”The Japanese of the North” - what does that mean? The first time I heard the expression ”The Japanese of the North” used as a description of Swedes was by Jean Phillips-Martinsson, English author of the book, Swedes As Others See Them (1981). Most recently, I heard the expression used by a British social-anthropologist, Dr. Stephen Hugh-Jones, whom I ran into in India. He gave his own explanation: ”Clean, efficient, obedient.”
Scientific discussions concerning the charactersitics of the Swedish cultures have mainly been directed towards how Swedes differ from other nationalities. It is useful to understand these differencies as it aids in our understanding of Swedes’ discrimination against immigrants (Bergman & Swedin 1982, Daun 1984), immigrants’ difficulties fitting into Sweden (Ehn & Arnstberg 1980) and Swedish businessmen’s difficulties in carrying out international business (Phillips-Martinsson 1981).
On the other hand, Swedish cultural characteristics are by no means always unique, not even the concept ”lagom” (not too much nor too little, but just right), which is often said to untranslatable (see Austin 1968:51). The wealth of cultural variety on our planet is so great, that similarities can exist between areas widely separated, as well as between areas which are within close proximity to one another. Such similarities does not necessarily mean, however, that there are also similarities in the historical cuasal background. Similarity among the Nordic countrie is great, even if it is intellectually more appealing to point out the striking differencies which also exist (see Berendt 1983 and Alopaeus 1983). What is unique about the Swedish culture - about all cultures - is mainly the specific combination of cultural characteristics - the pattern.
Despite the fact that it is has mainly been the differencies to which interest has been turned into studies of cross-cultural communication (see for example Brislin 1981), there is something to be gained from comparsions of just those characteristics in other cultures which are discussed as being typical for one’s own culture. Japan is certainly not a country where Swedes expect to find similarities. East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet - Kipling’s words - are often learned in childhood and familiar to many Westerners. Japan has been considered particularly difficult to understand (Wilkinson 1983), a point of view which is underlined by the Japanese themselves. Part of the Japanese’s self-image is that their culture is unique and that no foreignersare capable of understanding it (see also Smith 1983:111).
This last statement is probably true in a general sense. Even the longest and most thorough studies of a foreign culture will never be able to completely remove the ”foreignness” of that culture, if by foreign culture we mean a culture in which we ourselves have not grown up. It is, however, possible to intellectually assimilate the basic features of a foreign culture, but as with language learning, this is done with varying degrees of success.
In the following pages, I will describe som characteristics of the Japanese mentality which strikingly resemble those which are often described as being typically Swedish. In doing this, it is not being said that Japanese and Swedish mentalities ”resemble one another” in any absolute sense. There are also great differences. Some similarities, however, are so striking that we, on the basis of some preliminary interviews, can assume that Japanese people living in Sweden have an easier time fitting in among Swedes than do, for example, the large groups of immigrantsfrom southern Europe and South America. The Swedes and the Japanese are similar to one another in just those respects which immigrants from the South often mention as being hard to understandor accept.
Before I go into the comparsions, I want to comment on some of the conditions concerning the study of national cultures.