Q&A with Kiyoshi Matsumoto on the Misconceptions and Struggles of Modern Japan

Q&A with Kiyoshi Matsumoto on the Misconceptions and Struggles of Modern Japan

Today, we’re introducing a special treat: TokyoMate’s interview with Kiyoshi Matsumoto, cross-cultural specialist and author of Japan Unmasked.

Japan Unmasked is a book that looks at Japan’s past to help readers make sense of Japan’s present and future. After reading Kiyoshi Matsumoto’s illuminating book, we were eager to have him as a guest here, and we’re so delighted that he said yes

We hope you enjoy this thoughtful discourse and the treasure trove of insights that he gave in answer to our questions.


Q: Can you tell us a little about your personal background? 

MATSUMOTO: I was raised in Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan and have lived many years in Sydney, Australia. As a young person, I always looked outside Japan for inspiration and freedom, so it was only natural that my home was made on Western shores – firstly studying in England and the US, and then in 1989 moving to Australia as my ultimate destination.

With over 30 years working in the hospitality and travel industries, I have bridged the two worlds of Australian and Japanese business. Cross-cultural communication and marketing are my expertise, and I relish assisting companies and individuals to do business across this cultural gulf.

Sydney became home for my wife and me, and here we have enjoyed bringing up our two now-grown children. We delight in discovering great food and love to travel as a family. As well, I am a baseball and gardening enthusiast.

Q: What prompted you to write your book on Japanese culture? Was there an instigating event? Or was it a gradual realization that a book like this was needed? 

MATSUMOTO: Approaching the age of 60, I had no choice but to then re-examine my roots after living away from Japan for the past 35 years. Like so many Japanese who were youngsters in the 1960s and 1970s, I looked externally for inspiration and freedom, negating the suffocating society that surrounded me. I have lived in the UK, USA, and in Australia ever since I was 27 years old, preferring to bring up a family on foreign shores – I’m now in my 60s!

For the majority of my working life, I escorted business people to Japan, helping navigate the cultural maze of Japan. In doing so, I have had the unique advantage of seeing Japan through the eyes of outsiders, and it is only in my latter years that I have come to appreciate Japan and its people that the younger me rejected.

My further motivation to publish this book is traced back to a series of posts on my LinkedIn account. The reaction from my readers was immediate and encouraging. Their feedback helped shape and focus my thinking on relevant Japanese topics and convinced me that unmasking Japan was a mission worth sharing with a wider audience.  

Japan Unmasked is my first book, and it has taken many years and the help of friends to complete this unique interpretation of Japanese society. I wish to thank all my friends for their serious and fun interpretations of Japan.

Q: While conducting research for Japan Unmasked, what fact or historical tidbit about Japan surprised you the most?

MATSUMOTO: The most surprising tidbit for me in researching Japan Unmasked was that our feudalist past is still dominating Japanese society today. Its long-term effects on the Japanese psyche dictate a reservedness in all forms of personal communication, hiding true feelings for fear of repression and losing face. The feudalistic system still exists under a veneer of democracy. Political parties tend still to operate as clans and obedience remains the order of the day both politically and corporately.

 Q: The historical accounts in your book give some much-needed context for aspects of Japanese culture that have commonly seemed so foreign to Westerners. And some of the accounts, in fact, might come as a surprise to Japanese readers, too. For instance, I had never heard of the story recounted in Chapter 19 about the ee ja nai ka movement of 1867. Can you share that story with our readers? 

MATSUMOTO: Utmost in the Japanese consciousness is belonging. To belong harmoniously within your group is paramount for survival. The Japanese mask both conceals true emotions and creates order and harmony for the group through sameness.

For the Japanese concealment was and still is a necessary part of everyday survival, but also, it's a state that continues to create a deep-seated anxiety and conflict within the individual – a coiled spring. One significant example of when such a coiled spring sprang is the bizarre Ee ja nai ka movement of 1867. With the forced opening of Japan by American Commodore Matthew Perry and the subsequent unravelling of Japan’s hierarchical system, for the common people this was tantamount to a complete upending of their everyday society – a society of servitude and hopelessness. The term ‘shoganai’ was often used to express constant disappointment in living in such a state. But early in 1867 with such massive dislocation occurring the commoners in many parts of Japan became members of this crazy and bizarre movement that participated in a combination of rioting, religious hysteria and mass street dances. This included cross-dressing, elaborate costumes, or not wearing clothes at all. A British diplomat traveling in Osaka remarked on the absence of fear or anonymity. Everywhere the revellers repeated the same incantatory chant: Ee ja nai ka! This phrase’s meaning is both defiant and fatalistic, and it translates as “Who cares?” or “Why not?” or ”What the hell?” along the lines of “Who cares if we take our clothes off?” “Who cares if we have sex?” The subtext of every shout was an open declaration of liberation, a jack-in-the-box release of pent-up desire. Above all, it was an act of public individuality – a casting off of the mask that for so long had to be worn under the yoke of feudalism Japan.

Q: Has there been any recent piece of news where you saw the difference in cultural values between Japan and the US or Japan and Australia playing out? 

MATSUMOTO: Japanese failure to stop whaling.

For over four decades, Japan refused to stop its whaling, in a belief that to do so was to lose face with not only its own population but in the eyes of the rest of the world. In the 1980s, the simple statistics that the whale populations were on the verge of extinction was insufficient to stem the Japanese belief that any backdown on catching and eating a traditional Japanese food staple, such as whale meat, was less important than critical global conservation issues. The West completely under-estimated the sheer intransigence of the Japanese who up until 2019 used the loophole of ‘scientific research’ as a way of getting around the ban on whaling.

In 2019, Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission and recommenced commercial whaling in its own territorial waters; in June 2019, whaling boats undertook their first official commercial hunts since 1988. Japan’s current whaling in the face of a continuing conservationist outcry is again a Japanese face-saving exercise with its own people and particularly for a small element of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who represent fishing interests. They are still prepared to face international condemnation over their whaling actions.  However, the eating of whale meat has become less fashionable and the recommencement of commercial whaling is another token face-saving exercise for an industry that cannot survive long term. The West originally failed in understanding that Japan would have been more amiable if it would have been allowed to save face and slowly phase out whale consumption instead of an instant ban. Alternatively, since its ultimate surrender in 1945, Japan has never wished to further give in to the West’s demands, and such intransigence is an ongoing issue for the Japanese.

Q: In your many years as a Japanese cultural instructor in Australia, what are the 3 most common misconceptions that you have encountered about Japanese culture? 

MATSUMOTO: Misconception #1) That Japan should have the highest productivity in the world, given their long working hours, dedication to their company, and their large tech sector.

It is always a surprise to foreign businessmen arriving in Japan that Japanese business is antiquated compared to modern business practices. Productivity gains are surprisingly low, and office digitalisation poor. From the outside, Japan is perceived as a modern, forward-thinking society, but this is far from the truth.

Long hours and punctuality are more about good ‘impression management’ – proving your dedication to the team and company is paramount to ensure long-term job security and corporate advancement. How much useful work is actually undertaken during these hours is often debatable. Endless meetings to reach consensus stifle productivity. The majority of businesses still operate on paper-based administration, even though computers may be sitting on desks!

Salarymen in big, traditional companies are rarely promoted based on achievement because the length of service and age are the determinants of seniority. It goes hand-in-hand with the Japanese lifetime employment system, the higher they climb the company ladder, the less they do, but the more pressure they put on their subordinates, and the less efficient they become in terms of productivity. These long-established work practices are slowly but surely seen as barriers to further increases in corporate productivity and Japan’s future success. It is an awakening to any overseas business person when they discover the truth behind Japan’s corporate mask.

Misconception #2) The Japanese are artisans that wish to achieve the heights of perfectionism in art and in everything they do.

In Japan, relationships between people are greatly affected by duty and obligation. In duty-based relationships, what other people think has a more powerful impact on behaviour than what the individual believes. Shame occurs when a person feels they have failed to live up to their obligations or other’s expectations, or they have acted dishonourably. This explains why the Japanese are seen externally as perfectionists, whether it is personal etiquette and grooming or retail and corporate services.  But the true motivation for doing everything precisely in the correct and best manner possible is to avoid shame – shame loves perfectionists. So, it is a surprise for foreigners to learn that most perfectionists in Japan are more concerned about not losing face and doing their best.

Misconception #3) The 126 million Japanese have little opportunity for personal space in their lives.

Images of the Japanese rush hour in busy Tokyo train stations where people are literally packed into carriages tells the story of over-congested cities where people lack personal space. However, this is far from the truth. Personal space is cherished by all, and space is not about the metres between us but about giving each other respite from external communication and for the opportunity of inner peace. Privacy is paramount in Japan. Windows are designed so people can’t look in. Asking a lot of questions is regarded as pushy and rude. People are often expected to be quiet such as not talking on mobile phones while on public transportation.

For instance, it's common to see people sleeping on the train. In many cases, people also fake a nap in order to close their eyes and exist in their own personal space for a while. As an additional level of personal space, books are commonly sold with paper covers in Japan so that nobody can see what you’re really reading.

Q: What’s your favorite piece of advice(s) that you like to give to executives working with Japanese colleagues or clients?

MATSUMOTO: My advice to all you who wish to interact with the Japanese is simply to take the time to understand something of the Japanese psyche before they do so. Firstly, realise that Japanese emotions are unsullied and innocent, which is why, when the Japanese expose them, they appear childishly sentimental – as, for example, when they are drunk and singing in a karaoke bar. Emotions are part of ‘ura of the ura’ (the inside of the inside), and it is because they are withheld that each Japanese lives with a certain sense of crisis in his relations with the outer world.

It is cited by the psychiatrist Takeo Doi in his explorations of the Japanese personality. Doi believed that to live amid elaborate concealments was a normal, healthy thing. He saw no tension between the security of belonging, which is undeniable among the Japanese, and the individual desire to break free of the group – which, though traditionally unacknowledged, is also undeniable. “The ideal condition of the mind from which mental health derives”, Doi wrote in 1985, “is one in which we can feel comfortable having secrets.”

As far as the notion of the ‘ura of the ura’ is concerned, I suspect it is very much interrelated with the concept of Japanese personal space. Understanding how a Japanese person perceives personal space will greatly assist a foreigner in effectively navigating Japanese relationships. Japan is a society built upon an understanding of personal space where the comfort and sensibilities of the other outweigh those of the self. Respect for personal space is one of the most important considerations you can give when dealing with the Japanese.

Another note is about “face”: Although in the West manners still matter, modern Western society places less and less emphasis upon etiquette. In Japan, manners matter very much, to ensure society maintains harmony. If a person raises their voice in anger in public then this person instantly loses face with all around them. In Japan, you do not embarrass someone in front of others. If you have a disagreement, then this is discussed in private. If you are rude within a business environment or known social group, then you will be ostracised and totally unsuccessful in your personal or business dealings.

Q: Given the chance to send a message to all Japanese, what would that be? For example, if there was a giant billboard, metaphorically speaking, that every Japanese would get to see, what would you write on it and why? 

MATSUMOTO: You are still slaves to feudalism since you have not yet found a better alternative! Believe in yourself and thus a new Japan!

Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan quickly followed the West’s belief that humanity was above nature, and this quickly created a state of alienation from nature, and so Japan set about subjugating the natural world. That was seen as a prerequisite of industrialization. But it rejected the West’s notion of the sovereign industrial [state]. Instead, Japan tried to remain an obedient feudal society – hence the idea of a “family state” – in which the individual was dependent upon the authority of the group. To put it another way, Japan rejected the idea that people were the makers of their own future, autonomous agents of reason and judgment. In short, Japan did not become modern so much as a consumer of modernism.

The Japanese never had an Enlightenment. Industrialisation and modernisation were instituted from the top down and these were not grass-root movements. Ultimately, the Japanese as a whole failed to evolve towards greater autonomy and individuality. They chose to remain dependent upon Japanese authority. They did not individually seek freedom and self-determination as so characterised by the European Enlightenment.

The Japanese are shamed when they transgress, for they have disgraced their household. But are there really people in the world who never feel the pangs of guilt, who have no conscience? Loyalty can be a positive attribute, but Japan’s notion of loyalty – blind loyalty – led Japan into World War II. Hard work, by the same token, has historically been a matter of desperate necessity. As for respect for authority, it is better understood as obedience due to fear.

By understanding the Japanese past and the constant conflict beneath the surface, then the Japanese fabled group identity is more about coercion and power than tradition and culture. If popular belief has elevated the group mentality as a Japanese icon then this should be wholly questioned. More admirable, by any measure, is the long, buried struggle against feudal terror and tyranny – the same struggle that has been long admired in the West. When all is said, there is nothing especially ‘Japanese’ about the Japanese character or personality. It is simply that the Japanese, even today, have not fully broken the shackles of tyranny from a ruthless feudal past.

Japan has become the West’s equal in material terms but societies do not evolve – not in any fundamental way – because of economic successes or an altered international climate. Like Perry’s black ships in the nineteenth century, there are only catalysts at work on agents of change already assembled. Societies change because the people who comprise them want them to. And such is the truth with which the Japanese now grapple, at once daunting and emancipating: People change institutions; in the end, it is not the other way around.

The most profound lesson the Japanese could learn is not to be like anyone else, but to be themselves – to live their own authentic individuality. You make peace with yourself when the individuality with which you were born arrives where it belongs and not blindly to the group. Individualism is a philosophy that replaces cliquism with values based on personal judgment of right and wrong.

Q:  What can Japan do better?

MATSUMOTO: Diversify.

There has always been a sense of the need to define ‘Japaneseness’ that outsiders often find in Japan and its people – this need to prove to everyone that the Japanese are ‘uniquely unique’ among cultures, obsessed with proving to themselves how different they are to the rest. The masks of the Japanese are masks of sameness. By wearing them, the Japanese signify to themselves that there are no differences among them and that having no differences is part of what it means to be Japanese and to be strong.

There has always been an underbelly to this seemingly welcoming nation, an apparently homogenous people that cherish their purest identity. Japan has been very much a conformist culture that puts a premium on stability and success. This naturally works against innovation in all its forms. Diversity means a mix of people/cultures from different backgrounds, beliefs and behaviour and thus combined new ideas. Japan needs to see the positives of immigration and working closer with foreigners. Only through such diversity will Japan be able to be an innovator and not simply an adaptor.


For a deeper dive into these themes, check out Kiyoshi Matsumoto’s book, Japan Unmasked: Understanding Japan and Its People


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