At Home in Japan
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Module 13.1
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Full Circle: Viewing the Entry Point from ‘Uchi’

(1) Viewing the Entry Point from ‘Uchi’

Here are the characters—now familiar—that you met at the beginning of the course. Then they were just arriving in Japan, and entering new situations. Each faced a crucial challenge: how could they move smoothly from their entry points and begin to navigate effectively in their new environments? Our goal in this course was to enable you respond to this challenge when you too, arrive in Japan. Now we’d like to help you put together the main points you need to know to do this, so you’ll have them at your fingertips.  We’ll do this by retracing the terrain we’ve covered in the course—only our starting point this time is the focus of Part 4—uchi.

Uchi is the end-point of all the newcomer pathways leading away from the entry points (regardless of whether the newcomer navigator actually gets there or not). So uchi is the counterpoint of the entry situations which began this course. This makes uchi an appropriate vantagepoint from which to view the entire course—because this is the missing piece that will now allow you to make sense of what may have eluded you the first time around. In fact, you should now be able to see the uchi-connection with many of the difficulties the newcomers encountered. Uchi cannot be translated in a word or phrase, but has to be understood in relation to social performance. In fact, uchi exemplifies “what no one tells you”—but “everyone knows” that is the focus of Part 1. Uchi is the ‘ground’ for a great deal of social interaction that doesn’t come up for explanation because it is simply taken-for-granted as “the way things are”. This is why you will not find tips for “getting along in uchi” as part of the welcome materials given to foreigners in Japan. In fact, adjusting to uchi is not a usual topic for foreigner orientations at all.

A likely reason for this is that uchi is a perspective used in navigating social life, which embeds the individual within a collectivity (such as a family, company or school). This perspective is adopted by the speaker in Japanese; thus navigating in both language and social life is carried out from the assumed vantagepoint of the individual within a collectivity. The newcomers above represent a counterpoint perspective in European-based societies, and languages, in which the individual is the social navigator and speaker—as indicated by ‘I’ (or its counterparts in other European languages (See 6.1). The differing influences of these two perspectives in social life and communication are pervasive and subtle. The real hazard here for the newcomer is that you will be expected to already have the uchi navigation skills that “everyone knows”, but which no newcomers to Japan—no matter where they are from—fully possess. Many newcomers—including most of those we met in this course—are totally unaware of ‘uchi’ when they arrive in Japan.

This sets the stage for the “Gap” that appears between the expectations of all the newcomers and those of all their Japanese counterparts as they enter their situations. This gap is the focus of Part 1. It is clear that the newcomer expectations have common themes: They center on  jobs (Abby, Matt, Elainius, job descriptions (ALTs), doing jobs they like (Matt, Abby), and office furnishings for their jobs (Witherspoon). Other themes were “freedom” and no rules (Peter, Mark), and comparing salaries, apartment rents, and other features of “good” situations (ALTS); and comparing homestay curfews and other features of “good” homestays.

Expectations of the newcomers’ Japanese counterparts also had common themes: All wanted the newcomers to participate in their organizations (this included all the host families, Matt’s company, Abby’s junior high school, and the family of Devita’s Japanese spouse) They also wanted newcomers to “fit in”, spend time, and participate “as much as possible” in their new social environment. Japanese was considered important and establishing relationships throughout the organization (if larger than a family) was considered essential. Relationships connecting the newcomer’s social setting with others were also crucial (and was the focus of Elainius’ initial dinners). None of the Japanese hosts mentions expectations about the newcomer’s job efforts or performance. This disconnect between the newcomers and their Japanese counterparts can be linked to ‘I’ / ‘uchi’ perspectives.  

Taking the vantagepoint of ‘uchi’ may help us to see how the newcomer expectations were coming from individually-based perspectives; while the Japanese hosts were envisioning a larger collectivity within which the newcomer was going to be located. The hosts hoped the newcomers would start out by paying attention to the collectivity—by participating, helping out in various ways, “fitting in” etc. The newcomer’s efforts to become a trustworthy and reliable citizen in the uchi environment were then reflected back to the individual’s situation—giving them more freedom in teaching (the ALTs), more job responsibilities and participation beyond the workgroup (Matt), and acknowledgement of adulthood (Devita).

In fact, the entire pathway that takes shape as a series of “steps” from the entry point ‘I’ to the endpoint ‘uchi’ can be seen as bridging the gap between ‘I’ and ‘uchi’ vantagepoints. It is simultaneously a pathway from the outside (soto) entrypoint of a newcomer, to the inside (uchi) endpoint of a social member; and from ‘I’ (an individual vantagepoint) to that of ‘uchi’ (the vantagepoint of an individual-within-uchi). The importance of this transition is underscored by what happens when it is accomplished: the cultural child “grows up” and reaches adulthood. You can see this below:


                                                                          Newcomer Pathway—Transition
entry point - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -> - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - >- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -> - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -> end point
soto                                                                                                                                                                                         uchi
‘I’                                                                                                                                                                                              ‘uchi’
cultural childhood                                                                                                                                                                   cultural adulthood


You can see all of the newcomers attempting this transition in the figure below.

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Entry Point Blues
In the initial entry phase everything is tatemae, there is little solid ground, and newcomers can have really baffling experiences. For example, Matt’s inocuous question as to whether his work section has a coffee pot, and his comment that instant coffee doesn’t taste good—turned out to be a huge gaffe.  Matt realizes he has done something—but has no clue as to what this might be, or what the repercussions are, and he quickly asks his friend Sondro to clue him in on what has happened. This may appear to Matt’s colleagues like he has just run straight into a wall that was “invisible” to him, but in plain sight to everyone else. Matt has experienced a kind of “collision” created by interference from his cultural perspectives. He has just bumped into an uchi sublety: he has learned that what he had regarded as objects—a coffee pot, or vending machine—are not stand-alone objects in his new environment. Instead, they are closely linked to all the uchi members in Matt’s section who work together. Because of these links his colleagues took Matt’s criticism of the instant coffee as a direct criticism of them. Matt’s “collision” brought about a change in his perspective—he now understood that ‘uchi’—as the individual within a collectivity—meant that everyone in his office was viewed within a set of social ties that included the “objects” as well.


This kind of learning is crucial for progress along the pathway to uchi. (Notice that Matt survived this social gaffe because he had just entered). But in Part 1, we couldn’t explain this kind of learning as a simple roadmap, let alone set of rules, customs, or manners. Instead, we had to bring you to realize that you had to learn to notice things in your new environment that you would ordinarily tend to overlook.

Part 2 helps you begin to notice the things that Peter and the other newcomers missed in Modules 2.1 and 2.2. It clues you in to the widespread distinctions between what is revealed and what is kept behind-the-scenes in Japanese society. Part 2 shows how these distinctions are communicated constantly, in a variety of contexts, in body language, spoken language, emotional expression, and the organization of architectural space. The distinctions are expressed in commonly-used sets of terms including tatemae/honne, omote/ura, and uchi/soto.

Part 3 takes up the important question of how newcomers manage to navigate the gap between entry point and uchi. Based on the the diary entries of 14 homestay guests, Part 3 shows a process by which the homestay guests encounter what we call cultural hazards, which, like Matt’s coffee pot incident, are initially unseen. But Part 3 shows another aspect to the hazards that wasn’t initially apparent in Matt’s coffee pot incident: the painfulness of encountering each cultural hazard was mitigated by two things: (1) Getting through a hazard produced a significant reward. Each hazard could be seen as a doorway—if the newcomer could just manage to get through it, and the result was a big step—or a pull—toward ‘uchi’. (2) Furthermore, the homestay guests didn’t navigate the hazards alone; they were assisted by their host families (and especially Okaasan). Navigating each hazard brought the ties between guest and hosts closer, as Molly’s case (11.1) shows.

You might think that a learning process we described as similar to running into a brick wall you didn’t notice wouldn’t produce many similarities in the brick walls (or hazards) the newcomers ran into. There might be as many different hazards as there were newcomers. Yet we were able to group the “brick wall” hazards in the Part 3 modules and create a single pathway from entry to uchi for all the homestay guests (even though all the guests didn’t reach the endpoint). We found that the “steps” along the pathway could be organized with six broad categories of “hazards”. The hazards could accommodate Molly and all the other homestay guests in Part 3, so they  weren’t idiosyncratic. They involved difficulties that most—if not all—of the homestay guests encountered.

In Part 4 we expanded the scope of those negotiating the Entry point gap to include all the newcomers who arrived in the introduction. In examining these newcomer cases we were surprised at the degree of similarity both in the pathways and in the challenges encountered by all the newcomers along their pathways. We found that not only did all the newcomers move along a similar pathway from entry point ‘I’ to ‘uchi’;  but there was also a remarkable degree of similarity in the challenges encountered by all of them along the pathway. For example Matt’s coffee pot gaffe involved the same problem as Janine’s difficulty with the stove in 9.4. In addition, while Matt’s car company is different in organization from Carlos’ dorm, it is clear that both Matt and Carlos had difficulty with “rules behind the rules”. Abby, Devita, and Prof. Witherspoon also encountered this same difficulty.

Although we had expected to find several different “pathways” for bridging the entry point gap, we found that the “hazards” the other six newcomers encountered in their differing environments were remarkably similar to those encountered by the homestay students. In fact, the difficulties encountered by all the newcomers could all be included within the six categories we had discovered for the homestay guests.


(2) ‘I’ to ‘Uchi’ Pathway for All Newcomers:

We will now trace out a combined pathway for all the newcomers—as well as all of You preparing to live in Japan. It gives an overview of the transition that all of the newcomers attempt to make from entry point ‘I’ to ‘uchi’, and from cultural child to cultural adult.

Entry Point Challenges for all newcomers: The newcomers are largely concerned with job-related issues upon entering their organizations: They want job descriptions (Abby), are pleased to do a job they really liked (Matt); are concerned with details of sales management (Elainius), or want their new office furnished differently (Witherspoon). In contrast, all the Japanese counterparts were concerned about the newcomer’s participation in their organization (or uchi). Abby’s colleagues hope she will be committed to her school; Matt’s boss hopes he will “fit in” (with uchi); Carlos’ dorm members expect him to “participate fully” in the dorm, and Devita’s mother-in-law wants her to be a member of the family. Notice the disconnect here: none of the Japanese mentions a newcomer’s job situation, while none of the newcomers mentions membership in their new organization. How can both sides get past this initial disconnect?

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Complete Summary of ĎIí to ĎUchií Pathway for All Newcomers


(3) Other things you need to know in addition to the pathway and hazards above:

The pathway for all newcomers gives you a general idea of the series of hazards you will encounter along the pathway. But this general pathway still doesn’t explain everything. It leaves us with the questions below, that may also affect your situation.

Now Revisit the Revised Table 1, figure out your XY profile, and then return here.

Table 1 includes three different categories, which in turn divide all newcomers into three different groups. These groupings allow us to answer the following questions:

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(4) Summary of how to relate your entry situation to the discussions in this course.

  1. Do the groundwork. Parts 1—3 are necessary to understand the cases (obviously crucial) in Part 4. You should also go through all the cases (and even all the answers) in the quizzes. All have useful information.
  2. Since all the newcomers have similar pathway “steps” (or hazards) pay careful attention to the summary pathway above.
  3. Module 12.1 is an important tool that will help you understand your profile for the three characteristics in Table 1: expertise/maturity, duration of stay in the organization, and uchi membership. You should relate your own situation to the questions above, if your profile matches those discussed.
  4. Module 14 will also help you assess your situation in two different ways:
    • Module 14.2 helps you evaluate whether the situation you’re thinking of entering in Japan (such as a homestay) is right for you.
    • Module 14.3 helps you assess whether difficulties you’re encountering in your social environment are more than normal cultural hazards. This module will inform you of major warning signs from your organization that things are not going well. You need to be attuned to signs that something may be awry with your host environment which has nothing to do with you.
    • Finally, having heeded these signs, you need to know what to do to rectify your situation, or if necessary, what steps you should take to leave your situation. Module 14.4 fills you in here.
  5. Don’t worry about making mistakes or trying to manage getting through the hazard-pathway perfectly. Intercultural learning (at least the most important kind, that “no one can tell you about” is based on mistakes. Newcomers like Carlos are rare—most people make plenty of mistakes, don’t manage the hazards perfectly (or sometimes well at all). Yet if you have sincerity, and keep on trying, if you manage even a small degree of uchi participation, understanding and relationships, you stand to gain more than you could have imagined from your entry into a Japanese context.
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