“You’re Japanese and you speak English? Would you like an interview?!”

One puzzled student recounts her experiences of conducting research in Japan

By Phoebe Amoroso


“Do a dissertation on anything, anywhere. Just make sure it relates to geography.” About to enter my final year of university, this was the task I was given to conduct over the summer break. For me, already harbouring a secret desire to go to Japan – land of animé and martial arts – it seemed too good to be true. The opportunity was like a cork in the ocean – I kept pushing it down but it would pop right back up again and nag me, tempting me to set off into the vast unknown.

But first I needed a project. Fascinated by the seemingly homogeneous image projected by documentaries on the Japanese and their hard work ethos, I decided to consider the impact of the Internet and mobile phone messaging on freedom of expression. A hundred textbooks proclaimed that in Japan, people were encouraged to be group-oriented, never individual. If such assertions were true, would these new forms of communicating and presenting oneself provide a space for freedom of expression, a form of escapism? Or would normal social boundaries still apply in the virtual world?

Armed with a backpack and a voice recorder, I arrived in Tokyo with only one contact and no interviews lined up. My accommodation: a two-bedroom apartment. The catch: eighteen people were staying in it. I was officially inducted into the world of CouchSurfing, a community of travellers who host people for free all over the world. For a student faced with an unfavourable exchange rate and the extortionate cost of accommodation in Tokyo, it was the answer to my prayers. It just so happened that the CouchSurfer I stayed with just couldn’t say no to travellers. So for the next two weeks I slept on the floor, sandwiched between various people.

CouchSurfing saved my project – through meeting hosts and travellers and friends of friends and so on, I managed to amass at least twenty interviews. Another sixteen were conducted at an international school who allowed me to interview students during their frees. And I wangled a few more interviews by pouncing on unsuspecting Japanese that I heard speaking English. This combination was akin to dollar signs in my eyes. One girl tried to sell me herbal tea in department store; I sold her an interview instead. Another girl helped me order off a menu at an overpriced café and I interviewed her over lunch.

It was during that interview, over surprisingly delicious tuna sandwiches, that I came across the terms honne and tatamae. With no direct translation in English, honne roughly means one’s honest opinion, what one really thinks and tatamae is what one shows to other people, being polite or, for example, flattering one’s boss (which according to many of my interviewees is really, really important!) These concepts became central as I was told repeatedly that the use of honne drastically increased in online and mobile communication. Thirty-nine interviews and I had learned that Japanese culture was about working hard, being polite and as the textbooks proclaimed, being the same as everyone else. Within this cultural context, it seems that the Internet is allowing people to pursue interests, activities and forms of interaction that enable them to express their individuality in ways previously inaccessible and unacceptable.

Yet my discoveries were not without contradictions. For a start, many interviewees were confused about their own motives for online communication. It is apparently difficult to convey exact meanings using only text – possibly a factor in the massive popularity of emoticons. But many preferred to tackle other awkward and embarrassing topics online rather than face-to-face.

Most puzzling, however, were the acceptable and non-acceptable forms of self-expression that I observed on my travels. Fashion seems to be pretty much a whatever-you-want affair. Wearing socks with sandals is seemingly considered cool, judging by the amount of girls I saw staggering about in dangerously high heels and long socks. Then there are the Harajuku guys and girls. These kids dress up in black and red and an excessive amount of accessories and skulk around Harajuku, the young trendy area of Tokyo, and sit about in Yoyogi Park on a Sunday. Other outfit variants include broken dolls, Little Bo Peeps (I don’t know who/what they’re actually supposed to be) and animé characters. I also witnessed an emo kid having a playfight with a guy dressed as a tiger.

When it comes to reading books on the metro, however, a whole new set of rules apply. What type of book you read shows “what is private in your mind, and what is private in your mind should only be shared with a few people” – like close friends and family. It would seem that your book choice reflects your honne (honest opinion) and thus the majority of people cover their books. In fact, book covers are provided free with each purchase from bookstores.

At the end of my research, it was clear that this newfound freedom of expression online is a double-edged sword: people can be more themselves and explore their individuality but on anonymous forums – the most famous in Japan being 2channel – verbal attacks and profanities are common. Many interviewees were uncomfortable with the fact that people did not have to take responsibility for their actions.

And I was left with the question as to how much the Internet had really impacted on Japanese society. As my first interviewee asserted, technologies are adapted to the cultural context in which they are used. People may now have the opportunities to explore multiple identities and express themselves in the virtual world but what about the real world? “It makes people more shy” many people confided to me. It seems that new communication technologies could be increasing the use of tatamae (what you say and show about yourself) because people know they can say their true feelings and opinions online; these technologies are opening new avenues whilst simultaneously reinforcing traditional values.

If you asked me to bet on change in the future though, I’d put my money on the younger generation. I saw the Harajuku kids and the hyperfashion. I saw the kids on the metro, laughing and talking, whilst the older generation maintains the silence. I saw them reading comics without covers. Growing up with the new technologies as an ordinary part of everyday life, will they maintain the same distinctions between the online and offline worlds? Maybe that’s a project for ten years’ time.

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