Chinese people are puzzled by the strange emotions of the Japanese

Why do people from China and people from Japan seem to express their emotions in such different ways?

That was the question I posed in one of my blog’s last month titled When China smiles Japan shows its dark side. I’m delighted that the renowned sociologist Baozhen Luo has offered a really interesting response.

Here’s her view. I look forward to reading more responses!

Guest blogger

Duncan, I thoroughly enjoyed your recent blog and as always, you pose a thought-provoking question concerning the emotional expression of people from Asia.

This is a question to which I have actually given quite some thought. The polarised emotional display of the Japanese (explosive expression of deep emotions in sharp contrast to extreme formality) and the more balanced approach to disclosing emotions by the Chinese (extravagant celebration of Chinese New Year and solemn reflection of the humiliation China experienced in the past 150 years).

Tokyo shock

When I first visited Japan in 2013, I was so struck by the drastic contrast between the atmosphere in 8am in Shinjuku Subway Station and 4pm at Akihabara. I stayed in a hotel next to Shinjuku station.

The first morning, I felt this deep oppressive feeling as I looked down to the station in the morning seeing armies of Japanese working men wearing exactly the same outfit – a white shirt and a pair of black khaki pants moving like ants – emotionless and voiceless.

“I felt this deep oppressive feeling as I looked down to the station in the morning seeing armies of Japanese working men” Baozhen Luo

In the afternoon, when I went to Akihabara, I felt another deep feeling of oppression as I witnessed the long queues of men waiting to get the autograph of an AV star and loud music and flashy images in the video game stores.

Chinese thinking

Chinese people on the other hand seem to have a relatively more balanced display of the negative and the positive of their emotional world.

I think it has a lot to do with how Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism – the three pillars of the Chinese people’s belief-system has shaped our views of humanity, the nature, and the universe. All three belief systems place a strong focus on well-roundedness; Taoism focuses on the balance between Yin and Yang, Confucianism emphasises moderation, and Buddhists strive for the middle way.

Martin Jacques, a British Sinologist, in his book When China Rules the World, has made some really insightful comparisons between the Japanese and Chinese sensibilities, and how the different manifestation of Confucianism and the different paths of modernisation shaped the national psyches in these two countries

The spread of ideas

Although Japan adopted Confucianism from China around the 6th century, Japanese Confucianism is drastically different from Chinese Confucianism.

The former laid greater emphasis on hierarchy and loyalty whereas benevolence is a core value for the latter, which allows a much more flexible version of rationality, thus more space for diverse emotions.

The polarised emotional display of the Japanese may also be a reflection of the underlying national psyche of insecurity and inferiority, a historical result of living in the shadows of Chinese civilisation for over fourteen centuries and the Western civilisation since Meiji Restoration.

About the writer: Dr. Baozhen Luo is an associate professor in Sociology at Western Washington University. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Nanjing University and her doctoral degree in Sociology from Georgia State University. Her current research examines China and its people’s presence on the global stage, politically, economically, and culturally. In addition to producing scholarly works, she also hosted a column called “Four Dimension Channel” (四维频道) discussing a variety of social issues in China at (澎湃新闻) based in Shanghai. She has also written for Foreign Affairs and is a regular commentator for China’s Global Television Network.