Welcome to the world of the two-way mirror

Show me a Westerner who swears that he understands how the Japanese think, and what makes them tick, and I’ll show you someone who’s been smoking something.

Ever since the Japanese started wearing blue suits and white shirts and working in glass-walled offices, ever since the brand names of their cars and TVs became the everyday vocabulary of our consumer culture, we have come to assume that, now that they dress like Westerners, and work in big banks like Westerners, and watch Hollywood movies like Westerners, they must think just like Westerners, too. This is like saying that because the artist Grayson Perry steps out in public wearing dresses, he has also developed his own Fallopian tubes. Don’t be fooled by how things appear in Japan.

Anyone who still doubted that Japanese culture and Western culture meet in much the same way that the Earth’s tectonic plates meet — all smooth and contiguous on the surface, until a subterranean tremor reveals a chasm of misunderstanding and incomprehension — could doubt it no more after seeing the way Toyota has been handling the catastrophe of its car recalls.

In the West, chief executives and public relations experts have been shrieking like Janet Leigh in the shower scene in Psycho at Toyota’s response to the lethal shortcomings in its cars. Toyota executives have taken days to drag themselves before the public; only to then hand out information, explanations, reassurance and apologies with the generosity of a miser passing a hungry panhandler.

These Westerners look, and blink, and they think: can’t these people at Toyota see what they’re doing, the impression they’re making, the damage they’re inflicting on the reputation of a company they’ve built into the world’s biggest carmaker?

You know what? No, they can’t. Not for the most part. It’s not that the people at Toyota are wilfully seeking to make a bonfire of the brand. It’s just that they have their own way of doing things and — even now, four decades after their ascent into the senior league of world economies — Japan still behaves with the insular mentality of the Asian backwater it so recently was.

The Japanese like to make their money by exporting their products to the West, or building factories abroad, and then being left alone. They’ve been in Japan since at least 10,000BC and have been hostile to foreigners for almost the entire time, generally chopping off the heads of visitors who landed on their shores. To a great extent they still behave as if they live in a world encased by a two-way mirror, allowing them the benefit of peering out when it suits them, and the privacy of getting on with their lives away from the prying eyes of foreigners, who will probably only misunderstand the unique Japanese way of life.

To a Japanese there is no paradox in thinking that tipping is odd but accepting that bribes are necessary to oil Japan’s political machinery; that a Japanese will take hours to position a few cherry blossom twigs in a vase, and will make the linings of a kimono beautiful enough to make you weep, yet are also happy to live in cities that look like a jumble of concrete Lego bricks arranged by a man wearing a blindfold.

With so many aspects of Japanese lives seemingly designed to baffle foreigners, misunderstandings arise easily. To the Japanese, there was nothing odd in the sight of a Toyota executive appearing before the world’s TV cameras to announce the recall of its cars while wearing a surgical mask. You don’t need to be a PR consultant to see that, to the West, especially to anxious Toyota drivers in the West, this makes as good an impression as turning up to the Vatican in hotpants. Even here, cultural misunderstanding widens the gulf: foreigners in Tokyo see these surgical masks, commonly worn during the cold season, as evidence of the natives’ hypochondria. In fact, it is a considerate gesture: they are wearing their mask to prevent you catching their cold.

In Japan, correct form is only slightly less important than breathing. The trouble is, Westerners generally don’t know that form; and Japanese — partly by design, partly because it never occurs to them — don’t strain to educate us. Corrupt company bosses and politicians occasionally resign, bow deeply to shareholders or voters in a symbolic show of remorse, only to retain their influence from a less prominent boardroom or Cabinet berth. It’s a way of life that is as choreographed as a Noh drama. Everyone in Japan understands the plot. It’s not so much that they can’t be bothered to explain it to you, they can’t see why you even want to know.

A largely captive national press colludes in reporting, for the most part, what those in power wish to see reported. When Sony bought the Columbia movie studio in 1989 — a deal, in terms of corporate colonialism, as iconic as America planting its flag on the Moon — it genuinely believed it could reveal the deal in its own time, to handpicked Japanese journalists. It was utterly blind to the cultural impact of a Japanese company buying a slice of Hollywood history. Indeed, Sony seemed rattled that US journalists, denied access to information about the deal in Tokyo, were able to be briefed on the financial details of the takeover from Los Angeles.

Two decades on, Japan can still behave like it is a remote island, minding its own business, and it would be grateful — if it’s all the same to you — if you minded yours. It’s not that they deliberately mean to be unfathomable, you understand. You do understand, don’t you?

Joe Joseph, a former Tokyo correspondent of The Times .