In Japanese thought there’s a big difference between how you treat people within your inner circle of family and friends (Uchi – 内) and how you treat other people outside that circle (Soto – 外). This differentiation can be found all over the world, as we don’t treat people close to us that we see on a day to day basis the same as other people that we don’t know that much. For example, have you noticed that in our society it is quite difficult to integrate yourself into a group if you are the last one to join it? Even so, we still make the best we can to help people fit in the group, etc. In Japan it is much harder; if you want to join a group where you don’t belong, even if you try very hard, if you are not welcome from the beginning it will be impossible to be truly accepted. Let’s take a closer look at the details of the strong dichotomy between Uchi and Soto.
In the past, Japanese life revolved around the Ie (家) system, that is, around our home, our house, our family. The family head used to be an older man, that had the responsibility to manage and maintain all the family members in harmony. As family members started getting married with members of other families, the branches of the family Uchi group spread out. Let’s say, for example, that a daughter was not able to marry a member of a family that were complete strangers.
Another very important consequence is that individual opinions didn’t have any value, all family members had to consider family harmony above all. This is still going on nowadays, and it is one of the reasons why Japanese companies are considered among the slowest in the world. EVERYBODY has to agree before doing something. The good thing about such a democratic system is that eventually at the end the decisions are the right ones and also that workers almost never go on strike. An example of how exaggerated this can be is something that happened to me when a coworker of mine had his computer CD-drive broken. Another coworker analyzed the CD drive for half an hour to check if it was broken, then there was a meeting of 4 coworkers, and eventually… they decided to change the CD-drive!!! However they also decided to order some more spare CD-drives and try new models to not have problems in the future, etc. Facing a small problem all the members of the Uchi should agree on how to proceed and take the necessary measures so that it doesn’t happen again.
The levels and difference between Uchi and Soto can be quite vague. On the first Uchi level would be our family, then the “connected” families, then our friends, then our company and at the end would be Japan as a country. For example, foreigners in Japan are the most Soto that somebody can get; that’s why it is said that even though you have lived in Japan for years you will always be treated like a gaijin. You will always be treated like Soto simply because unconsciously they are thinking that you are some kind of menace to the harmony of their Uchi. This is one of the reasons Japan is a really closed country; it is most likely the developed country with the least immigration, even though lately they are starting to open up a little bit more. The largest minority in Japan are Koreans, whose problems integrating into Japanese society you can be seen in the movie Go.
But don’t misunderstand me, that Japanese people treat you like Soto it doesn’t mean that they don’t treat you well. Most likely they will treat you better than most of your friends at home the problem is that sometimes you feel like there is some kind of barrier. For example, the use of the language is a good indicator to see if you are entering a group Uchi, and there are also some indicators of non-verbal language that also give some hints about it.
Due to everything I’ve written in this article, it is said that it is really difficult to make Japanese friends, but if you succeed he will be a GREAT friend and will always be there for you. Think that he will always take care about the harmony inside his Uchi. If you have a Japanese friend you’ll most likely confirm this. Maybe you are now thinking about your friendships and other people you know and thinking if they belong to your Uchi or your Soto, you are turning Japanese 😉