Japanese Social System

The Japanese social system revolves around the concepts of Ie and Uchi. In the city of Tokyo, class is divided by the sections of Shitamachi and Yamanote. Although the first two are spatial terms and describe whether one is in a corporate or informal setting, and the latter two are districts that house blue and white-collar workers, they are all weaved together to create a culture that Dorinne Kondo comes to appreciate in Crafting Selves.

She discovers in her fieldwork that there is no self in Japanese society, but rather everyone works and lives for the greater good of all. She immerses herself, like any anthropologist must, in Japanese society by staying in various households and taking on blue collar jobs, many of these being family-run businesses. In this case, the ie takes charge. In the text she finds a close comparison of ie as “the physical building of the house or the household line” (121) In other words, it’s the structure that holds together a line, be it familial or corporate, and with so many family-owned businesses, both examples apply.

Most of these families Kondo encountered live in Shitamachi, or the more modest section of the city, so much of what she has to say is in favor of the lower-class quarters. Since money is tight and keeping business is of utmost importance for survival, some parents have plans for their children to go into the business once they retire. This proposes a con of living in Shitamachi, because higher ambitions, such as attending university overseas or taking a long trip, are often compromised to appease one’s parents who have power over the child’s fate. Kondo came across a similar circumstance with that of Masao, who wanted to pursue university and become an art teacher. However, his father hoped he’d continue with the family’s shoe store business that had its origins with the boy’s grandfather who worked his way up to owning the store. Had Masao come from a family living in Yamanote, or the upper-class section, his parents would be a little less hesitant over their son choosing self-interest over the family’s interest. Yet in belonging to a higher class than the Shitamachi people, personal relationships differ.

Within the Yamanote community, although more prosperous and with an historical background founded by the royal samurai of Japanese past, come exclusivity such as one finds with Beverly Hills homes and the walls surrounding them that block out outsiders. Neighbors are more distant in housing and also more distant and less familiar to each other due to bourgeois attitudes and the idea that one never needs the aid of others. In Shitamachi, neighbors live so close together than one cannot help but be acitively involved in each other’s lives. In Kondo’s own example from when she was sick in bed: her neighbors came over with tea and even volunteered to air out her futon covering and take on other duties that she was unable to perform for the time being. With these people, there is an honesty and openness because there is no need to hide anything since personal fortunes aren’t available to be at risk of losing. They help each other out with an understanding that everyone shares the same boat and what you do for someone else, they can do for you.

Uchi and soto are two distinct terms that represent the opposing sides of not just a Japanese person but anyone. Uchi is a concept with implies an intimate, informal and familial attachment to someone or something. With informalities and intimacy, one is able to find a forum for self-expression that is otherwise shunned in this society. “Uchi defines who you are, through shaping language, the use of space and social interaction” (141) therefore one has unique ways of expressing themselves and the words they use by who they’re addressing and where they are. If one is in the parlor they use more formal speech, but somewhere like the kitchen the tongue is not guarded and conversation is more lively and less stifled than if they were to put up a polite appearance for a guest. Kondo herself found that many people considered her part of their uchi by the way they spoke to her and how they expressed their speech. In the workplace, two workers who have known each other for some time, or even a boss and an employee as Kondo sees, communicate as if they were family by using informal “kitchen” speech. This is turn also re-emphasizes how the corporation is one big family.

Soto, on the other hand, implies formality in an outside, public setting. When one addresses a public official or a stranger, their word usage changes and they hold back from saying too much. To put it another way, soto is form over feeling, and duty over desire.It’s the attitude that best represents the Japanese as a people with good work ethics.

Making a final connection with the four concepts, it’s subjective as to whether it’s complimentary or not to say that the people of Shitamachi follow more along the lines of uchi with their emotional, informal talk that may allude to desires such as owning a yacht or going out to the geisha district later that evening. The people who live in Yamanote, then, would fit more along the lines of soto because formal behavior is already something they’re accustomed to running into fewer acquaintances.

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