Identity: The Group and the Self

A Difference In Perspective

Culturally and linguistically, Japan and the West come from different starting points, even though the people on both sides often talk about the exact same things. In the West, when you are selfish, you prioritize yourself over other individuals. In Japan, when you are selfish, you prioritize yourself over the welfare of the group.

Wagamama (わがまま)

The Japanese word for selfishness is wagamama, formed of two components.

Waga is a Japanese word for “my/ our”; that is, it carries (in a formal way) a connotation of “mine mine mine”.

Mama is not, here, the loan word for mother; it is a Japanese word for “form,” but is often used like “in accordance with”. For example, if you have seen movies with sailors in them, someone may shout, “Steady as she goes!” In Japanese, this might be said as sono mama, with an essentially identical meaning. (As in, “that form, that way,” but yes, the meaning is like that.)

Here, exclusivity is implied. The meaning is, in accordance with one’s own wishes with complete disregard for the welfare of the group.

In Japan, the group – be it the family, the school, the village/ town/ city, or even the nation itself – is the core unit of organization. Individuals are part of the group.

In the West, however much socialist philosophy has been pushed over the last two centuries, the essential language and thought process is this: a group is a collection of free individuals. The group is a composite of each participating individual; the individuals are able to stand on their own, and are presumed to participate because they want to, not because of a duty to do so.

Of course, such Western thinking breaks down when we look at, say, the military draft. But nations did not always draft people into the military. In terms of the Enlightenment, the military draft is a born-again phenomenon that had not been seen since the days of barbarism. But in that sense, universal conscription wasn’t any more traditional in Japan; peasants fighting in war was always the exception, not the rule, in Japanese field warfare.

Jibun Jishin (自分自身)

“Jibun jishin” is read as oneself. It is two compound words strung together to form a larger compound, to emphasize the following: the individual, in mind and in body.

The first part, jibun (自分), uses a kanji for “self” and a kanji for “division”. As I said, in Japan, the individual is viewed as a segment of a group. This segment is “jibun,” the self.

The second part, jishin (自身), uses the same kanji for “self” along with another kanji for “person”. (There is another word that is pronounced identically, but with different kanji; it is quite separate.)

So put together, this is the individual as a single person, separate from the group… for the purposes of a single statement.

In other words, once the “jibun jishin” tag is closed, the conversation reverts to the HTML default: the individual as a cog in a larger machine.

So what’s the difference between this and watashi and all that business?

The difference is, a person gives his opinion as watashi, he is giving his opinion as a single person part of a larger group, and not wholly separate from it.

But a jibun jishin no iken is one’s own opinion as an individual completely separate from the group.

In other words, it’s completely going out on a limb – behavior that makes a lot of Japanese people very culturally nervous.

Mizukara (自ら)

This word uses the same kanji for “self” I mentioned above. In Japanese, kara is used like “from, arising out of”. So this word, mizukara, reads like arising from the self.

Thus, mizukara means personally. It is specific to that person; in other words, that individual, as distinct from the group.

This post is already getting long, so I won’t go into specific examples here, but this is used for things that have a personal touch… but aren’t spoken of in a 3rd person perspective.

Actual Usage

Now, just because jibun jishin and mizukara are more explicit about individuality in more of the Western sense (that most readers here will consider completely normal), that doesn’t mean that most people bother to make a big deal about the differences in everyday speech. That’s because they don’t have to.

If someone says, watashi no kuruma (“my car”), that’s not implying anything other than individual, personal, legal ownership.

But by the same token, no one worries about whose name is on the title deed when someone says watashi no ie (“my house”); that is the house you reside in. It is statistically unlikely that everyone saying this phrase actually owns the house.

It’s just valuable to go into this because people have a tendency, certainly not confined to Japan, to speak “the company line” about a subject, even when asked what they think as individuals. Getting people to speak as individuals separate from the larger group is quite a feat, in the sense of not being easy at all. Some can do it without a thought, but they’re not typical or normal.

I’ve heard, and read in novels and so on (which of course isn’t any great fountain of wisdom), that there are two good ways of getting someone to speak to you completely honestly about some topics, as individuals and not having anything to do with the company line.

Method #1: Get to know someone really, really well, as a trusted friend.

Method #2: Get someone really drunk.

Of course, combining both methods works best. (^^;)

Before people get on their rants about Japan being such a stifling society, see how long you keep a job at Apple if you go around badmouthing the iPad 2 as your “personal opinion”. All I said to start this post is that the starting points are different. That doesn’t mean we can’t end up at the exact same place. – J

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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