Annual Newsletter of the Slavic Research Center, Hokkaido University
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English News  No.5 , December 1997
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From the Director
Foreign Visiting Fellows
Our Current Staff
Exchange Programs with Overseas Institutions
Guest Lectures from Abroad
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The Library
A day under the colorfol autumn trees in Takino Park ,Sapporo.
Essays by Foreign Fellows
Mordechai Altshuler
Boris N. Mironov
Volodymr A. Potulnytskyj
Vilmos Agoston
Oleg T. Bogomolov
Alfred F. Majewicz

A Several Thoughts of Russian on Japan and Japanese People

by Boris N. Mironov
(Institute of Russian History, Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, Foreign Visiting Fellow, SRC, 1997-98)

My visit to the Slavic Research Center was connected with my intention to prepare a manuscript for my book A Social History of Imperial Russia: 1700-1914 for printers. I had been working on the book for 6 years, and it was necessary for me to edit the text thoroughly as it always has to be done after the manuscript is complete. This time, the situation was complicated by the great upheavals in Russia, and as a person who had experienced all the vicissitudes of the Reform, lived through all its successes and defeats, hopes and disappointments, I had been changed too. Therefore, I was not fully satisfied with all that I had written several years ago, and I needed to make some corrections and editing.
Sapporo proved to be the ideal place to fulfill my desire. First of all, I have excellent working conditions at the Slavic Research Center Ñ a well-equipped office, an excellent library next to the Center, coffee or tea at any moment, fresh news from my motherland thanks to the TV-set tuned in to Channel 1 of Russian Public Television. But most importantly, I found myself in a serene and creative atmosphere. The Center, or rather the whole of Japan, has an excellent aura which fills you with positive emotions. With great pleasure, I spend 6 days a week at the Center, and if I had come to Sapporo without my wife I would also spend all my nights there.
The second beneficial circumstance for my work is the nature of Japanese civilization which surrounds me everywhere - at home, in the streets, at the university. As never before, here I felt how justified the banal truism "One can fully comprehend something only in comparison" is. While in the USA, I felt how backward Russia was, while in Germany, I felt Russia's relationship to Europe. In Japan, the Japanese way of life allows me to understand the uniqueness of the social and political structure, national character, culture and mentality of Russia. Let me clarify how the uniqueness of Japan helped me to arrive at a deeper understanding of Russia.
Everybody criticizes Russians for their predilection to alcohol. However, I always thought that Russian drinking customs had deeper social meanings - strengthening group solidarity, eliminating the feeling of loneliness, and assisting in mutual understanding. Back at home, I read that Japanese were all teetotalers, because their bodies could not tolerate alcohol. But also I heard that Japanese were collectivists. I wanted to know how they could feel of comradely without drinking. What I have seen in Japan shattered my previous views. I found that Japanese, men at least, like to celebrate by drinking. And I think that in terms of quantity, they do not drink any less than Russians do. The Japanese consider drinking as a necessary component for successful work, because it solidifies group spirit and rewards its achievements. Based on my observations in Japan, this is true. Celebrating by drinking is very useful, of course, if done intelligently. The misfortune of Russians is that they often they drink without any sense.
Russian women have always maintained a low position in the family and social hierarchy, although psychologists have proved that women are generally smarter than men, i.e., one can find a clever person more among women than among men, however there are more talented and gifted personalities among men than among women. I regard the fact that Russian women have had too little power and too little influence in social affairs as a serious misfortune for the nation. I read somewhere that in Japanese society women were not treated as equals to men. How it could be possible, I thought, for a society to have such prominent achievements without having a profound respect for women? My experience in Japan has made me realize that in their families, refined and graceful Japanese women (in spite of being twice as unlikely to hold a position in the civil service or private sector as their Russian counterparts) have great authority and influence over their husbands who cherish, respect , and rely on them. It seems to me that Japanese women can influence social affairs through their husbands. Unfortunately, it is still unclear for me how Japanese women can maintain such high status in their families.
Western scholars of Russian studies as well as many Russian scholars believe that Russia's backwardness is based on the fact that there has always been too little capitalism in Russia and too little of everything else connected with it - freedom, entrepreneurialism, risk-taking, etc. At present, individualism, the concepts of private property and free enterprise are highly fashionable in Russia. The vast majority of Russians believes that Japan has capitalism to thank for its great success. However, since coming to Japan, I am convinced that the Japanese version of capitalism has very little in common with European-style capitalism and even less with its American counterpart. It widely uses the concepts of groupism, of shared wealth, and government planning and regulations. Frequently, I think that there is more socialism in Japan than we had in Soviet Russia.
During the Tsarist Period, Russian peasants (in 1913 - 80% of the population) held both pagan and Christian beliefs at the same time. Many people think that paganism hindered Russia's economic and social progress. It was a great surprise for me to learn that the majority of Japanese practice two religions too. Different religious traditions coexist peacefully within the religious practice of one family or even of one person Ñ a person can belong both to Shinto and one of the main branches of Buddhism or another religion simultaneously. However, when one asks a Japanese what religion he or she belongs,two-thirds respond that they are non-believers. But at the same time, they observe religious holidays and conduct at least two ceremonies - a wedding ceremony in the Shinto style, and a burial ceremony in the Buddhist style. Thus, the phenomenon of dual religious beliefs has not hindered Japans progress , while in Russia the effect has been the opposite.
In the 1860s, Russia and Japan started modernizating at the same time, but Japan has left Russia far behind. I have reflected on the question: what helped the Japanese to attain such achievements, in spite of the fact that Japan has fewer natural resources than Russia? Here are some of my reflections on the reasons behind the Japanese success.
Although Japan did not undergo the Christian Reformation and become Protestant, its work ethic is no less than the Protestant one. Japanese people always demonstrate an enviable desire for hard work and a great zeal in all spheres of work activities. Seemingly, the concept of "a bad job" or "a bad position" does not exist for the Japanese. Japanese work selflessly, with great enthusiasm, enjoy their labor and admire its results. I admire their ability to ennoble everything they are working on and am amazed at how they combine labor and esthetics which apparently stimulates their zeal. They like to work wearing fashionable working clothes. The garbage collectors in Japan are dressed like the models from fashion salons.
I can see tremendous Japanese practicality everywhere. I would typify them as people who pay great attention to the finer details - they follow a proverb "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The Japanese do not like to change everything all at once, they prefer slow reforms, not revolutions, and small steps, not leaps. Maybe, it is specifically their practicality that allows the Japanese to cherish their traditions and, at the same time, readily take something new and useful from abroad. As a result, all innovations are filtered through the sieve of traditions Ñ they do not eliminate traditional Japanese culture, but enrich it.
In my impression, Japanese people are notable for their psychological stability and spiritual balance. They can reconcile themselves to the inevitable, to the current situation, they can sweep away their needs and wishes, they can discover the source of confusion and misfortune in themselves and never reproach other people. They can not only focus themselves when needed, but also relax during their leisure time. I often observe relaxed bodies and lucid faces in the parks, out of the city, on the benches and in very ordinary places and circumstances when they are surrounded by cars and other people. Apparently, the ability to find the time and energy for material and spiritual purification, to enjoy simple things, such as a blade of grass, a small fish, or falling snow, allows the Japanese to work hard and live long.
I believe the Japanese people are notable for their sense of national pride and determination. However, their ethnic self-assurance and nationalism are not warlike, but peaceful by nature. They are proud to be Japanese and wish to be first in everything. They strive to preserve their Japanese identity and maintain their homogeneity.
The strength of the Japanese lies in their discipline and organization, precision, sense of duty, and the desire for order. I never before met such a law-abiding people. They established rules for all possible cases, try to follow them and deviate from them very rarely. To keep obligations made, to repay their debts, and to show thanks for help is a matter of honor, in everyday life. To act improperly, to put another person in an awkward position, to lie, to break an established order is considered dishonorable. Their beliefs fully match their deeds. One can observe honesty in everything: I left my briefcase on a bench and next day found it safe and sound in the same place. No Japanese has ever deceived me or let me down.
A professor in Japan is given respect and this respect reflects the desire for knowledge and the esteem in which education is held as an inexhaustible source of power and wisdom.
One can readily sense the atmosphere of unity and humanity in the contacts between people. Very seldom in Japan can one meet people who suffer from loneliness, who are afraid of the future, who are disappointed with life, or who have lost their hopes. Among the Japanese people, I observe mutual understanding, mutual aid, cooperation; they can help each other not only morally, but also financially, in difficult circumstances. People respect and cherish every living creature - flowers and trees, dogs and cats, crows and sparrows. I wish it were so everywhere!
Thus, it seems to me, the strength of the Japanese people and the source of their success rests in their traditions and the unique features of their national identity. I must confess, sometimes I feel as if traditional national values are disappearing here; senior citizens complain about this fact. And, in my opinion, the more educated a person becomes and the more often he or she goes abroad and becomes better acquainted with Western Europe and the USA, the more this person differs from the image of the ideal Japanese, as I see it. These deviations from the traditional image of Japanese are more obvious among Japanese intelligentsia than among Japanese workers and farmers, they are also more noticeable in the big cities than in the small towns and villages. However, I do not know very many Japanese people can not answer how soon their traditional values will erode and how soon new national ideals and new standards of behavior will appear in Japanese society, how deeply individualism has penetrated the national character and up to what point has the collective spirit eroded, what stage of development is Japanese feminism, etc.
Generally speaking, all I have said above is not concrete, rather - they are impressions, more like a sketch than a picture. It is very difficult for a foreigner who does not speak Japanese to understand Japanese people. Many questions can not be readily answered; for the Japanese, the questions may be unusual and the answers self-evident, just as the bird can not explain how and why it flies, or because while questioning, you trespass the borderline between the outer and inner worlds of the Japanese personality, since they allow themselves to be absolutely candid and free to fully express their feelings and emotions only among their nearest and dearest. While being surrounded by other people, and especially foreigners, they suppress their real feelings and emotions. Thus, often I want to cry: "Hey, Mask, Mask, show me your real face!"

(translated from Russian by Edward Vlassov)

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