Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 55: Toot your own horn — don’t let the modesty scam keep you down


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Japan Times, Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012
Toot your own horn — don’t let the modesty scam keep you down
Courtesy http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20120904ad.html

As per this column’s title, this month’s topic was chosen, well, “just because” it’s been on my mind.

Some weeks ago I was asked to give a speech at my current research institute. When I offered workshops on activism and racial discrimination in Japan in general, they asked for something more personal: “Tell us how you’ve made a difference in Japan.”

I said, “How can I do that without sounding boastful and self-aggrandizing?”

They had no answer. Thus this perfectly legitimate topic was oddly taboo only because I would be talking about myself. That’s when I became aware of the undermining effects of modesty and humility.

Modesty, according to dictionaries, is essentially a lack of conceit or vanity; humility is a lack of pride in oneself and a sense of deference.

These two words are associated with very positive and virtuous feelings, whereas their antonyms — arrogance, hauteur, egotism, conceitedness, etc. — are very negative. Within that contrast lies immense subliminal and normalized pressure to be humble and modest in society.

But there are negative aspects to that. Given my recent studies in sociology, where one thinks about what is “normal” in a society and what justifies the status quo, those alleged virtues can in fact be enormous barriers.

For example, if you’re giving a speech, have you ever noticed how social convention dictates that somebody else must introduce you and list up all your achievements — even if that results in omitting or misrepresenting important information? Nobody can ever know your life as thoroughly as you, yet you still can’t introduce yourself — because for some unquestioned reason you will “turn off” your audience.

For another example, if you’re doing research, you must reference other people and refrain from citing yourself — even if you’ve been the only one doing your kind of research in such breadth and depth for decades.

In Japan, the pressure to be reticent and deferential is especially strong: You essentially can never “toot your own horn” — even in job interviews! You have to wait until you are “discovered” and vouched for by others.

Mottainai — what a waste. Think of all the people you’ve come across in Japan with incredible talents who are languishing in obscurity. They remain unrecognized for all their hard work, unable to claim their rightful place in the canon simply because they’re too modest to tell people about it.

They wanly wait for others perchance to notice them, and if not, well, shikata ga nai. Years later, in seeps the twinge of regret for that effort and training for nothing.

But that happens everywhere, if you think about it. You have highly trained, disciplined and motivated individuals beavering away for lifetimes getting good at something, yet unable to make it “valuable,” i.e., lucrative (after all, you’re apparently not “professional” at anything until it earns you enough money). Why? Because most people have been raised to think that promoting oneself is egotistical.

Of course, some people get around those barriers. If you’re born with an ego the size of a rock star like Sting’s (or become a politician, where self-promotion is a job requirement — which is one reason why politicos are viewed so negatively), you’re innately impervious to the clique of critics, and switch off all that pesky modesty and humility.

Or, if you’re rich enough (and don’t want to pay the opportunistic self-help industry to help you reclaim your self-worth), you can hire a publicist, who will essentially act as the person introducing your speeches and tooting your horn.

Thus the rich inhabit a different level of “normal.” Think of the overweening and carpet-bombing publicity campaigns just before, say, Michael Jackson went anywhere. Media events revolving around people are basically modesty switcher-offers.

This is also why so many stars, celebs and politicians are able to keep their status “in the family” for generations: They have a self-sustaining publicity machine on hand to choke back the threat of obscurity. The egotists create their own elite social class because they don’t let humility and modesty get in the way.

Furthermore, consider the activists, who are at a particular disadvantage since they are not supposed to be celebrities or media hounds. They have to be self-sacrificing, fighting not for themselves but “for the cause,” rarely gaining the wherewithal (especially in Japan) to make their activism sustainable.

If due to humility (or fear of being seen as profiteering from the suffering of others) activists cannot embed themselves within a fund-raising group, then the status quo they’re trying to change is quite copacetic with that. Status quos by definition thrive on remaining unchallenged.

The point is, modesty and humility are in fact socially-imposed ways of keeping individuals disenfranchised, unable to reach their potential or a position of influence in a society. If they are ever “discovered” and “recognized” at all for their hard work and contributions, it will usually be in their twilight years (when they lack the energy to benefit from it) or, worse still, posthumously.

I believe this is by design. People are rarely able to change what’s “normal” in society when the “normal” forces them to be submissive and resigned to their fate. You are supposed to voluntarily give up your power for no reward — except the faint praise of being considered “modest” and “humble.” Suckers.

Look, will the sky fall if you praise yourself a bit and tell people what good works you’ve been trying to do? I say it’s time to recognize modesty and humility for what they are: scams to keep you down and keep society’s sense of normal unchanged.

You worked hard for what you’ve made of yourself; now become your own biggest fan and claim your kudos. For if you don’t tell others about your achievements, who will? And it might open doors both for you and for others.


Arudou Debito is the author of seven books and has been writing about Japan for more than 25 years (10 of them for The Japan Times), etc., etc. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp


25 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 55: Toot your own horn — don’t let the modesty scam keep you down

  • I used to work in a IT consultancy firm, if you didn’t blow your own trumpet in there you’d probably be made redundant in about six weeks or less. You got on the good projects by talking up your skills… But that wasn’t in Japan, actually I think the kind of person I was during that career would have been shocking for most Japanese people to meet… I’ve had a big change in career and attitude since I come to Japan…

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I bet it’s gonna be an open-ended debate on how modesty and humility play out in relation to socio-cultural and economic status. I don’t know if I can make a clear answer right now… Hope I can answer if I see more postings up here later. Anyway, the first thing struck me about the article is a reverse-culture shock of Japanese returnees. What troubles foreign-born and/or foreign-educated Japanese nationals are that they usually have difficulty adjusting back to the culture of their home country. When they work at a Japanese company or a traditional public office, they are reprimanded by their boss and co-workers for being assertive and selfish for not considering others. It’s quite ironic to see those who have a higher education in the US or UK, including myself, will likely be given a cold shoulder in a Japanese society, due to superb English language skills and foresights—-which is exactly what the GOJ is aimed as an ultimate goal of education at K-12 school and beyond. I’m definitely not the one who lets rule-bound cultural norms take me down, but I’m not so sure if Japanese academic institution is a right place for me to fight against the nexus of the system engineering a feudalistic cultural mindset.

  • One interesting thing about Debito`s approach this time is that it hardly mentions Japan directly, but we all know as we read that it can apply to Japan, as comments 1 and 2 have concurred.

    Here are a couple of culture shockers I have experienced in Japan along these lines:
    1. I said “I was destined for something better than this job” and the ex immediately researched Narcissistic Personality Disorder!
    2. The 22 year old person who said to me “Yappari gaijin wa jibun ga erai to omoimasu!” What, we cannot have any sense of self or empowerment? Are we supposed to get this from submerging ourselves in a group? Oh yeah, its Japan, that’s right. Sad a younger person thought that though.

    It tends to be hardwired into the corporate culture too. Even the pop stars you see on TV are in fact the result of a watered down compromise of 10 salarymen and women in some A&R department of Sony, so that the decision is unanimous. Or in lets say, advertising, its more like salarymen humbly slaving away at routine tasks rather than assertive “stars” advancing over the burnt out corpses of their predecessors. I am quoting a book, “Working in Japan”here, written in 1990. Has it changed all that much?

    On the other hand, I frequently hear people say they vote for Ishihara because he is “outspoken” and not modest, but we all know a major factor is that he has been famous since the 1950s. Japanese worship famous names, so once you have been “dscovered”, as Ishihara was in the 50s with “Taiyou no Kisetsu” this pretty much gives you carte blanche to buck the trend and throw modesty and humility to the wind in favor of ego!

  • Excellent article as always Debito!

    To be honest, I’d been rather worried that you had become subdued as of late, due the constant sniping from the apologist stalker site ankle-biters. I hope this signals a return to form, and I have the highest hopes that you may even feel the inclination to take on your old role of defacto leader of the NJ community here in Japan. Lord knows we need someone like you!

    Of course, trumpeting your own horn is not something you have to do by yourself, all of us who contribute to this site can join in by raising awareness and keep the issues fresh in the community’s minds. I constantly recommend this site as a beacon of light in the mire of information that is out there vis a vis Japan, and I hope others do too!

  • I don’t see anything undesirable about modesty. In the three societies I’ve spent any time in, the UK, Peru and Japan, keeping quiet about your own achievements is seen as a virtue. Anybody who comes across as particularly assertive is regarded as loud, childish and (dare I say it?) “American”. (A sweeping, unfair generalisation, I know, but don’t shoot the messenger…).
    Good work and valuable contributions will always be recognised and appreciated by fair-minded people, even if they don’t express their appreciation. On the flip side, screw-ups and laziness will be equally recognised, even if nobody says a word.And surely that makes for a pleasanter and more harmonious society. (Heck, maybe I’ve been here too long, but my memories of the UK, and of Latin America, are that people had more or less the same attitude).

  • Debito:

    I agree with the thrust of the article, which I understand to be that social exclusion motivates concerns about such auto-referential discussions.

    I see this new study:


    regarding social exclusion that has relevance to your analysis, and how social exclusion develops throughout childhood.

    It appears to me that social exclusion has different characteristics in Japan than in some other countries that are not as prejudiced towards outsiders (and thus not as exclusionary), although I have no quality data to support that impression.

    It would be interesting to better understand the characteristics and role that social exclusion played amongst J.

  • @ Joe, about the UK and your fading memory of work practices there.


    I remember my first job in London for a major corporation; they never gave us any credit for all the sales we generated, just berated us when things went wrong. So I spoke up and said to HR,”The only way you reward us is with commission”‘ and then after that they called us all in one by one to make a point of thanking us one by one. But we all knew they were only doing this because someone had complained, so the effect was lukewarm; it was not genuine.

    Funny you mention Peru, a Peruvian guy came for an interview with me in Japan and struck a chord saying that in his 20 years in Japan if you are modest and keep quiet, eventually you will be rewarded though maybe not with what you wanted originally. You will get given something in the end.
    In my case, the final reward was certainly not commensurate with my many years and effort put in, so I did a flyjin when it became no longer worth it to be here post 3/11.

    So if you came to Japan with ambition, you will not get what you want unless you speak out. If you have no ambition here, you will do just fine as you will get given stuff you could care less about.

    Sounds like the Japanese Govt aim of attracting high fliers is tatemae window dressing; the cultural reality is put up, pay your taxes, and don’t come here with specific plans or expect any reward, although once in a while we will give you some smelly Natto or handout to experience Japanese culture (stretching the allegory here but maybe it rings a bell with anyone else?).

    I.e. The idea that the experience of “being in Japan”is reward in itself so you have no right to ask for more, Oliver!

  • Y’all (commenters) don’t get it. The “tatemae” is that modesty is the cultural norm in Japan (and other places). The reality is that instead you brag in round-about ways or expect your friend at the table with you to brag on your behalf. In fact, this works better and makes you look less like an asshole than “tooting your own horn” in other cultures too, it’s just harder to execute than straight braggery. Modesty is hardly a uniquely Japanese “virtue”. This whole thing is needlessly exceptionalist and Japan-specific.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @ Bob, #9

    The reality is that the society attempts to universalize the assumption and rationalizes it as if it is exclusive to Japan. I agree that Japan is not the only country for presenting modesty as a distinctive virtue of host culture. Nevertheless, it is ludicrous to assume that NJs living in Japan for work and normal life or returnees who live in foreign country for many years are all braggers just because they have special skills or talents that many Japanese don’t. Please don’t promote a warped sense of Kantian discourse for the sake of your argument.

  • I generally find it’s not necessary to toot my own horn, since I’m able to reveal my talents/interesting experiences without seeming like I’m bragging. I simply say things that prompt questions, and Japanese people will usually end up asking about the thing in the course of conversation. For example, let’s say I want to impress a Japanese person with my tales of visiting North Korea:

    Me: So, have you ever done any international travel?
    Japanese Person: Yes, I have been to Australia.
    Me: That’s cool. What was it like?
    Japanese Person: Well, I went to the Gold Coast and went into a big forest. What about you? Have you ever done any international travel?
    Me: Yes, I have.
    Japanese Person: Where did you go?
    Me: Well, in Asia, I’ve been to China, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan…
    Japanese Person: Wow! North Korea! What was that like?
    Me: (gives a description about how our hotel had raised bumps on the walls where I think bugs were planted)
    Japanese Person: Wow, that sounds dangerous!

    See, in that conversation, I didn’t start the conversation by bragging about having been to North Korea. I merely answered questions that the Japanese person asked me. Of course, I was able to ensure that those questions would be asked by asking similar questions to the Japanese person, first.

    The only reason this is even an issue for many westerners is that many westerners simply talk about themselves the entire conversation, without asking a single question to the other person. But that’s not a problem with tooting their own horn, it’s simply a problem of not giving a damn about the other person in the conversation.

    It’s like ping pong. Sure, you could just grab the ball and refuse to let go of it, but that would be rude and not any fun. Instead, hit it across the table with your paddle, and it will return to you. Same thing with conversations (regardless of whether it’s Japan, America, the UK, or anywhere else).

    And…let’s see…I can speak Japanese. No need to brag about that. I just need to speak it and they’ll know I can speak it. They’ll compliment me, and I’ll deny the compliments, which isn’t too hard to do since my Japanese actually *could* use some work.

    So really…most skills/experiences can be shown without directly “tooting your own horn” — just answering questions (that you skillfully manipulated the other person into asking) and demonstrating the skills themselves in a normal setting.

    — Sorry, disagree. That’s why I wrote a whole column about it. Talk also about the structural impediments to public self-description I mentioned in the article.

  • @Debito-san

    I was merely referring to day-to-day interactions. I do not have enough experience with standing at podiums and giving speeches, or with being broadcast on TV, or anything like that that would allow me to comment competently on “structural impediments to public self-description.” Who knows — maybe I’d agree with you. I won’t even venture a guess. My statements merely pertain to day-to-day interactions, not public speaking.

  • I identify myself as in Charles’ camp, but I extend it into a “warped Kantian” discourse not for the sake of argument but because I genuinely believe it is true. Further, I suggest that the alternative view is somewhat racist / “culturalist”. In response to Loverilakkuma:
    I agree that foreigners and returnees are often accused of bragging too much. I also believe that much of this is simple jealousy, or more precisely 妬み. Some of it is because some foreigners and returnees actively resist the “Japanese” style of braggery (tricking others into / letting others do it for you). Some of it is because those individuals are naturally into direct bragging for whatever reason. I also think that THIS phenomenon, of foreigners and returnees being accused of braggery sometimes fairly, because they incorrectly believe that their enlightenment from abroad either relieves them of the need to comply with “local” customs or they think such customs are stupid and uniquely backwards, and sometimes not fairly because of jealous / pissed off locals, is not unique to Japan but in fact can be identified in any country I have spent much time. It may also be identified in rural communities directed at folks who come from the big city or who have returned from the big city, and vice versa, among other contexts.

  • I am in Debito’s side.

    For many, the conversation would be more:

    Me: So, have you ever done any international travel?
    Japanese Person: Yes, I have been to Australia.
    Me: That’s cool. What was it like?
    Japanese Person: Well, I went to the Gold Coast and went into a big forest. Oh, I must go now……

    For example, witness female-male interactions.

    Were it as simple as described by Charles, I believe that the extremely high level of gender-based discrimination in Japan would be far lower.

    Rather, I believe that such interactions are unlikely to occur for women and many others.

    For women, it is clear that the pressure to be deferential to men is quite high, and that a woman who acts on the basis of equality with men in such discussions knows that she will face consequences for such non-deference.

    Where I disagree with Debito is that while I think that claiming one’s own kudos is good, I believe that a separate tactic may be required for women and others who are expected to be highly deferential.

    It is, I believe, actually more difficult for the majority of people in Japan (who are women), because it is rather rarely done and few workable models seem to exist on how it ought to be done.

    Deference from women and others who are presumed to be required to provide such deference is so deeply engrained that I am unsure on what recommendation one should provide.

  • @ Bob, I have often said that that a major purpose of the Japanese language is to obfuscate and thus avoid conflict to maintain “wa”, rather than to communicate- a secondary purpose of the language, or the obvious purpose so therefore not the “elegant” one.

    Communication? You are telling me the price directly? How uncouth! We Japanese know what we each mean so it goes without saying (and in some situations it does, in other, more global matters it does not). I exaggerate a tad but I bet anyone reading this can think back to a moment in Japan when this happened to them. Or if you startled someone by being too “direct”.

    Yes, it sounds like a tired cliche but it remains essentially true as an inherent characteristic of the language. Thus, a conversation in Japanese is ideally one that follows the pattern of a Ginza hostess bar; mutual flattery and ego boosting. When you, the NJ, do not do it (like calling an obese woman kawaii because you would rather avoid the subject), then this leads “uncomfortable feelings all round” (to quote Powers and her “Working in Japan” book again).

    When you saw that bag that said “Lets enjoy dreamy day happy together” you thought it was just an English mistake, but in my (admittedly jaded) view this represents the basic mindset of obfuscation for harmony.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Bob, #13

    You said you are with Charles (#11 & 12) on this issue, but your motivation to skew the meaning of modernity and humility in a way to paint returnees and NJ as habitual braggers suggest otherwise. Especially, I am not very convinced with your argument backed up with the examples of some ‘un-conformed’ returnees/NJ, because you make a couple of hasty generalizations; they are: 1) NJ/returnees are likely to offend people in host country due to their ‘natural’ habit of bragging; and 2) local people offending or harassing NJ/returnees in a similar manner will less likely be accused of not showing humility and modesty. Indeed, your unquestioned acceptance of [the “Japanese” style of braggery (tricking others into/letting others do it for you)] in contrast to the foreign counterpart makes your point on modesty and humility contradictory and your argument untenable.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Keep in mind that the activists usually also have the disadvantage of being seen as against the status quo – e.g. every victory for N.J. rights must somehow equate to a diminishment of J. rights. Does one really want to be seen “bragging” for that?

  • I think the argument that you can ‘toot your own horn’ only by following Japanese social rules is unmistakably an apologist one. It’s a slippery path and it can lead to a loss of identity and the inability to function in a modern international society, which I think is the subtext of the point Debito is making. 

    The good news is that this shows up how specious apologists arguments often are. They tend to disagree with Debito based on examples from daily conversations in their own lives, whereas Debito is speaking from professional experience and decades of research. Unfortunately these one-sided ‘disagreements’ tend to distract us and take vital energy away from the task of consensus building and the presentation of a solid, undeniable wall of evidence that Debito has doggedly worked so hard at providing us with!

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Andrew in Saitama, #17

    Yes. The one I just got today is a perfect example. The unions. They stand for the teachers and students–but are often subject to the public stigma–leftist, liberal, etc. They are criticized for partisanship, even though they don’t work for particular political group (i.e., Republican, Democrat, LDP, DPJ).


    — We’re getting off track.

  • Loverilakkuma: I specifically deny that all or even most returnees or non-conformed NJ are habitual braggarts. If you read my above post, I specifically enumerate several different possible causes which may or may not apply to any given situation. Some Japanese are habitual braggarts, as are some returnees and non-conformed NJ. If my making mention of the possibility that some of this is due to jealous locals and some of it not offends you, why do you suppose that is? I absolutely do not believe the things you accuse me of believing in your most recent response.
    In particular, I do not believe “1) NJ/returnees are likely to offend people in host country due to their ‘natural’ habit of bragging”. Neither do I believe that there is a unique “Japanese” style of braggery; hence the quotation marks conspicuous in my post. If you read these ideas into my post, I ask that you reread my original post, and if you still do not understand my argument, I apologize for my lack of clarity, but I cannot convey this point to you in words, it appears. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

  • The modesty thing is a Tokyo trait. Here in Osaka, people never stop bragging!

    — Let’s go beyond stereotype and into example.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Bob, #20

    Okay. Well, I think it’s time to get back to the first sentence of my comment.

    “The reality is that the society attempts to universalize the assumption and rationalizes it as if it is exclusive to Japan.”(#10)

    Japan is not the only country to set a sense of modesty and humility as civic virtue. South Korea and China also have a similar cultural code, which is, I think, even stricter than Japan. The issue here is that many NJ, returnees, and even some Japanese get stumbled upon unspoken rules on modesty and humility due to its arbitrariness. No argument about the folks who get hit hard because of their character flaws (i.e., arrogance, boasting, disrespectful attitude)—but showing unwillingness to learn the lesson and hence make similar mistakes repetitively. I think it’s usually the folks who don’t seem to have much commitment to their life in Japan for the length of their stay (i.e., uncommitted JET teachers doing teaching for simply making money for cultural consumption and leisure while caring less about local Japanese students learning English). For the folks who come to Japan for the interests in traditional Japanese culture, art, etc., it could be debated. For those who have a life-long commitment to Japan— the most representative of this blog, the way the norms of modesty and humility are translated into business and cultural practice becomes a huge concern. Why? Because it really matters when it forces them to face the accusations of any incident or wrong-doing.
    It makes a huge difference if you take a closer look at the system that produces assumptions on modesty and humility as hegemonic discourse, or merely join in with apologist gangs to bash long-term NJ, naturalized Japanese, returnees, etc.

    I think you’re right about Kantian discourse. Your last response has a clear resonance with his words on reason and experience that departs from a subaltern culture of apologists:

    “It always remains a scandal of philosophy and universal human reason that the existence of things outside us … should have to be assumed merely on faith, and that if it occurs to anyone to doubt it, we should be unable to answer him with a satisfactory proof.”
    –Immanuel Kant

  • The simple fact is that the Japanese use a different yardstick for NJ than they do for themselves. As a hypothetical example, they may add a 30% premium to what a Japanese person says about himself to elevate/compensate, since they assume that as a Japanese person he is being 30% modest about himself. Many Japanese I know feel that modesty is a virtue only the Japanese are capable of possessing.

    On the other hand, Japanese already discount what NJ say about themselves since the working assumption of most Japanese is that all foreigners brag about themselves. Hence, whatever a NJ says about his skills, knowledge, experience and background etc., is automatically discounted by 30% by the Japanese. For this reason, NJ should not try to copy the Japanese and should not fall in the “modesty trap” while living in Japan.

  • @JS: So the saying that Chairman Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong comes from the Japanese, who clearly always work in amounts of 30%…who knew?!


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