Yet Another Cultural Difference

October 13th, 2008

This one kinda piggy-backs on my last post about cultural differences, wherein I discuss how Japanese celebrities cannot admit to using drugs.

I was reading on Wikipedia about bad movies, and I came across a few quotes / comments from celebrities about movies they had been in:

George Clooney personally offered to refund anyone who saw Batman and Robin and asked him in person.

Michael Caine, regarding Jaws: The Revenge: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger, regarding Red Sonja: “It’s the worst film I have ever made. Now, when my kids get out of line, they’re sent to their room and forced to watch Red Sonja ten times. I never have too much trouble with them.”

Halle Berry, regarding Catwoman: “I want to thank Warner Brothers for casting me in this piece of shit.”

These are all completely unthinkable quotes in Japan.  Sure, an actor will probably say that to an agent or a friend.  But to say it in public, knowing it would be quoted?  No way.

I have three hypotheses regarding why this is (and it may be a mix of all three, plus a few things I haven’t thought of).

1) Japanese non-confrontationalism.  Don’t get me wrong, Japanese aren’t as non-confrontational as the Western media likes to paint.  People do get into arguments and snits.  People do bad-mouth eachother.  But it happens less here, and especially less among media-related folks.

2) Stars aren’t big enough.  Japan has a bazillion entertainers.  Unlike America, where entertainers are relatively compartmentalized (most movie actors don’t regularly appear in TV shows.  Most TV show actors don’t regularly appear in commercials), in Japan, if you’re a movie star, that also means you act in TV dramas, and advertise canned coffee and vacuum cleaners.  Which means, consequently, that there are far far more stars.  In American TV, each show might have one, two, maybe three or four stars, and then a bunch of people who are, for all intents and purposes, only on that show.  Lost, for example, is a rather famous show.  And if you’re a Lost fan, you probably know who  Matthew Fox (Jack), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Jorge Garcia (Hurley), Josh Holloway (Sawyer), Daniel Dae Kim (Jin Kwon), Yunjin Kim (Sun Kwon), Terry O’Quinn (Locke), Naveen Andrews (Sayid), Emilie de Ravin (Claire), Dominic Monaghan (Charlie Pace), Harold Perrineau (Michael Dawson), Michael Emerson (Ben), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond), and Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet Burke).  But that would be a pretty hard-core fan.  Your non-Lost viewer would maybe recognize Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly, and that’s about it.  For an equivalent prime-time big selling TV show in Japan, at least half, if not more, of those roles would be played by a well-known actor or actress.  Not a good actor or actress, mind you, because there are probably only 4 or 5 of them in Japan, but someone well-known, whose name people who don’t even watch the show would recognize.

So there are a million stars in Japan, because every show uses the same people, and those people act in every media.  What happens,  as a converse result, is that, for the most part, nobody is a big enough star that they can give the middle finger to the production company and get away with it.  Sure, there are a few, but it’s a really small number.

3) More cross-pollenization through media.  That is, since everyone is sharing so much (actors appear throughout spectrum of media, as do directors, producers, etc. etc. etc.), if you snub someone in one place, that will reverberate through the others.  For example, if you trash a movie you’re in, directed by Director A, production company B, distribution company C, sponsor D, with costars E, F, and G, you’ll find youself blacklisted from production company H as well (because director A does a lot of work with them), and from distribution company I, because they distribute works by production company B, and from sponsor J, because they also sponsor other works distributed by distribution company C, etc. etc. etc.  So snubbing a film isn’t just burning a bridge behind you, preventing you from going back, but is more like burning a support beam on the bridge you’re on.  Sure, the support beam may be behind you, but it’s integral to the whole bridge, meaning that the bridge in front of you is going to collapse, you with it.

Anyway, those are just my outsider guesses.  I’m sure there are other reasons that haven’t even occurred to me.  But I suspect that this is one of the reasons that Japanese media (film especially) is such trash: nobody can admit that anything sucks, so everything is treated with the same degree of respect and reverence, and there’s really no incentive to make something good.  After all, even if you make a horrible film, the media will regard it as excellent, and all you have to worry about is word-of-mouth.

4 Responses to “Yet Another Cultural Difference”

  1. Victor Vorski Says:

    I think the culture of “not criticizing” goes much wider than that. How often do you really hear a Japanese person say “this is shit!”. Never. It’s all part of that we’re all on the same Island so must be nice to each other mentality. At worst you’ll get “well this is perhaps not entierly what I would have expected, but then I am probably completely wrong and this pile of offal is actually gold, and it is me that is at fault, my appologies for even bringing this up, you’re write, this is oishis!”.

    In general Japanese hate expressing opinions at all, even positive ones – that’s why they LOVE useless words like “kawaii” which are completely value free. Anything and everything is “kawaii”.

    Expressing a strong opinion one way or another means that there will be some people who might have a different opinion, and we would never, ever want to be in a situation where we force someone else into being in a different corner then us.

    All this is beaten into kids from young age through ijime at school, etc. Conform, conform, conform, conform.

    In a society where conforming is the highest virtue, expressing any opinion risks placing oneself outside the “general opinion circle” which is a place you never want to be.

  2. bugbread Says:


    I dunno, I hear people talking about things being “最悪” all the time. Movies, parties, musicians, events, their landlords, their companies, etc.

    The only time I really see the “pulling of the punches” you describe is in a conversation between two folks, where person 1 has just described something as good, and person 2 (who hated it) starts talking. That’s when you get “本当?俺はあまり好きじゃなかったよね。まぁ、好みの問題だね。”

    Of course, the same is true in America, too. I have a vivid memory of talking to a friend of my parents, a chef from Sweden (or perhaps Switzerland…that part of the memory isn’t the vivid part). I was describing how I was learning to cook, and how I had found some dish hard to make. He (whose native language wasn’t English) said “No, it isn’t hard. It’s easy.” and it just struck me as the rudest comment ever. It plain pissed me off. And the rest of his conversation was sprinkled with these “total rebuffs”. When I told my parents about what a jerk the guy was, they just pointed out that I shouldn’t focus on his tone, because there was a language barrier, but the actual content, which, admittedly, wasn’t rude at all.

    So I thought about why he came off as being rude, and I came to the conclusion that it’s because…in American society, in a social setting like that (as opposed to, say, an office, or a discussion among long, good friends, etc.), you don’t contradict people’s opinions directly. Instead, you contradict indirectly. You say things like, “Yes, some people have a hard time with that dish”, or “Oh, really? I never have problems making that dish”, or “That dish takes practice”.

    Sure, if you’re around people you know well, you use total rebuffs (but that’s true in Japan, too, just to a lesser extent), and if you’re at a meeting / in a debate you use total rebuffs, but in general I find that Americans overestimate their tendency to “talk straight”, and that they overestimate the Japanese tendency to “avoid conflict”. Yeah, those tendencies exist, but they aren’t as big as they’re made out to be.

  3. Victor Vorski Says:

    Hmmm… This is a really interesting one, because in general I definitely see the Japanese being much less critical. Perhaps it is that they are willing to grumble about superficial things (e.g. the weather is NEVER good, it is always either too hot or too cold…), but on real issues they gaman like no other peoples.

    A good example would be to look at political commentary – AFAIK there is next to no hard hitting political commentary, what the newspapers write is controlled by the government press releases. There is certainly nothing like “The Daily Show” which in an intelligent way shreds the government to bits… When I ask people where there is genuine debate in Japan, about the only answer I get is “2chan”…

  4. bugbread Says:

    The way I always interpreted that (and I agree about the lack of criticality about the big things) is a combination of apathy and helplessness.

    Talking to people at work who do massive amounts of unpaid overtime, they don’t get angry or critical, because, basically, they’re crushed. There’s nothing they could do, really, to fix the situation (suing the company would make things better for a lot of people, but would be extremely costly for the person doing the actual suing, so it would be martyrdom), so either they gaman it, or they quit and move to another company (which probably also has tons of unpaid overtime).

    For politics, it’s the same but moreso: trying to make things better would probably put you in jail, and would be futile, because there’s no way to change politics anyway. Plus, quitting is much harder than it is for a company, because it means leaving your country, learning a new language, saying goodbye to your family and friends, etc.

    One of the reasons that I think that it’s an issue of apathy and helplessness is because there ARE newspapers/magazines that are very critical of the government. But, unlike the US, they aren’t really popular, because nobody cares. It’s not that the voice of dissent isn’t out there, it’s that the average person feels so powerless that there’s no reason to bother with debate or dissent.

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