Get out of my head, Hofstede!

Photo via Restaurant Kyoto

We’re going to look at the fourth bar from the left.

In the past year of my graduate studies, my cohort has become very familiar with a man named Geert Hofstede. He is most noted for his contributions to cross-cultural communication and psychology. More specifically, his cultural dimensions theory provides a framework for understanding how a society’s culture can affect the values and behavior of its people. Among these dimensions, uncertainty avoidance always seemed to pique my interest since I knew that I would be visiting Japan. As I mentioned in my last post, Japan scores as “one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries on earth.” However, I don’t think that I discussed the full significance of this dimension and would like to dive in deeper today. Just to give a quick disclaimer, I’m going to mainly focus on how uncertainty avoidance factors into daily life in Japan. While I’d love to also comment on the business world, I’ve been interning for a non-traditional Japanese company and don’t feel completely qualified to do so. Either way, I hope to paint a picture on how this concept spills over into many different facets of Japanese society.

So what exactly is uncertainty avoidance? According to Hofstede, this dimension covers the “degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.” Typically, countries with a high uncertainty avoidance score exhibit a rigid set of behavior and beliefs. In the case of Japan, Hofstede attributes this to the fact that the country is “constantly threatened by natural disasters” (i.e. typhoons, tsunamis, earthquakes). As a result, the Japanese are hyper prepared for not just emergency situations but tend to apply this mentality towards seemingly ordinary activities or events. I’d have to personally identify the results of this phenomenon as an incredibly structured and organized society. Let’s look at a few examples.

Image via Wa-pedia

Upon enlarging this picture, you’ll probably feel overwhelmed. I promise that it’s actually quite ingenious.

My first example is something that will have almost every American tourist in awe upon setting foot in the country. I’m referring to public transportation in Japan, mainly the elaborate network of railways. I’m currently dependent on my car back home, but I used public buses throughout my undergraduate degree. It was not a pleasant experience, as the system at my school was horrendous with unreliable service and inconsistent schedules. While it definitely takes some getting used to, the Japanese have public transportation down to a science. For the most part (I will admit that I faced occasional delays), you can be sure that your train be on time in the same place every single day. While getting from point A to point B might not seem all that noteworthy, my observations lead me to believe that the railways help create a stable environment in this country. Following the logic of the uncertainty avoidance dimension, public transportation gives Japanese citizens something to rely on in the present, although what might happen when they get to their next destination remains unclear.

Next, I’ve got an unorthodox example for you – baseball. I was lucky enough to check out a baseball game in Tokyo this past month. While the Yomiuri Giants are known for being Japan’s most popular team, I opted for an outdoor stadium with the Yakult Swallows. I was told by multiple people that it would be a blast, so I made sure to fit the outing into my schedule. I’ve been to a lot of baseball games in my lifetime (mostly at the former Shea Stadium in New York), but nothing really compares to the Japanese spirit. The fans were just awesome! Here’s the basic gist: each team has a specific cheer that fans sing continually during a player’s time at bat. I mean, they don’t stop. They sing the entire cheer, over and over. I was honestly amazed that they didn’t get tired. The fans also use small bats as noisemakers by hitting them together repeatedly. I thought this was brilliant, since it’s a lot easier to maintain this momentum as opposed to clapping. And the best part? The Swallows have a special tradition of raising small umbrellas in the air as a way to celebrate home runs scored by the team.

So this might seem like simple fun and games, but I think it bears particular significance to our topic of choice. In the incredibly unpredictable world of baseball, the Japanese still manage to establish a routine. The way that Japanese baseball fans cheer for their teams is the most organized effort I’ve ever seen in sports. I felt that it greatly reflects the culture in this country, as fans take matters into their own hands in the present by helping their team reach victory in the future (even if that future is only a few swings away). I concede that some might find I’m overanalyzing this whole spectacle, but you can blame Hofstede for that! He will continue to haunt all of my cultural experiences for the foreseeable future.

Last, I want to quickly touch on a trend I’ve noticed that contradicts my initial expectations about uncertainty avoidance in Japan. I naturally assumed that fear of the unknown might lead Japanese people to be more distrusting of each other. Instead, I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. Going back to the baseball example, there were no bag checks at this stadium and fans could bring in absolutely anything they wanted, including alcohol. I was flabbergasted at this fact! I’ve grown accustomed to a heightened level of security in the United States, especially following 9/11. Back home, it’s a legitimate concern that someone might attend a large sporting event with the express intent of hurting others. You’ll also notice that Japanese people aren’t hesitant about leaving their belongings unattended. It’s completely normal for an individual to reserve a seat in Starbucks with a bag (likely containing valuables) as they grab coffee or use the restroom. It actually made me a little sad to think that we have to be so paranoid in the U.S. I guess that’s culture for you.

It would be easy to talk endlessly about Hofstede and the relevance of his theories to Japanese society, but I’ve only got one more day to enjoy this amazing country. It’s a bittersweet moment for sure, but I’m confident that I’ll be back soon. Be on the lookout for my reflections post once I return to the states. Spoiler warning: it will probably be all sappy and sentimental.

-Sarah

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