups, and one had to list reasons why capital punishment was a good thing and the other why it was a bad thing, the ideas would flow. (With technical staff, it was often amusing. "It keeps the rope companies in business," from the pro-group. "But putting them in prison keeps the lock companies in business," would be the response.)

Sorry if I'm waffling.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The principle of shutting down people's personal opinions and any kind of self-expression - "wagamama" is going to take a LOT to change, if it happens at all. It's ingrained into this society. It starts with the mind control system that passes for education here. Students are taught to shut up and listen from an early age. There are no class discussions, not even essay writing. Examinations are multiple choice and students are very rarely given a chance to express or develop opinion.

A balance between majime and wagamama will only occur if and when the ghastly "education" system is put to rest and is replaced by something better than the rote memory of useless "facts." 

Mind you, the total failure of the education system to teach students how to actually use English gives an opportunity for me and many other posters on this site to make a living!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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