In Japan, I see strength where I hadn't seen it before

It was graduation day, and the school auditorium was filled with mothers in kimonos dabbing away tears, their husbands snoozing beside them. Keiko Yoshida was on stage accepting a pile of high school diplomas from the principal on behalf of herself and the 41 other girls of Koto Girls High School's 3-1 class, who stood watching from the floor.

Keiko carefully descended the stage stairs, put the diplomas on a table, and found her seat. All 42 students then sat in unison. They had just graduated.

As I watched one representative from each of the four graduating classes go up to the stage and accept her classmates' diplomas, I grew increasingly disillusioned at the lack of individual recognition. In some respects, Japan and America are like jungle and ocean; there are different rules of existence in each environment.

"Many Westerners see Japanese group dependency as weak and conformist," said my friend and fellow English teacher, Mr. Shibuya, when I took up the issue with him later. "And many Japanese see Western individualism as weak and egotistical."

He was right. I had been taught that independence equals strength and that dependency equals weakness. Shibuya had learned that individuality equals weakness and strength is found in modesty and wa.

The first Japanese constitution, promulgated in 604, began: "Harmony [wa] is to be valued, and an avoidance of wanton opposition to be honored." Since then, the people of Japan have put smooth group dynamics above all else.

Keiko had not even wanted to be on that stage. She was elected to accept the diplomas by a class vote.

When I asked one of Keiko's classmates why she and her classmates were so unwilling to serve as class representative, she said that 3-1 was the strongest class at school and that she was happy graduating as part of it, without the onus of being the one seen on stage.

When I told Shibuya that at my high school graduation, each student accepted a diploma individually, he smiled and said, "Maybe many parents will sleep. Why does every student need to stick out?"

I agreed with my friend about the tedium of graduation ceremonies worldwide. But I told him that if it were my graduation, I wouldn't want Keiko to accept my diploma on my behalf.

At this point, I felt as though he and I were a monkey and a shark debating which is a better meal: bananas or fish.

Some historians attribute the Japanese focus on group dependency to centuries of rice cultivation, which requires cooperation. But the importance of the group in Japan extends far beyond the rice fields.

Three weeks ago, while looking in a 7- Eleven parking lot for a wallet I thought I'd lost, I ran into a colleague. Mr. Aoyama was worried about my wallet, but I quickly told him not to be concerned, and that I misplace things all the time. We said goodbye. Soon I found the wallet – under the driver's seat of my car.

Ten minutes later, Ms. Oike, a tiny young co-teacher, showed up at my door breathless and teary-eyed. Shaking, she explained that Aoyama had called her cellphone to tell her that my wallet was missing and that she had come to help me look for it. As guilt washed over me, I told her that I had found the wallet.

When I apologized for causing her breathless tears, I found that it was not I who had spurred her distress. She had just been in a car accident, she said. Her car was still at the scene, in a supermarket parking lot down the street. When Aoyama called her, she had exchanged numbers with the woman with whom she'd collided and told her she'd deal with details later. She had literally run from her own mishap to help me with mine.

In response to my astonishment and sympathy, Oike shook her head and said that she and all the English teachers at school were responsible for one another. Every student and every teacher has someone who is responsible for them. This is the enactment of wa.

Her dutiful assistance made me feel weak and burdened. As she sat on my couch, unable to mask her worry over her accident, I felt touched that she would think to help me look for a lost wallet. But I was also bewildered by the depth of her concern for "other" over self in this case.

As my co-teacher trembled on my couch, I said that her concern for me was excessive. I argued that my small losses should not be considered her responsibility, especially when she had bigger problems of her own. She rebutted me with reminders of the requirements of wa.

Again I was reminded of jungle and ocean. She and I were like an eagle and a goldfish debating which is the better way to travel: flying or swimming.

My thoughts, as I brought Oike to her dented car, were similar to those I'd had as I watched my students graduate as five cohesive units instead of 210 individual young women. I feel strong when I'm accepting my own diplomas and looking for my own lost wallets. My colleagues and students feel strong acting as part of wa, a sturdy, mutual dependency.

In Japan, strength lies within everything I am conditioned to identify as weak. The challenge for me, as a foreigner, is to remember that a lion's might is not judged by the strength he'd have in the ocean.

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