Modern Japan, as anyone who has ever watched a Japanese tourist group can tell, is still a group orientated society. The desires of the individual are subordinate to the demands of the group. The concept of individual rights is not understood in Japan. Wa (harmony) is the key to the Japanese Way.
A strict sense of hierarchy prevents individuals from asserting themselves. From unbalancing the harmony of the group. Confrontation between individuals is not restrained so much by a universal sense of morality as by a system of etiquette more rigid than anything seen in the contemporary Western World.
Known human relationships form the basis of this system. Without a group to relate it tends to break down.
Many different ways preserve outward harmony. In the West a person has opinions, which he or she voices in public. In Japan, opinions, if held at all, are blended with those held by others or not mentioned. Political discussions are generally avoided altogether.
The Japanese language structure is such that it sounds as if one is always seeking agreement. Even a contradiction will start off with a phrase like: You’re right, of course, but…’. This makes life difficult for professional critics. If someone dislikes somebody’s work, one usually refrains from writing about it at all.
Although the Japanese can disagree, conflict hides behind a bland veil of politeness. When serious differences do come to the fore, they often lead to emotional crises ending in complete rupture with the group. In short, consensus may often be a public facade, but then façade counts for a great deal in Japanese life.
Few Japanese confuse this public play-acting with reality, but everyone agrees on its importance. ‘Being true to Yourself’ or sticking up for what you believe in are not Japanese virtues. One must play the public game, or suffer exclusion, which to most Japanese means living death.
Pretence in other words is an essential condition of life. There is an expression for this in Japanese language: tatemae. The facard, the public posture, the way things ought to be. Consensus is often a matter of tatemae.
The opposite to tatemae is honne. The private feeling or opinion, which, in normal circumstance, remains hidden or suppressed. When Japanese talk about being able to communicate without using words, they mean that they can read each other’s honne, while keeping to the tatemae.
Conforming to set patterns, blending with the group, never sticking one’s neck out, always wearing the company badge can be reassuring. Many, not only in Japan, seek this security. Perhaps this is more important than individual initiative or romantic love or originality. At least one knows the limitations of one’s existence, like living in a soft padded cell. But what does one do with those warm, human feeling the Japanese are blessed with? What are the emotional outlets?
For woman there seem to be few. Romance, despite what the woman’s magazines promise, is not a traditional part of a Japanese marriage. It is still not part of most modern marriages either. Even the most loving husband is not much good if he has to spend most of his life with his company colleagues, returning home late at night, exhausted and sometimes drunk. Women are thus left only with their children, whom they are understandably reluctant to let go.
For men there is play, which is another way of replacing reality with a fanciful façade. The artificial love of a prostitute instead of a relationship at home. Revelling in blood and gore on the stage or screen rather than asserting oneself in the office. Play often functions as a ritualised breaking of taboos, which are sacrosanct in daily life.
Play is the spectacle, the carnival, the masquerade. To break away from their suffocating identities, if only for a few hours, people don masks, dress up as the opposite sex, commit acts of violence. While much ritual in the West has lost its significance, in Japan play has not yet lost its meaning.
Respect for human life, dignity, the female body and all those matters we value in the West are valued in Japan too, but not on the level of play. One has no relationship with an actress playing a part, or a character in a comic-book, so why should anyone feel any compassion for them?
It is not any overarching principle people adhere to, but the proper rules of conduct in human relations.
If there were universal moral principles, everything, in fantasy and reality, would have moral judgments. Hence in the West many consider a cartoon in a national newspaper of a woman tied up in ropes to be offensive. In Japan even the most horrifying violence, as long as it is not real, is judged for its aesthetics only.
This is even true when the violence depicted is based on a real event. Novels based on the most gruesome of real tragedies can depict murders without condemning or analysing them, but turning them into a works of art. For someone raised in the Western tradition. A tradition that regards truth as sacred. Not knowing what is fact and fantasy can leave one feeling queasy.