In and Out: More on Social Dynamics in Japan


(ie) – house ,home, family, residence, building, dwelling, residency, habitation

(soto) – out, outside, other place

*translations from

A Bit of History

Japan’s social dynamics, like many counties, revolves around the delineation of the individual, that smallest grouping  we  identify as self.  For most westerners, the idea of self is clear.  We are the individual, each person an independent unit.  Over long years, and in many places, we have been relatively free to wander and roam.  Humanity has always pushed out, we are designed to survive, to seek out and expand our numbers so that no one destruction would wipe out the whole.  Darwin would tell us that those of us with the greatest tendency towards independence would strike out to find new lands, ever-expanding humanity’s range.  Later we learned to live as groups, as families, as cities.  Though independent we are also drawn to each other by a myriad factors, yet, there is still urban sprawl.  Cities are ever expanding as people seek out a bit of their own land, their own, individual life.

What would happen to those early adventurers if something happened to make a group more important than even oneself?  We see it with parents.  They willingly sacrifice for their children, though this can be explained as a necessity to continue the species.  People in the military, firefighters, police officers, and others routinely risk themselves for others.  Sure, there are benefits, and most assume they are safe enough, given the rewards.  Some at least, are willing to make that sacrifice, be it for duty, pride, or religion.  These are learned traits, bestowed by the socialization process to ensure there are those few who will ensure the rest can live in peace.

In Japan, though, something happened hundreds of years ago that affected the social dynamics of the people as a whole.  Rice.  In the Jomon period and before, the Japanese people were nomads, hunting and gathering through the islands.  When agriculture was introduced, ever-larger groups were formed because of the amount of work required to eek a living from the soil.  Rice was even more labor intensive, requiring a restructuring of the land into paddies.  Villages grew up around the most fertile and easily used land.  The people jointly owned the woods and fields, worked together to feed the whole.  An island, only few areas were suitable to rice farming, and those prospered.  Some groups coveted the land of others, and eventually, the role of the Samurai was created.  Protectors and warriors, they grew ever in importance, yet they were separate from the villagers.  The farmers toiled in the mud and muck, and as war became ever more specialized, the warriors became a different breed, a different class.

Feudalism and war created new social pressures to formalize and solidify the process that had begun years before.  Families became multi-generational institutions locked by class into specific work.  Villages were semi-autonomous, yet had to pay tribute/tax in rice as a whole.  Thus if one farm or house suffered, the entire village suffered as a whole.

The Resulting Dynamics

The result from Japan’s unique history and culture is a complex system of “in” and “out” that still drives how many people in Japan interact with each other.  Often in Japan there is no clear cut, “I’m me, You’re you.”

ie – Who  is inside?  Who is part of yourself, your family, your identity?  In old Japan, it might have been your household, which could easily include four or more generations.  It might mean the village that you depended on for protection from fire, to cultivate new lands, to find husbands and wives for your children.  Very rarely, it might have even included the larger ‘state’ in which you lived, if only because you paid your rice to them, and hoped they protected you from being conscripted into a war.

In today’s world, the definition is tighter, generally relating only to yourself and immediate family, though there are many exceptions given the situation.  When talking about co-workers to someone outside (soto) your co-workers might suddenly be your ie.  Within a family, the dynamics are even more apparent.  In your household, you might be ie, while your siblings and parents would be soto, yet when an outsider is present, they are soto, and your family is ie.

Among friends and classmates?  If you’re part of a group, in Japan it often becomes your ie while dealing with outside individuals.  There is a sense of obligation, often built over years of gift-giving and shared experience.  For Japanese, it’s a subconscious thing, a change that happens naturally given the situation.  Even the language supports the separation, with many using the humble form when talking about the ie and the honorific when speaking to or about the soto.  The fluid change between in and out can be hard for the un-indoctrinated to follow, yet at its most simplistic, ie is whoever you feel is part of your “group” at any given time.

The effects of being “in” can be shocking to those not expecting it.  At Japanese parties, everyone pays the same amount, no matter how little or much you eat and drink.  Old women or even local shopkeepers might thrust food or vegetables upon you for no apparent reason.  Your neighbor might swipe a few carrots from your garden without asking.  The lines between individual and group blur because the basic preconceptions about what is an individual is different.

soto – With a somewhat more clear understanding of ie (it changes) then soto is far easier to define.  It is the foreign.  Everything and everyone else not included in your “in” group at any particular time.  Just as the warrior class, the samurai, became both outside to the villager, and inside versus the marauding armies of another town or country, your boss might be in or out depending on if you are talking to a coworker or client.

In today’s Japan, the social distinctions are not as clear or regimented as they were in the past; however, the past has a strong influence on the socialization of new generations.  Japan is still isolated in an ever-integrating world.  Its ability to keep its unique culture and identity, despite wars and the internet, is a testament to the ingrained idea of one’s identity being connected to, and part of, other groups.

This is a wide subject in the study of Japan.  History, language, culture:  All of it combines in this one subject.  I hope this gives you an interesting introduction into the world of Japan’s social workings.  Don’t be afraid, most of these things are subtle, and many Japanese have had enough exposure to western culture to ignore our insistence on a view of “us and them.”

For those on the outside in Japan, you will mostly find a distance that is hard to break.  While the “in” is more inclusive than western culture, it takes a lot of work and time to become an insider.  Most likely, you will get more formal language, and shorter responses.  If you are not part of any group in Japan it can quickly become a very lonely place.  You might not even realize why you feel lonely.  The lack of quick relationships means that its harder to make friends.  Once you do begin to be accepted, you acquire both the benefits and responsibilities of being “in.”

The Group Identity

Just as the whole village could be punished for one household failing to pay a rice tax, so too is there still a strong group identity.  The actions of any part of a group, large or small, have an impact on the whole.  This is another reason why any group (be it an individual, organization, or team), are more reluctant to accept new members easily.  Once part of the group you have the same potential to disgrace the group as any other part.  Many in Japan find it hard to quit teams once they start, because there is an underlying obligation, a mutual obligation among the parts of a group that binds it together in Japan.

There are also great benefits.  Any part of the group can share in the accomplishments of the other.  Good news is shared just as easily.  Because there is a bond among the parts (albeit of varying degrees depending on the closeness to an individual), the other members of a group will have the same feelings of obligation towards you, and will help you if they can.  Like any relationship, these relationships require work to maintain and grow.

In the past, the group identity gave Japan an edge in business, while creating stable work for thousands of “salarymen.”  Japan has changed over the last few decades, being influenced by the changing world economy, but still the underlying aspects of this unique social characteristic are present, even subtly in the most western seeming Japanese.  It is, I think, one of those hard-to-define characteristics that together are Japanese.

Thanks to Neave for the prompt!  Email me your questions or concerns!