Thursday, 2 August 2012

Guilt and Shame

My first impression of the Japanese was that they were a very clean and tidy people. When I arrived in Tokyo in the mid-70’s I was amazed to find that there were three rubbish collections a week - two for burnable garbage and one for non-burnable items. Even more amazing was the very neat way households packaged their rubbish. Bags and boxes were tied securely with string and stacked carefully by the roadside the night before collection day. I discovered that people placed great value on the correct appearance of their trash lest they be regarded as messy and disorderly by their neighbours.

My friend and I were in Japan to study a martial art. We didn’t have much money and so would go out in the small hours on non-burnable collection days and scavenge for anything we might be able to make use of. It was incredible what we would haul back to our small apartment: a complete dinner set with just one cracked plate, boxed and totally clean; unsoiled pillows and cushions; cups, mugs, bowls, pots and pans; a working kotatsu; a functioning TV and small electric cooker; pictures, chairs, a desk and bookshelves. Over the course of a couple of months we managed to find most of the basics - plus a few luxuries! We felt a bit guilty about “stealing” people’s rubbish, but nobody saw us.

The importance Japanese put on orderliness, cleanliness and social responsibility could be seen everywhere around Tokyo. Public places were patrolled by uniformed workers each with a long-handled pan and brush ready to scoop up any offending litter that might have been inadvertently dropped. Train platforms were kept so immaculately polished that I felt uncomfortable walking on them with my dirty shoes. In department stores an employee held a cloth against the moving black handrail of the escalator ensuring it stayed spotless and shiny. Taxi drivers, station guards, lift ladies all wore clean white gloves; and if anyone had a cough or cold they covered their mouth with a surgical mask.

My first trip outside Tokyo was to the Izu peninsular, a couple of hours south of the capital by train. I had been hired to teach a couple of residential workshops. The company retreat centre was located half way up the slopes of an extinct volcano outside a picturesque village. It was summer and the weather was warm and sunny. Since I had a free day between workshops I thought it would be nice to explore the area. From a map I could see that there was a footpath that followed the coast for some miles to the next village and I decided to hike it. I set off early with my “bento” (a lunch box containing rice, fish and pickled vegetables) and some bottled water, and made my way down to the coast.

The scenery was spectacular. The path wove its way high along rugged cliffs of volcanic rock against which the Pacific Ocean pounded relentlessly. I climbed up across exposed outcrops and down through wooded inlets. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. However, as I got further away from habitation I noticed something that surprised me. The path was strewn with litter! There were old bento boxes and chopsticks, discarded cans and bottles, paper napkins and plastic bags. This ran contrary to my previous experience of the Japanese as being fastidiously neat and tidy. I might have expected this in the UK, but not here in Japan.

When I got back to the centre I told my Japanese colleague what I had seen and asked him if he could explain this contradictory behaviour. His answer (with allowances for the passage of time) intrigued me enough to have stayed with me for nearly 35 years.

“Well, Kento-san, from my point of view there are two types of culture in the world. Cultures that use guilt as a way to get people to follow society’s rules and behave ‘correctly’ and cultures that use shame.

“I think you Westerners like to use guilt. You are taught that there is a God who watches you all the time and knows what you are doing. Even when you are alone He can see you. Even when you think bad thoughts He can hear them. Knowing this, you feel guilty anytime you disobey the rules. It is as if He is in your head all the time. Maybe you call this the voice of your ‘conscience’.

“We Japanese, along with many S.E. Asian nations, don’t believe in a single God like that who can make us conform through guilt. Instead, we do it with shame. For us it is the shame of other members of society seeing us doing wrong, being bad or making mistakes. Being seen and judged by others causes us to lose face and feel ashamed. This shame extends to our family who will by association also feel shame because of our behaviour. This is a very powerful way of controlling a society, influencing behaviour and keeping people in line. For example, rather than saying to her child, ‘Don’t do that! It’s wrong,’ like a Western mother would, a Japanese mother might say, ‘Don’t do that! People are watching you.’

“In a big city like Tokyo there are so many people that you will be seen by others all the time. If you drop litter or make a mess then you will be noticed and you will feel ashamed. However, along that remote path by the coast maybe no one can see you. In that situation shame does not operate and since there is no omnipotent God watching you, why not throw the rubbish onto the ground? In time the rain will wash it away and nature will take care of it.”

I was reminded of his words recently when walking my dog, Peppar, early one morning. My respectable, law-abiding primary self knows the rule against dogs fouling the pavement. In fact, this part of me gets very indignant and judgemental of other dog owners when I see dog faeces on the street - especially if I have inadvertently trodden in some! On this particular day I was stressed, in a hurry and it was raining heavily. Of course, Peppar decided she needed to do her business right in the middle of the path, instead of by a tree or in the gutter. I had an umbrella in one hand and the dog lead in the other and a voice in my head said, “Just leave it. You always pick up after her. Just this once won’t hurt. The rain will wash it away.” It didn’t take much persuasion. “Just this once,” I agreed, and I allowed Peppar to pull me forward away from her steaming deposit.

Immediately I felt the censure of my Inner Critic. “You’ve broken the law, you’re two-faced, irresponsible, a bad citizen.” I felt the weighty burden of guilt descend on me. I hesitated. Whether or not it was the voice of God, this critical inner voice had certainly grabbed my attention. As I stood there contemplating my crime I heard a single word, heavily laced with sarcasm, shouted from somewhere nearby: “Lovely!!” To my horror there was a workman sitting in the cab of his lorry just across the street. He had obviously seen my misdemeanour. Now in addition to guilt I felt the shame of having been seen committing the offence. In an attempt to escape from both the situation and my feelings, I walked quickly on, instinctively hiding my face beneath my umbrella.

When I got home I reflected on what had happened. Painful as my Inner Critic attack was, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as being judged from the outside. The workman’s simple jibe had penetrated deeply and struck a very sensitive, core part of me with laser-like accuracy. I could use my Rational Mind to make excuses and argue myself out of feeling guilty - “I don’t break the rules all the time.” “This was a one off, special situation.” “I was stressed and in a hurry.” “Other people allow their dogs to foul the footpath.” But the feeling of shame was overwhelming and much harder to mollify.

The late Helen B. Lewis, professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, made an interesting distinction: ‘The experience of shame is directly about the self, which is the focus of evaluation. In guilt, the self is not the central object of negative evaluation, but rather the thing done is the focus.’ This would account for shame being a stronger spur towards “right” action and “correct” behaviour as it touches intimately on our feelings of who we are rather than on what we have done.

The “excreta incident” as I like to call it initiated some interesting insights. I already knew about the role of the Inner Critic in my life and its way of enforcing “appropriate” behaviour by making me feel guilty. What I had not fully appreciated was the power that shame has in motivating me to stay on the “straight and narrow”. Touching in to the very sensitive part of me that fears the judgements of others, I could see just how strong a force it has been in shaping my actions and reactions throughout my life.

Looking at my dog lying asleep on the rug I can’t help thinking how lucky she is. She will never feel the burden of a guilty conscience or experience the shame of having been seen leaving her poo in a public place!