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Pauline Chakmakjian
Pauline Chakmakjian

Pauline founded The Japan Room to revive the salon atmosphere of eighteenth-century Europe from which speculative Freemasonry originated in combination with her friendship with Japan. She has many hobbies and interests. Pauline spends 2-3 months in Kyoto every year, usually during the spring and autumn. She is a volunteer for the Kyoto City International Foundation/Kyoto International Community House. Pauline is a Trustee of The Japan Society. www.japansociety.org.uk

WEBサイト: The Japan Room

Barriers in Japanese Society – Pauline Chakmakjian, MA

2013.10.15 | カテゴリー : 未分類 | 投稿者名 :

 

Foreigners who have experienced Japan and those who have simply studied the country from afar will
have noticed various types of barriers present in Japanese society in relation to rank, sex and age.
These barriers were shaped largely from the past and they can take physical, psychological and linguistic
forms.  Sudare are blinds made of natural material such as wood or bamboo; they serve as one example
of a physical barrier for various purposes.  The practical purpose of the sudare was and still is to protect
inhabitants against the elements as well as insects.  However, much mention of them is made in The Tale
of Genji
because within the context of Heian period courtly life, sudare also shielded a noble from the eyes
of outsiders.

 

Borrowed from Chinese class structure, Japan had divided its population into several strata with the
Emperor and the nobility up at the top and the warrior class in the second most important position with
farmers, artisans and merchants making up the lower tiers of society.  Even within these higher echelons
of society there were ranks within ranks, and it was forbidden for a person of lower rank to look directly
at those of higher ranks.  For instance, a farmer could not look directly at a samurai and no one could look
at the Emperor. In the case of imperial audiences, the Emperor would therefore sit behind the sudare where
he would be enthroned.  It goes without saying that the sudare located within palaces and villas were made
of the highest quality bamboo with silk and gold embroidery interwoven.

 

 

 

As court ladies could not be seen in public and had to avoid the gaze of men within palace grounds in
order to maintain their image of modesty and purity, accessories such as their ox-cart carriages, fans
and sudare were used to conceal such women.  Sudare were necessary when a court lady would speak
to a male outside her immediate family, and it was only when she gave her permission could such a man
come closer so that then she alone might decide to lift the blinds for whatever scenario might take place
next.

 

While sudare no longer play such roles in etiquette and ritual in contemporary Japanese society, there still
remain barriers between men and women, the young and the old, people in varying positions within companies, Japanese people and foreigners as well as ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ among the Japanese themselves.  Barriers
such as these are mainly set by behaviour and language nowadays.  Meaning, honorifics in the Japanese
language serve to divide such groups to keep them at a respectful distance from one another just as sudare
did this in the past.

 

Sometimes in business and in other contexts, it may be quite advantageous to be a foreigner since one
could feign ignorance at a certain barrier set by Japanese culture.  For instance, while it would be completely unacceptable for a Japanese employee in a much more subordinate position to approach a Vice President or
CEO of a company directly since the hierarchy must be worked through, a foreign employee in the same
company might simply broach an urgent matter directly to such senior personnel as this is more commonly
done in Western business environments.  Whether the foreigner knows or not that this would be considered
a breach of Japanese etiquette is irrelevant.  The slow pace of Heian courtly life could allow for elaborate,
ritualistic dances between individuals to lift a blind, but in business now, time is money.

 

 


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