[First published 8 Feb 2009]
Why introduce yourself?
I thought I would start this column on the topic of self-introductions (jiko shōkai 自己紹介), by seeing what the average Japanese, in the person of the contributors and editors of the Japanese version of Wikipedia, think about the topic. Well, the entry on self-introductions gives quite a lot of information about all the different types of jiko shōkai: at job interviews, before large crowds, at meetings, at wedding receptions, at parties, on the telephone, and when handing over your business card. It notes that the fundamental purpose of a self-introduction is ‘so that people who basically don’t know anything about you can get to know you’ (kihonteki ni jibun no koto o shiranai ningen ni jibun wo shittemoraru tame 基本的に自分のことを知らない人間に自分を知ってもらうため) and continues, not surprisingly, that ‘people who have something amazing about them appear to want to express themselves with self-confidence, but for people who are aware that they are nothing special, self-introductions are torture’ (sugureta mono o motteiru hito wa jishin wo motte hirekishitagaru ga, nani mo motteinai to jikakusuru hito ni wa jiko shōkai wa tsurai 優れたものを持っている人は自信を持って披瀝したがるが何も持っていないと自覚する人には自己紹介は辛い).
You can also put the characters自己紹介 into any of the Japanese search engines and come up with a host of self-introduction-related websites, ranging from automated introduction generators, to any number of people introducing themselves on their own web-pages. In addition, let’s not forget YouTube, where you can watch numerous non-Japanese practicing their Japanese self-introductions, or a variety of tarento タレント doing their own, no doubt put up by adoring fans. Here, Michishige Sayumi 道重さゆみ from pop-group Morning Musume モーニング娘, rattles through a jiko shōkai in about a minute, covering her birthday, blood-type, birthplace (with some background on the local delicacies and topography), when she first joined the group, her character (even if she comes across something very unpleasant, she’s fine after sleeping on it), and so forth. That is a standard and, of course, professionally done ‘celebrity’ self-introduction, but if you live and work in Japan in a Japanese institution, I’m sure you’re familiar with this scene: someone new joins the office, and he or she is expected to stand before everyone and introduce themselves with a formal jiko shōkai, which, like the celebrity version, begins with their name, some information about where they are from, but then continues with their educational background, and concludes with a promise to work hard and a request for forbearance and assistance until they find their feet. These tend to ‘involv[e] the formulaic exchange of information including one’s name, company, and position, the jiko shokai is highly ritualized’ (Martin et al 2008: 42), but it is something ‘that a man had to learn as a first step to mastering the protocol of corporate life in the 1970s’ (Martin et al 2008: 35) – obviously, in the 2000s this goes for women, too.
You’ll see similar scenes when joining a class, or a club, or almost any type of organised activity, and I expect you’ve wondered, then, why the Japanese think this is so important – I know I did when I was first getting to know the Japanese way of doing things.
Well, there are a number of different factors operating here. First, there’s the Japanese love of formal rituals to punctuate social events – anyone who has worked at, or even attended a Japanese educational institution will be more than familiar with the run of ceremonies that mark progress through the school year, and progress through a school from entry to graduation. There’s a belief that anything important is worth marking formally, and this is where the jiko shōkai comes in. Second, I’m sure you also know that the Japanese, in general, consider it extremely important to both put effort into maintaining relationships, and to ensuring that any relationships are conducted on the ‘correct’ social footing. Finally, one of the major factors governing relationships between people is whether they can consider themselves members of the same group, or if they are in separate ones. This is vitally important because whether someone you are talking to is ‘in-group’, that is part of your own group, or ‘out-group’ – not in your group – determines what sort of language you use when talking to him or her, and what terms you use to refer to other people, both within and outside of your group. You can even send messages about the extent to which you believe an addressee is part of your group through the language you use – often in quite subtle ways – of which I’ll talk about in another column.
The jiko shōkai serves as formal way of easing a person’s way into a new group – even one that may be relatively transitory – and gives the other group members information that they can use to position themselves vis á vis the newcomer in the network of intra-group relations. In Japan’s ‘educational qualification society’ (gakureki shakai 学歴社会), for example, information about where a person’s degree comes from can help assign status – you have only to think of the numerous TV dramas which feature someone from an elite university like Tokyo taking a job, or being assigned to a department, which would normally be considered beneath them, and the shock that this causes their new colleagues, or even superiors, to see how important this is. Similarly information about where someone comes from helps to determine whether there can be any other common ground – might people have attended the same festivals, or be familiar with the same local traditions, and so forth. The final requests for help and the promise do to one’s best, of course, serve as reassurance that the new person is going to do their best to fit in, follow the group’s interests and make the effort to maintain relations both within and outside of the group.
You do have to decide, of course, how much information about yourself you reveal, particularly if your background is in any way non-standard, as this anecdote taken from Maher (2005: 87) pithily shows:
I joined a men’s suit company. The first afternoon at the company we had self-introductions ( jiko shokai). I was nearly shitting myself. Do I bring up the Ainu thing or not? I knew from past experience it was kind of risky.Maher (2005: 87)
The question then arises, of course, of what you do in these circumstances as a non-Japanese, as, almost certainly, you won’t be expected to fit in with the group in the same way that a Japanese person would, and your Japanese colleagues can’t use the information you can supply about yourself to position you in the group in the same way that they would a new Japanese colleague. You can, however, treat the event with the seriousness it deserves, as a symbol of an entry into new relations with a group of people and a display to them that you take that relationship seriously. As I mentioned before, the Japanese place a great deal of importance on maintaining establishing and maintaining relations – you only have to think of the effort that goes into sending New Year greetings, and midsummer gifts to know that – and an indication from you at the outset that you are willing to make an effort can reassure them that it is worth their reciprocating. So, the answer to the question, ‘Why introduce yourself?’ for both Japanese and non-Japanese alike, is ‘Because it gets a relationship off to the right start.’
Maher, John C. (2005) ‘Metroethnicity, language, and the principle of Cool’, International Journal of the Sociology of Language 175/176: 83-102.
Martin, Fran; Jackson, Peter and Yue, Audrey (2008) AsiaPacificQueer: Rethinking Genders and Sexualities, University of Illinois Press.