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Opinion – Social Circles – The Inside and Outside Group

One topic I’ve been wanting to cover for quite a while now is the difference  between Japan and Canada when it comes to social circles and their interactions. I’ve been putting it off for quite some time now in the hopes of developing a broader and more experienced view on the topic and I’ve spent a number of nights trying to put my perspective together, to no success.  Now, before I write about it a bit more I just wanted to point out this is not something that is limited to Japan. Several asian cultures have this sort of difference to various degrees. Also, as much as I will try to reiterate I just want to point out from the get go that my view on this topic is not negative. At times it has been difficult to fight the feeling of negativity from certain experiences but that being said it is simply a facet of culture that is neither wrong or right, just different.

So what specifically am I talking about in this case? Social circles, or more particularly the concept of the inside and outside group when it comes to working and social life within the culture. To further preface my opinion on the subject, I feel often that I still lack a lot of experiences to have a rounded opinion as I’ve only been in Japan a little over 3 months and started my working life here as recently as 1 month ago. While where I work is certainly in Japan and still carries a lot of Japanese cultural experiences and traditions along with it, often times it is not as traditionally structured and run as other Japanese companies and as such it’s a bit difficult to speak with a degree of confidence in my own opinion. However, I still do feel it’s fun to discuss such topics and I’ve posed the discussion to both those that are new to the country, spent many years here or those that were born here and got a chance to travel the world as well.

Now, in western cultures in many general work situations it is not a social faux pas or taboo to invite friends from one’s social group (such as personal friends) to post-work get togethers with co-workers, let alone one’s wife or girlfriend. Now, obviously it goes without saying that this is on a case by case basis but speaking in generalities I can’t for the most part remember any situations where personal friends weren’t welcome to come along for a round of drinks and chicken wings at the local pub when meeting co-workers following a work day. Like wise, There have been no shortage of situations where I have invited coworkers to join a group of friends and me for a drink on the patio at the local Brewsters.  It’s certainly not something that is set in stone and levels of formality between co-workers definitely can influence this but in most cases one’s network of co-workers and one’s group of friends interact quite freely, at least when it comes to social norms.

When it comes to Japan things are structured quite differently. Again, I want to preface that this isn’t a golden rule and there are certainly exceptions, as there are to all things in life. Lets look at working life in Japan. The majority of people for the most part have a group of personal friends, one’s they’ve often come to know through out their school life and along side that they have their social circle from work. Not particularly different from the other side of the globe as you’ve probably surmised by now. Things start to change when it comes to interaction between these groups and one’s significant other is no exception to this. Step out on any day of the week around Tokyo and visit any of the izakayas or all you can drink pubs peppered all across the city and you will see no shortage of co-workers enjoying a round of drinks and having conversations to all hours of the night (though, on weekdays that tends to lean towards the schedule of the last train home). What you don’t see much at all though is the friends, spouses or significant others of those individuals joining them.

At first I did not really notice this difference. Over time I started to catch on to it and even begun bugging friends on the subject, inquiring as to their opinions on the subject. At the core of it the concept of the inside circle and the outside group rungs quite strong in the culture. To invite one’s personal friends to such situations would be quite weird in general and outside the norm. This extends as far as one’s wife or husband or girlfriend and boyfriend. To invite one’s significant other to join you for a drink when you are out with co-workers following a day of work falls again in the domain of a social faux pas, so much so that the other party, the significant other, is quite understanding of this, even if these drinking get togethers run quite late sometimes.

In essence, the people here tend to be much more rooted when it comes to bringing these different social circles together to interact between each other. This can make for some initial challenges and misunderstandings for someone coming from the west and trying to adapt to the new way of life here.  Making friends beyond a superficial level can be a lot of effort if one does not already have a bit of an established circle to help move things along. In my case for example, I have always tried to be an active member of the Japanese community within Edmonton and in the process have come to know a great deal of Japanese people who have come to the city for overseas study. As such I’ve had the great fortune to get a chance to meet up with a number of them back in Japan and it has made the transitions easier at times. However, even then, more often than not, those same friends are ones I rarely ever see, even while here, mainly because of the strong foundation of the social norms associated with social circles in Japan. Friends that I would see a few times a week in Canada I could only meet once or twice every few months, in huge part to their obligations to the friends they grew up with and the people they meet with regularly at work. There is less room for people outside of those circles to easily be able to break into those very groups.

So, if you’ve read this far it probably sounds pretty bleak. To be honest it’s not as cut and dry as I talk about. It’s not as if as a westerner you don’t get a chance to meet people. There are a ton of opportunities in this country but they take a pretty different approach than Canada at times. Most of the friends from Japan I’ve come to meet back in Canada met a handful of people at the school they came to study at and then met the rest of their friends by introduction to different social groups from those very friends they first met. Here you will likely rely much more on group get togethers, international parties and various other events in order to meet people and extend your list of friends but even then it’s occasionally a result that comes across as something lacking great depth.

I guess, what I want to say is that in Japan a person is much more obliged to spend time with their co-workers and friends they made in school, though often these two groups stay separate. As a westerner, even one who has been around the culture a lot, it can be a challenge to switch off one’s personal attachment to the system back in Canada. There are no rights and wrongs in this particular situation, they are just different approaches to life on two different sides of the world. In fact, part of the beauty of this particular social structure here is some of the dedication people bring to their various circles. It creates a much stronger sense of community and group mentality when you are a part of one of these groups and often times it’s not something that is seen in parallel western situation due to the stronger individualistic mentality that is prolific in the west.

To put it anecdotally,  when i recently asked one gentleman I had met, a structural engineer from Japan who had a chance to travel around the world for various conferences pertaining to earthquakes, what has been one of his favorite aspects of international travel, particularly the most positive experience he answered by explaining his surprise at the fact, when attending a dinner following a conference in New York, that one of the guest speakers brought a long his wife as he met with some of the conference attendees. On the face of it it may sound a little depressing and I guess from a western perspective it may be but here in Japan it’s far more normal to keep one’s personal life and working life separate and neither party tends to take it on any personal level. It has been an aspect of the culture that has been a bit of a challenge to get used to but such is travel and getting out of one’s comfort zone. It is good to get out and see the world and be put in these situations as it shapes who you are and gives you views and opinions you may have never come across.

To be honest, there’s much more learn on this subject and an even greater amount to discuss and talk about. For now though this is a good start. Japan is a very beautiful country, both rich in tradition and culture. Often as someone who is a guest in this country it is difficult to speak an opinion on a subject pertaining to my experiences here, partially out of respect, partially out of lack of experience and partially out of the fact that ultimately I am still just a guest along for the ride. As I said earlier, this is not a golden rule and you will come across people who bring you in to their social groups, I’ve definitely had that opportunity while travelling here and I’ve been quite thankful for it.

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