You Can't Avoid Uchi: Even Among Your Friends

It’s enticing to think you can avoid the hazards of uchi by focusing on relationships outside your host family. These may include Japanese friends you made in your study abroad program. Or your host family may gradually introduce you to their friends, relatives and neighbors, and you may establish your own relationships with some of them as well. But even so, it’s hard to escape the distinctions of tatemae/honne, uchi/ soto, and uchi anywhere you go in Japanese society. This module shows why and how uchi matters, even in relationships outside your host family. It will also give you a new perspective on all of these relationships.

1. Bruce and Rosa try to bypass uchi hazards through their outside friendships, but both run into big snags.

  • Bruce thinks that he needs to pay attention to uchi/soto and tatemae/honne when dealing with his family. But he’s sure his Japanese friends don’t bother with these kinds of things—they are just like his friends at home. In what ways does his friends’ indulgence toward him contradict this (and resemble host families’ behavior toward guests in Module 8.1)?


  • Bruce says: “I don’t want to be someone special. Treat me like a friend.” Yet he continues to require his friends to indulge him. How does his request resemble Kaarina’s request that her family not treat her like a visitor? (Kaarina 2, Module 8.2) Do Bruce’s concepts of friendship coincide with those of his Japanese friends?


  • How did Bruce’s mistake in deciding he was too tired to go to Kazu’s place put him in trouble with uchi? How does his situation with his friends involve uchi hazards, like those in Module 9.2?


  • What aspects of uchi did Rosa manage to violate when she asked her friend to take her to the station?

2. The following cases involve gifts or favors being exchanged between homestay guests and their host family’s networks of friends, neighbors, or relatives. But uchi dimensions also exist in these exchanges, which the guests below fail to see:

  • What are Kaarina and Molly both missing about uchi in the way they view gift-giving? How do we know that each of their families viewed gift-giving as part of uchi?

3. Putting the pieces together . . . Hints for managing relationships in Japan

  • Uchi is important and fundamental in Japan because ‘uchi’ (not the individual ‘I’) is the reference point from which you need to gauge your relationships to everyone in your social environment. The shift from ‘I’ to ‘uchi’ (See Module 6.1) is such a fundamental shift that it is very difficult to manage consistently. This is a MAJOR cultural bubble. Furthermore, you have to make this same shift when you speak Japanese, since ‘uchi’ rather than ‘I’, (or any form of ‘watashi’ ) is the reference point in speaking Japanese as well. (See the Reference Guide for further materials on this subject.)  

  • In fact, misusing the uchi reference point is the basis for the problems in all of the cases above.Rosa “offended everyone”, Molly and Kaarina had problems with gift-giving, and Bruce “messed up” with his friends because each of them viewed their social relationships from the reference point of ‘I’, rather than the ‘uchi’ reference point of their Japanese counterparts. For example, Bruce was trying to relate to his friends from a vantagepoint of ‘I’-‘you’ shifts (see Flash 1, Module 6.1), while his friends were relating to him from a vantagepoint of ‘uchi/soto’ perspectives (see Flash 3 & 4 with explanations, Module 6.1).

  • Even if your Japanese friends or host family have spent time abroad and can speak your language, it’s better not to slip into thinking they are “just like your friends from home”. You still need to keep in mind the issues (and hurdles) depicted in this module—and in Part 3.

Main Takeaway:

Now you can see how it’s a huge mistake to use ‘I’ instead of ‘uchi’ as your reference point. You will have endless problems if you fail to use the correct reference point.

Bruce 1: I Messed Up with My Friends . . . but I'm Gonna Do Better

My new-found friends
During this study-abroad semester in Japan I’ve been much more concerned about making friends with the students at my Japanese university than with my homestay (which, frankly, has been a drag). In my program classes they’ve been teaching us about things like tatemae/honne and uchi/soto. And I think that’s fine for dealing with your homestay family. But that doesn’t really have to do with me and my friends. They’ve studied abroad; they’re really cool, and they’re a lot like my friends at home.

First, I’ll explain how I met my friends. It all started when I was walking to the station with Doug. He saw a Japanese kid, Shinsuke, that he knew from the US branch of our campus, so he decided to yell out to him. Then one day at lunch Shinsuke came up to me and started talking to me. It turns out that he met my good friend Tom who goes to Keio at a party and Tom mentioned my name to him. So we sat around talking for awhile; about 10 minutes, and then had to go to class. I then realized that this guy was pretty cool. He reminds me of some of my friends back home. So I decided to find him at lunch and sit and eat with him, and every day I did. Then one day as we were talking he said that his other friends are coming for some seminar and he wondered if I wanted to meet them. Well I met them and at first I thought that they had an attitude problem, so I didn’t really like them.

Hanging out with my friends
Anyway weeks went by and once again I saw Shinsuke sitting with those friends. I had free time so I sat down and 2 hours went by as we (the guys I didn’t really like at first) laughed and talked. It was great. Then they told me that every Monday the gang meets at one guy’s house (Kazu) and they just sit and drink and party with everybody so they asked me if I’d like to come. I was thrilled and of course I went. We stayed up til 4:30 speaking in just Japanese. They are all really cool and I feel that they are similar to my American friends. They all went to the American campus for a year so at the beginning they would speak English until I asked them to speak only in Japanese. They are all really good at helping me learn because they tell me when I use the wrong words and help me to use the right ones. They are very patient with me.

On Fri. and Sun. I spent the day with Shinsuke. We hung out in Shinjuku and went window shopping. I had an English interview and he helped me find where it was. Monday came around but Shinsuke was too tired from Sunday so he didn’t go to school. He is usually the one I go with to Kazu’s house but since I feel like I now know them better I went this time by myself. Only 6 people showed up this time. Kazu’s birthday is on Friday so we all chipped in and got him really drunk. It was funny, any time he would mess up in saying something, we all would sing Happy BARsuday so he would finish the rest of his drink. Well, he passed out pretty early, 8:30 or so, I left around 9:00.

Tuesday came and Shinsuke was going to help me go look for an apartment. Well, the apartment guy was on his day off so we couldn’t go. We decided to go to Kazu’s place and hang out. There were 4 other people so we sat around chatted and then went to dinner. I really needed help getting an apartment because I want to get out of my homestay. So I asked Shinsuke if he could help me tomorrow. He couldn’t, but Yuki was quick to help out. We decided to meet tomorrow at 12:15 to go to search.

The next day Yuki and I went to the Rental Place. He helped me converse better with the worker there and explained everything I needed to know. We then went back and checked out the place I decided to rent. It’s great. I can’t wait to move in.

I mess up. . . but I’m gonna do better
Last Saturday I went out with Jun. We met at 2:00 to go shopping for a TV for my new apartment. A thing I didn’t realize is he had plans already but since I asked him if he wanted to do something he dropped his plans and went with me. I had no clue that he already had plans and on that day I had no idea I messed up. But later when I was moving into my apartment I had a real heart-to-heart talk with Shinsuke. He told me that Jun cancelled his date to go out with me. When I found out… I felt really bad.

Anyway when Jun and I met at 2:00 we went to see a movie. Then we went to visit another friend who was working at his part time job. It was pretty funny because we were the first people in his restaurant. He was very surprised to see us. Anyway we sat there for about 2 hours, then decided to go buy my TV. Well let me tell you flat out I messed up again that day really bad. What I didn’t realize was that we were supposed to go to Kazu’s house at 12:15 that night. Well, I was really tired, so at 9:00 I decided to stay at home. That was the mistake. I should have gone through with the plan as a Japanese person would. Well the thing that bothers me was why didn’t Jun tell me he had plans? I don’t want to be someone special. Treat me like a friend. If you don’t want to or can’t go then say so. That’s what I told Shinsuke in the car and he will pass it to the other guys. Shinsuke and I really get along. He really understands what’s going on and is helping out as a good friend.

Wednesday I moved! Yes, I’m so happy I’m out of my homestay house! The homestay was going downhill. I think I’m going to do much better with my new friends.

Rosa 2: How Did I Manage to Offend Everybody?

When I came to my host family in Sept. my host mother introduced me to her friend Mira, and I began teaching English to her. Mira and I had conversations about all kinds of things, and through this Mira also became my friend. During the middle of the semester, my sister’s first baby was born, and I was to be the godmother. I decided to return to Los Angeles for the baptism, because being a godmother is really important in my family’s culture.

I was only going to be gone for 5 days, but I had so many gifts to bring with me that my luggage got pretty unwieldy. From the train station I could do fine, no problem, because there are carts. But my host family lives quite far from the train station, and I had too much luggage to make it onto the bus. My host mother runs a small store located in front of the house, and I unfortunately packed at the last minute. When I found I had too much stuff for the bus, I didn’t want to bother her while she was working. Instead I just called Mira and asked her if she would do me a big favor and drive me to the train station, since okaasan was working. Mira came by right away with the car.

But when Mira came, my host mother wouldn’t let her drive me to the train station. Instead she closed the store for the time it took and drove me herself to the station. I felt pretty terrible about this, because I was trying not to inconvenience okaasan . But somehow I think I managed to inconvenience everybody. To this day I don’t really understand why Mira couldn’t drive me to the train station.

Module 9.3
You Can't Avoid Uchi
Comments (1)

Both Bruce and Rosa want to avoid the constraints of uchi, although for different reasons. Rosa wants to save her busy okaasan from having to drive her to the station. Bruce is not having a good experience with his homestay and wants to avoid bothersome constraints like tatemae/honne and uchi/soto. He feels he can do this by making friends with Japanese whom he feels are similar to his friends “back home”. Yet even though Bruce’s friends have studied abroad in his country, his friendship has striking resemblances to the homestay relationships outlined so far in Part 3. Although his friends speak and act informally they still cater to his demands and help him out, even when this means canceling an important date. Bruce doesn’t notice how much they defer to his agenda, however, and seems to see this as “normal life”. This should bring up images of Peter for you.

Uchi exists not only in families, but in work teams, schools, and even among groups of friends. In Bruce’s case, his friends’ uchi centers around Kazu, and the parties they all attend at his apartment. Just as in the family, his friends expect him to reciprocate the indulgences they have extended to him, by gradually accepting the responsibilities of uchi, which include attending the parties, and thereby “moving into” uchi. In refusing to attend the party, Bruce acts only from an individual vantagepoint, failing to take uchi into account. This failure resembles Theo’s bicycle problem, Sophie’s problem in accepting the ride, and even Janine’s “test” with the otoosan’ s guests. It’s for you to decide if Bruce is really doing okay with his new friends, or if he’s missed the hazard signs and started heading off the cliff.

Rosa manages to ignore her okaasan’s role (and sphere of competency) in the household. She also considers her relationship with Mira from an individual standpoint, rather than from the standpoint of uchi. From that standpoint it was the uchi okaasan’s obligation to take Rosa to the station; not that of a soto friend. This case also resembles Theo’s bicycle situation in Module 9.2.

Molly 5: Why Can't I Give My Own Gifts?

For about a month now a certain neighbor on our street has been coming to the Saito house almost daily, always bearing some type of gift, such as daikon (a large radish). A few weeks ago the woman’s son came over to my house for some English conversation, and the family then invited me to their home for dinner and English conversation, Round 2. Okaasan had expressed to me that she thought the constant gift-flow was a bit odd, and also stated that she had no desire to reciprocate. I asked okaasan if I should bring anything with me, and she said no, not to worry about it. However, I did not want to go to the Watabe household empty-handed, especially considering all the gifts that she had brought to our family, so I bought a box of cookies to bring along with me. When okaasan saw this, she quickly picked out one of her original ceramic flower pots, stuck in two flowers from the garden, and gave it to me to take as a gift in place of the cookies.

I asked her why she had done this, and she said that she didn’t want me to have to worry about bringing anything. I told her that I didn’t mind, but she insisted. I asked Masako about the meaning of okaasan‘s actions, and she told me that okaasan didn’t feel that I should have to bring something to represent the Saito family.

Kaarina 3: Why Are They Giving My Gifts?

Michie san was a good friend and neighbor of the okaasan, whom I met for the first time while picking up goods that okaasan had ordered through a home delivery company (coopu)Okaasan was eager to introduce me to her and thus invited Michie san to visit us in the afternoon. When she came she gave me a silk scarf and also lent me a book of modern tanka poems and before leaving invited us to visit her. A couple of days later, okaasan and I visited her, and according to the custom of exchanging gifts I gave a small piece of Finnish jewelry to her.

A few days later I baked some Finnish biscuits and cinnamon buns and okaasan was extremely eager to give some of them to Michie san. She wrapped them very nicely and asked me to take them over to her place. This happened twice when I was baking something during my stay. At that time I thought she asked me to take more baking to Michie san because my gift to Michie san was probably not valuable enough.

Module 9.3
You Can't Avoid Uchi
Comments (2)

Molly tries to give a personal gift to a neighbor of her host family, who was bombarding her family with gifts in order to get Molly to teach English to her son. Molly fails to realize that the neighbor’s gifts had an element of bribery, so they didn’t really need to be returned, and that the gifts (which included large radishes) were not made to her but to her family. This reciprocity centers on her family’s uchi, rather than on Molly as an individual. When Molly’s okaasan realizes she is going to give the neighbors a gift anyway, rather than ignoring the neighbor’s “bribes”, she hurriedly substitutes something from the household for Molly’s “individual” gift.

Kaarina’s experience is somewhat the opposite of Molly’s. Her homestay family regards her home-baked Finnish biscuits and cinnamon buns so highly that they are anxious to give them to one of their close soto relationships. Here Kaarina’s baking was actually being given from her family uchi, rather than from her as an individual. In a sense they were giving her baking, and asking her to take more to their friend, because they wanted to share these rare delicacies with a close friend. Kaarina totally misses the fact that her gift-giving was being calculated from the standpoint of her family’s uchi, rather than her as an individual. And like the stories in Module 8.1, Kaarina has been “pulled into” uchi in juxtaposition to the soto friend her host family wanted to share her baking with.   

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