Monday, October 29, 2007

Common Sense

When my sister and I were growing up, we were both quite academically gifted. My sister eventually ended up going to a school ran by the local college for people who were often too clever to be satisfied in a normal school and I graduated with honors from both high school and college. Because my sister and I were seen as being "book smart", my mother liked nothing more than to frequently tell us that, though we were intelligent, we lacked "common sense" any time we failed to do what she would do in any given situation. Mainly, this applied to daily tasks which we were forced to do and didn't want to think much about or care about the outcome of such as doing laundry, cleaning, or cooking.

The truth was that my sister and I didn't lack "common sense" but we lacked experience. Most of my mother's assertions about how we didn't exercise common logic came when we were younger than age 16 (and a good amount of it when we were younger than 12). It was always my feeling that she savored offering up this particular put-down because it allowed her to feel superior to us in this regard and as a means of keeping our egos in check should our self-esteem become inflated as a result of the academic success we had. It's not that we were ever at risk of such a thing though. Neither my sister nor I grew up with any amount of big-headedness about our intellects because, while teachers reward you for intelligence, society on the whole and your peers do not.

In the U.S., "common sense" is usually used to mean doing what is logical in a given situation. For instance, the fact that you shouldn't wash a red shirt with your white laundry because it'll bleed color onto your whites could be considered an exercise in common sense or that you shouldn't wear muddy shoes and walk across several rooms of your home. By and large, the notion of "common sense" is something which is not specific to your culture. People in Japan have the same ability to exercise logic that people in the west do in similar situations.

In Japan, the word for what is frequently translated as "common sense" is "joshiki" and it's one of many examples where translation fails to convey the essence of a word in a particular culture. While I'm sure that "joshiki" encompasses the same notions as western common sense, it also includes concepts that we would not, concepts that are specific to Japanese culture.

This notion has been brought home to me many times in conversations with Japanese people but never so clearly as in a recent conversation with a student of mine who is studying Criminal Justice at an American junior college. We were discussing how she needs to participate more in classes and I recommended she prepare to describe the Japanese justice system to her American classmates and teacher. Her response to this suggestion was that she didn't know anything about the Japanese system. This was something I knew to be untrue and I said, "you know that trials are conducted with 3 judges, don't you?" She said, "yes, but that's just common sense."

To me, her response perfectly illustrated that, in Japan, "joshiki" encompasses common knowledge as well as common sense. She seemed surprised when I told her that the Americans she studies with would not feel that this was obvious or that it was information that everyone probably already knew because they believed that a jury trial system (which Japan is supposed to adopt next year, incidentally) would be "common sense". In America, we have a similar notion that people in our culture pretty much know certain things (like that there is a president, vice president, Senate, etc. in our government) but we wouldn't call these things "common sense" nor would we expect that people who grew up in other countries would naturally have knowledge of such things.


Miko said...

Very interesting insight! I had never thought about common sense vs. common knowledge until now. When I first moved to Japan to join my mother, she was forever getting angry with me for not knowing "joshiki" stuff (mainly rules of Japanese etiquette), and we clashed quite a bit because of this. Around the same time I got my first - and probably last! - Japanese boyfriend, who once lost his temper and yelled at me "you just don't know anything, do you?" because I didn't understand that the washing machines here run on cold water - in NZ they use both hot and cold. Oh, it was a steep learning curve, in those days. I still shudder to think about it. (And I bet they do, too!)

By the way, the concept of everyday joshiki can vary greatly even from region to region within Japan. I've been around a bit and witnessed quite a few differences, both big and small. However, thanks to the uniform education system here, most Japanese are well-versed on matters of national joshiki (such as criminal justice).

Mothers are so hard on daughters. Why? I'm far more tolerant and forgiving with my son, than I ever would be with a girl.

Shari said...

Hi, Miko, and, as always, many thanks for your interesting comment!

I feel fortunate that I've never been expected to know everything which falls under the masthead of "joshiki" in Japan as you have. It seems incredibly unfair, particularly things like knowing the washing machines only use cold water! Sheesh. That boyfriend was an incredible jerk for not understanding that life is different all around the world.

As an aside, I think mothers on some level compete with their daughters as well as expect them to exceed their lot in life. It's as if they want you to be better than them but resent it when you end up better off than them and it causes a lot of psychological weirdnesses. Perhaps that's not really fair and just applies to my mother...

Overthinker said...

"Joushiki" is written 常識, which literally means "normal knowledge" - things everyone knows, rather than can assume without prior knowledge (like washing red and white together). Whereas the "sense" in "common sense" seems to mean "awareness of", in the sense of being aware that cutting yourself with a knife might hurt.

I've been told a lot (by my wife) that "常識だろう!何で分からん?".... ("It's obvious! How can you not know?") generally followed by comments to the effect that she can't believe someone with such a high level of education can be so stupid. But over the years I have come to believe that "joushiki" is whatever SHE thinks it should be....

(I found your blog, btw, from a link in the News section of Japan Probe.)

Shari said...

Overthinker, many thanks for your helpful and interesting comment. As I've mentioned before, my commenters often add qualitatively to my posts and I appreciate it so much.

I actually guessed how you found me because I read your comment on Japan Probe and made a connection. ;-)

BTW, if you've got your own blog, let me know and I'll add a link to it on mine. You seem to be a person with a lot of good information to offer.

Overthinker said...

Thanks for your comments, Shari. I don't actually have a blog, partially as I don't really know how one sets one up, and largely as I'm not that outgoing - I'll comment on other issues, but don't really feel comfortable raising them myself. It's what other foreign people find interesting about life in Japan that I find interesting, more than the life itself (which after about 16 years seems very normal and even joushiki to me, especially as I don't live in a very gaijin-intensive area and seldom interact with them anyway (not from the snobbery you comment on in another post, though - simply as I literally don't have the chance - months go by without a conversation in English)).

Miko said...

"I've been told a lot (by my wife) that "常識だろう!何で分からん?".... ("It's obvious! How can you not know?") generally followed by comments to the effect that she can't believe someone with such a high level of education can be so stupid."

I hate to shatter any illusions, Overthinker, but generally wives around the world say that to their husbands! It seems to go with the territory. Sorry!

"That boyfriend was an incredible jerk for not understanding that life is different all around the world."

Shari, the guy was just an all-round jerk anyway, but in his defense he'd never met a gaijin in his life until he met me, and for that matter neither had any of my relatives apart from my own mother. They were constantly making excuses for my strange gaijin behaviour, explaining to outsiders that "she can't help it, she was raised overseas" and so on. In time I have come to see that I was a great trial to them all, even to the boyfriend, and I now appreciate all that they did for me. I still wouldn't wish the experience on anyone else, though. It really was dreadful!

Kanagawa G said...

Both "common sense" and "common knowledge" are constantly changing. I'm willing to bet that most people don't know which way to position the grain when attaching a new handle to a shovel. Less than 50 years ago, this was "common knowledge".