J a p a n e s e    C u l t u r e

Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Friday, May 25, 2012


Field of Responsibility, Zenpouchuui, and "I am only Looking"

Field of Responsibility, Zenpouchuui, and "I am only Looking" by timtak
Field of Responsibility, Zenpouchuui, and "I am only Looking", a photo by timtak on Flickr.
The Japanese feel responsible, and are especially legally responsible, for that which they can see, that which is in their field of vision, but imho feel far less responsible for that which is not in their field of vision, even if they can rationally predict it, sometimes with unexpected and even disastrous consequences in their interaction with Westerners like me.

In the UK there are laws which stipulate that one pay attention to that which one can "reasonably" predict. E.g. in British contract law one may enter into a contract even if one does not sign on the line which is dotted, when one can reasonably expect to have entered into a contract. E.g. If you go into a posh restaurant and drink the water on the table, even though you may not have been told that the water costs money, if you can reasonably expect, that water to cost money, for it to have come from a bottle and not the tap, then one will be held responsible for paying for it. British people are required to be reasonable, to exercise their reason, to engage perhaps in an internal dialogue with themselves, and act in accordance with the results of that "discussion."

In Japan however, (performing a Nacalian transformation) one is required far more to exercise care over that which one can see. This especially applies in road traffic laws, and road behaviour, where one is expected to "zenpouchuui," (前方注意) sometimes translated as "proceed with caution" but literally, "Pay attention to that which is in front of you." This means that in Japan more than in the West, if you see someone standing at the side of the road in front of you, then as you proceed towards them, to make sure you see them, and make sure that you imagine that they may walk out in front of you, even if it is not "reasonable" for them to do so.

I sometimes find that Japanese people come out in front of me, when I am on my bicycle for instance, especially if they are travelling at an oblique angle (just greater than 90 degrees and slightly in the same direction as the road as travelled by the possibly oncoming traffic). In this situation, from the visual perspective of the person crossing the road at a slightly oblique angle, there is nothing in their line of vision. Their field of vision and their field of responsibility is clear. Twisted Westerner that I am, I sometimes feel that Japanese people deliberately cross roads at oblique angles (in the above photo, imagine that the carpet is the road) deliberately not looking anywhere but in front of them so as to give themselves right of way. This can, and has, resulted in disastrous consequences when the Westerner proceeding forwards expects those in front to use their reason to anticipate things that are not in their field of vision.

This formula: that one is responsible for that which one can see and imagine from that visual data, rather than that which one can reasonably predict from the facts of the situation, may have implications in other areas of cultural behaviour.

I wonder if the way in which, for instance, Japanese family law privileges the rights, and responsibilities of the parent with whom the children are living (that can see the child) is partly motivated by the above consideration.

The cultural psychologist Takahiko Masuda (light years above me research wise, highly perceptive of cultural differences, and a nice guy) argues that the Japanese are more aware of context , whereas Westerners are more analytical thus focal, concentrating only one the "important" data. This is demonstrated for instance in his superb experiments on change blindness (Masuda & Nisbett, 2006) where Westerners only notice changes in foreground, focal objects whereas Japanese notice changes in the background. I am not sure how this could be operationalized (made verifiable, the subject of an experiment) but I predict that in situations where one can rationally predict events based upon present data, it may be Westerners, not Japanese, that are paying more attention to the (rational, linguistically predictable) context. In other words, perhaps everyone is paying attention to context, but the context to which Japanese and Westerners are paying attention to is Nacalianly transposed.

The way in which Japanese feel able to ignore that which they can not see is perhaps illustrated in this television commercial (called, poignantly "I am only looking") in which a group of Japanese ladies feel able to ignore sales staff partly by moving obliquely in front of them, keeping the sales staff out of their field of vision. In my interactions with Japanese road users I sometimes feel like the I would expect the shop attendants to feel, if they were British.

Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2006). Culture and change blindness. Cognitive Science, 30(2), 381–399.

Thanks to my wife Yasuko for posing for this photo. Thanks to Lacan for his theory the human self. Since I have started using his name (reversed) for my take on Japanese culture, I feel much better about using it.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.