The Japanese word kenson translates as “humble, modest” and is composed by two kanji signs, the first one (read ken) meaning “humble, modest” and the second one (read son) meaning “humble, modest”.
Japanese people are very modest, it’s something which is deeply rooted in their culture and that constitutes a remarkable point of difference with our western culture (probably even more with american culture).
Being modest means that you’d never boast yourself about anything; rather, you’d be more inclined to claiming that you’re less that what you really are. A social interaction based on this paradigm is likely to become a reciprocal race aiming at who can show more modesty. This mind frame generates various problems: imagine for example a job interview, where you’re supposed to be ‘selling’ yourself. How could you do that if culture forbids you from showing off your skills a bit?
Quite interestingly, what I hear from my colleagues is that job interviews are a relatively new thing in japan. The process of westernization has made it a common thing to do, but still some japanese wouldn’t find themselves comfortable in such a role. Samurais didn’t do job interviews, apparently!
An example of cultural modesty my colleagues brought up is that when they’re talking to me, they’re dropping the usual ‘appellations’ they’d normally use when talking among themselves (e.g. ‘professor’ or ‘sensei’). So they just call themselves by surname (despite their differences in ranking) as a way to make me feel more comfortable, that is, as an attempt to be very polite to me. The underlying assumption is that I would feel somehow distressed by being in a situation where certain people are higher than me in the social scale. So, with an act of respect and kindness, japanese people ‘lower‘ themselves to a position that normally wouldn’t be theirs.
Another example is the gift-giving ‘ceremony’: the proper form to do this is by denigrating your gift, saying that it’s just a small and invaluable thing irrespectively of how valuable your gift is in reality. And all of this, cause being modest is the way. Praising or describing the positive features of the gift, as we would normally do in italy or britain, would be considered vain or maybe even rude. By the way, the exact gift-giving formula is “tsumaranai mono desu ga” (it’s nothing, really).
A related example, they claimed, can be the one of the samurai who, when in public, apparently mistreats his wife by not giving her any attention. By doing so he ‘lowers’ her partner (and I guess japanese would say that in doing that he’s lowering himself too), thus making the other people present more at ease.
There must be also some sort of soldier-related machismo involved in such a situation, but I still haven’t figure how what’s the interplay between the two attitudes there!
To conclude, I found an interesting essay on the subject (Kenkyo: The Virtue of Modesty in Japan), written by someone who lived in Japan for a while. Nice read, here’s a small excerpt:
One of my greatest pleasures is giving gifts, and in Japan I am often presented with the opportunity to indulge myself. The proper form when giving a gift to someone, however, is to humble oneself and denigrate the gift, saying “tsumaranai mono desu ga”—which we might translate as “this is only a trifle” or “it’s nothing, really.” And yet, despite knowing this, I still sometimes cannot hide a smile when presenting someone with a gift! I suppose it is vanity, or something vaguely “cultural” that makes me feel a sense of satisfaction in selecting and giving nice gifts to others, but for whatever reason, I have difficulty concealing my enthusiasm and restraining myself.
This can lead to confusion, of course, and naturally such misunderstandings can run both ways. For example, whenever I mention Paris Hilton in class (a mercifully rare event), I am usually reminded by at least one student of a visit she paid to Japan a few years ago, promoting something or other, in which she disdainfully tossed aside a stuffed animal that she had been given at the start of an interview. As one might expect, the Japanese media was not impressed with her attitude, but I wonder if she had been told, through an interpreter, something like “this is nothing, really” or “this is just a cheap doll, but…” Normally, I’m not one to defend such vanity, but I often think that Japanese humility can be excessive and, for an outsider, downright confusing.