Fear and Trembling is a fascinating French film spoken in Japanese and French with English subtitles. The film washes over you and the multiple languages enhance the spectacle of the story.

Fear and Trembling

Sylvie Testud — an amazing actress who performs her role speaking both fluent French and Japanese — plays Amelie, born in Japan from Belgian parents, and she longs to work as a translator in a major Japanese trading company.

After she is hired, one of the first directives from her boss’ boss is to never speak Japanese while working or she’ll be seen as a spy and shame the company — so the very reason for her hiring negates her very being.

Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling will help explain the curious disconnection from human interaction in the intricate hierarchies in Japanese culture that many Westerners find troubling. If you have ever been confused by Asian cultural norms or by personal interaction with those who were raised to value Japanese customs and found yourself wanting and lost and conflicted with the cold and rigid — and unspoken — rules of Japanese personal interaction, then this movie will lay it all out for you in painful detail and show you precisely why and where and how that chill was created and is sustained by the Japanese system.

The fantastic Japanese actress Kaori Tsuji plays Fubuki — a name, Amelie tells us, that translates into “snowstorm” indicating “when the beauty of the sky fell upon the beauty of the earth” — and we watch in amazement as Fubuki, Amelie’s immediate boss and intimate tormenter, threatens and punishes and force-feeds cruelty and hatred to Amelie under the necessary approval of an ancient structure of a Japanese business culture built to command obedience and to require inborn identical sameness.

Fear and Trembling

We always hope Amelie and Fubuki might find a way to help each other advance instead of killing the other’s career dreams — but we realize early in the movie an immutable will can never move a mountain of molehills — and the fact of that human tragedy is plainly spoken to Amelie by Fubuki when Amelie mentions how similar their names are: Fubuki means “snowstorm” and Amelie means “rain” — they are both falling from the sky — and Fubuki, with dead-cold glassy eyes, and barely able to contain her insulted fury, asks in a glossless tone, “Are you comparing yourself to me?”

Fear and Trembling

The lesson of Fear and Trembling is nothing is as it seems in Japan and what you think you know you can never learn. The key to surviving in Japan is to go along, to play dumb, to obey; and if that process of spirit repression crushes individuality and honesty and intellectual creativity — all the better.

24 Comments

  1. I take your fine point, tajuki.
    It is all a matter of perspective and experience — and that’s what the movie provides in wonderful detail.
    One person’s work ethic may be different from another’s but one way of working should not trump another just because of cultural custom.

  2. I take your fine point, tajuki.
    It is all a matter of perspective and experience — and that’s what the movie provides in wonderful detail.
    One person’s work ethic may be different from another’s but one way of working should not trump another just because of cultural custom.

  3. I spent two years in Japan. It was wonderful. To get along you need to know your place. Don’t shine too brightly. Don’t know too much and if you do hide it. Be reverent to others. Do your work on time and do it well and you’ll get along.

  4. I worked for a communications firm. Lots of Western workers were on site. They sort of had to put up with the lot of us.
    We always tried to fit in. We were guests in their country but we were being advanced in our careers by a Western conglomerate so our behavior wasn’t so closely tied with money and culture as if we were working only for a Japanese company.

  5. I always find Japanese culture to be interesting.
    I wonder if the younger generation of Japanese business executives are changing from the old ways, or if it is a self-perpetuating system that will continue indefinitely?
    My wife is Filipina and she has heard from people who have gone to work in Japan that it is tough for non-Japanese Asians to fit into Japanese society as well. Most Filipinos would rather find a job in the U.S. or Canada, than work in Japan, from what she has told me.

  6. I always find Japanese culture to be interesting.
    I wonder if the younger generation of Japanese business executives are changing from the old ways, or if it is a self-perpetuating system that will continue indefinitely?
    My wife is Filipina and she has heard from people who have gone to work in Japan that it is tough for non-Japanese Asians to fit into Japanese society as well. Most Filipinos would rather find a job in the U.S. or Canada, than work in Japan, from what she has told me.

  7. Heya Chris!
    I don’t think the Japanese work culture is changing. I think the Japanese are born into an ancient work ethic and social structure and they have no desire to change what is working for them.
    Your wife’s Filipina POV on Japanese culture is fascinating! You should ask her for more specific details about why working in the U.S. or Canada is preferable over Japan.

  8. Heya Chris!
    I don’t think the Japanese work culture is changing. I think the Japanese are born into an ancient work ethic and social structure and they have no desire to change what is working for them.
    Your wife’s Filipina POV on Japanese culture is fascinating! You should ask her for more specific details about why working in the U.S. or Canada is preferable over Japan.

  9. What an incredible post, Chris! Your research is excellent and I really enjoyed reading all those links. It’s fascinating how even Asian cultures can collide with each other.
    There is a big and tight — and closed! — Filipino community in New Jersey. Many of the women are nurses. They work hard — many of them double shifts across two different hospitals — so they can live well and provide for their families.
    There is, I am told by Filipino parents and their children, a disconnect between generations in that the children are so spoiled in American that they have no worth ethic and are not interested in working as hard has their parents to “make it” here. The parents are brokenhearted and the children… don’t care!

  10. What an incredible post, Chris! Your research is excellent and I really enjoyed reading all those links. It’s fascinating how even Asian cultures can collide with each other.
    There is a big and tight — and closed! — Filipino community in New Jersey. Many of the women are nurses. They work hard — many of them double shifts across two different hospitals — so they can live well and provide for their families.
    There is, I am told by Filipino parents and their children, a disconnect between generations in that the children are so spoiled in American that they have no worth ethic and are not interested in working as hard has their parents to “make it” here. The parents are brokenhearted and the children… don’t care!

  11. We went to party recently and were introduced to three new Filipina nurses who recently arrived from the Philippines.
    The Filipino community here is fairly open — there are several couples with mixed marriages. (Our county sheriff is married to a Filipina).
    I wonder if they Filipinos in your area are shy? The Filipinos in our area are always inviting people to come to their various organizations’ events.
    There is a tight-nit “network” in place also. It seems at some point, you will meet every Filipino within a 60 mile radius at some point or another. If we need work done on the house, want to buy insurance, or go to the doctor, my wife insists that we find someone who is Filipino.
    The Filipino kids I’ve seen are fully American, even if they just recently moved here. The kids that I know here seem to excel at school — most are in private Catholic schools and their parents are fairly strict as far as what they can and can’t do.
    I saw something interesting recently.
    Two American-Filipinas who had grown up in the U.S. recently moved to the Philippines to live with their father who had moved back.
    They had nothing but great things to say about life “back home.” I don’t know what line of work they were doing, but if they were working for an American company at American wages, they could lead an extemely nice lifestyle because of the value of the American dollar to the Filipino peso.

  12. Hi Chris!
    When I said the Filipino community was “closed” in NJ I meant what you say later — they take care of their own and if a job needs to be done, no outsiders need apply because a Filipino can do the job!
    😀
    The Filipinas are excellent students. They work hard and are always joyous — the men are a little less motivated to do well in my experience.
    Many students claim their parents are money hungry, uptight and only care about status and wealth accumulation while the kids just want to enjoy life and live it wherever it takes them — that lack of a precise direction drives their parents batty!