Culture is a set of traditions, habits, values, and norms that a group of people share. That is as basic as definition goes. What it implies though is that culture is intricate, deeply-rooted in a person or nation's psyche, and is quite definitive of a people group's identity. Unfortunately for the outsider, like an entire language to be learned, a group of people's culture takes tremendous amount of time to learn - a lifetime would not be an exaggeration.
But for the person who marries as foreigner, or for a merchant wanting to expand overseas, a lifetime is a little too long for such an endeavor. How will the lover know if he has habits that will not offend his future wife, or how will the businessman know if his goods will actually sell in the untested waters of a foreign world.
As linguists and story-tellers encourage the use of metaphors to give power to describing concepts that a listener or an audience have not actually encountered, so does anthropologists and sociologists point to cultural metaphors to give a multi-dimensional presentation and hopefully, an understanding, of another culture. "Through the use of (cultural) metaphor and its characteristics we can begin to see the society in a new and different way and, we hope, in the same manner as its members do." (Understanding Global, 2010, xvii)
Enter a Japanese Garden, a place that exudes tranquility, refinement, and beauty. Visitors are encouraged to be diverted from the bustling noise of their busy lives by the sheer beauty of the place. Those that happen upon such recreation are enticed to listen to the flowing water of the pond that quietly flows over the smooth stones intricately arranged to an art form, supplementing the gracefulness that the shrubs and bonsais and how they are trimmed and maintained suggest. To be in such vicinity is always relaxing, soothing, and uplifting, as one is treated to a form of tamed nature but with all the breathtaking elements intact, the surroundings echo humanity’s oneness with his natural environment.
Japanese Gardens attempts to capture the elements of nature in one facade: earth (stones), water and plant life. Their commonality and similarity of pattern, found almost in every Japanese home with a garage, shows the Japanese love for nature, and their belief of their oneness with it (The Japanese Garden, 2010, p.38). The intricacies of every element found in the Japanese Garden, the well-trimmed shrubs, the distinctively patterned stones, the calculated amount of water running through the garden shows the discipline, perfectionism and devotion for order ("the proper way") and beauty of the Japanese in every work they produce. The tranquility prevalent in the aura within a Japanese Garden illustrates the Japanese love for harmony, unity of purpose in a community, and the culture of preventing personal inner turmoil from disturbing the peace of other people, or the community. Gannon and Pillai (The Japanese Garden, p.38) also suggests that this culture of keeping their personal problems to themselves is shown by the pond waters of the gardens, peaceful at the surface yet turbulent underneath as water recycled to a miniature waterfall takes place at the bottom of the pond.
The metaphor of the Japanese Garden sheds some light to which cultural categories the Japanese belong. These categories are distinct elements of a culture confronted in cross-cultural associations, for example, in business. Geert Hofstedege (RDD, 2013, p.1) categorized these elements into problems, and according to him, national cultures primarily differ in their solutions to these problems. One such problem is dealing with the unknown. It can be inferred that Japanese perfectionism is a hindrance to problem-solving that would require trail-blazing. Gannon and Pillai (The Japanese Garden, 24) points out that the Japanese do not know what to do when the "proper way" is unknown. In dealing with others, it is deduced that the Japanese have the collective mindset, as shown by the value for harmony in the Japanese garden. Gannon and Pillai (The Japanese Garden, p.24) notes that the Japanese give devotion to a greater body (example, a company) in contrast to the American default of promoting one's own achievements over his company's advancements. In dealing with natural drives, the Japanese is said to be a culture of restraint, as they value discipline, hard work, and therefore delayed gratification. They esteem self-control and place the good of the community above their own.
As Gannon and Pillai points out (Understanding Cultural, 2010, p.3) misconstrued contextual interpretation in cross-cultural negotiations can have detrimental results. From the point of view of an individualistic, trail-blazing, and possibly indulgent culture, it is important to understand the scenarios of what makes the Japanese productive and what motivates them as a people to work well with them. A collective mindset is actually an asset when viewed from a macro-perspective because, when loyalty is achieved, the business can be assured of a committed and perfectionist work ethics from this nation. Hard work, discipline, and self-control are assets to a work force that is given by default by Japanese workers. As for cases of lacking a “proper way”, the Japanese this with the concept of Kaizen, in which they find ways of improving a system on a regular basis, like the turbulent water underneath that maintains the calm on its surface.
Cultural metaphors are not meant to be all-knowing, but a starting point that needs to be further enriched through experience. In a simple parable of the Japanese Garden, outside cultures gained a view and aura of what the Japanese people are like, not just by the mind, but by the heart, as feeling, aura, and beauty are only understood there. As Edward Hall puts it, cultural metaphors allow us a tool to explore other culture to prevent our own to be a prison. (Gannon and Martin, p.25)
Gannon and Phillai (2010). The Japanese Garden.
Gannon and Phillai (2010). Undestanding Cultural Metaphors
Gannon and Phillai (2010). Understanding Global Cultures.
Gannon and Martin (2001). Cultural Metaphors
RDD. 1 Nov 2013. Supplemental Links and Notes on Theories of Cultural Dimensions.