Skydivers everywhere have a strong sense of camaraderie, much like firefighters and others who put their lives in each other hands. The bond creates a sense of insiders to the sport – jumpers, and outsiders – everyone else.
Japan is no different, except that the society as a whole is very group-oriented, individuals defining their identity by the groups they belong to, so the sense of insiders and outsiders is very strong, even in everyday settings.
These various groups or circles in which one moves in Japan, overlap and intertwine. Like other places around the world, the groups are big and small: family, company, workgroup, clubs, organizations and ultimately the country as a whole.
This really wouldn’t be very different from other places on the globe except that Japan is an island nation that evolved in natural isolation early on and in self-imposed isolation later. This gives the population a feeling of uniqueness, and, in fact, to many a traveler, the feeling that among all the unique cultures around the world, it has a special uniqueness.
Sometimes that specialness gives them (and visitors) the feeling that only the Japanese “belong” and everyone else is an outsider, a “gaijin” - kind of like “muggles” are to wizards (“wuffos” to jumpers).
Hence my lesson number 5: In Japan, the context defines insiders and the strength of the bonds determines the length of its emotional reach.
After jumping out of planes together all day and reliving the thrills over beers, it’s easy to feel a blissful oneness. After all, we defied the laws of gravity, didn’t we? After three beers we’re all superheroes.
But one time in the clubhouse at lunch we were sitting around talking. In the discussion, Tanabe-san started to trash gaijin. Suzuki-san said, “Well, that isn’t really nice to say, after all Diana-san is here.” Indignantly Tanabe retorted, “Diana’s not a gaijin!” and carried on with his diatribe.
Of course I was not an outsider to the skydiving group, but I was surprised to discover that because that bond was so strong, it bled over into a much broader category.
I find this very instructive because after I left Japan I jumped for about 10 more years in the U.S. and even though we have a strong brotherhood (diverhood?) of jumpers, I have never heard an American say anything close to that about a “foreigner.” They are forever “French Jumpers,” “German Jumpers,” or “Japanese Jumpers.” And this is the land of immigrants that likes to think of itself as a melting pot!
My point is that the sense of “others” being outsiders is much stronger in Japan. It takes a lot and a long time to be accepted as part of a group: you’re thoroughly scrutinized by those already in the group and put through various tests of character. But if you end up being ushered into one, it’s like belonging to a sorority. You’re expected to be forever loyal and it is expected to extend its cloak to connect and look after you.
Here’s a business example from one of my clients of being put through a test of character. In his first year of an expat assignment at headquarters in Japan he was approached by the entertainment committee for the gathering of Global CEOs’ Meeting dinner and asked if he would be willing to participate in an activity. A good sport by nature, he immediately agreed. It was all very vague, and only belatedly did he realize, dressed up as a Shogun, that he was the entertainment. The audience roared - at his expense.
The next day his colleagues greeted him with mischievous smiles and said, “Good morning, shogun.” Rather than seeing it as malicious, he saw it for what it was, initiation hazing, and shot back – in his best shogun voice - a curt, gruff “Hai.” They loved it. The nickname and his gruff rejoinder persisted, but usually during after hours when others laughed at themselves too. After that he was expected to talk with the directness of an insider.
His connection to these people won’t end when he leaves Japan; if he needs information or a favor, others will be there for him because they’ll be confident he’ll be there for them. Someone who will sacrifice himself for the sake of the group is someone who can be trusted.
When I left, I believe we all cried (I know I did) and the rest of the group gave me a kamikaze flag they signed with messages (you know, the kind friends and relatives gave to Japanese WWII pilots flying off to dire situations…).
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