This is an important cultural concept relevant to understanding certain aspects of Japanese politics. Uchi literally means 'inside' while soto means 'outside'. In compounds, the kanji (Chinese character) for 'inside' can also be read nai, as in naibu (the interior) or nairiku (inland, inland territory). Soto in compounds can be read gai, as in gaijin (foreigner), gaikoku (foreign country) or igai (with the exception of, apart from). Uchi-soto can also be read naigai (internal and external, domestic and foreign).
Thus these are everyday words used in common speech, with a variety of idiomatic compounds and usages. Social anthropologists such as Hendry, however, emphasise the particular significance of the uchi-soto distinction in the context of fundamental relationships within society. In the arrangement of the Japanese house, a conceptual distinction is made between the inside of the house (uchi) and the outside of it (soto). This is symbolised by the universal practice of taking one's shoes off in the genkan (porch) before entering the house proper. Ohnuki-Tierney and others see this as reflecting embedded notions of purity. The outside is by definition impure, dirty, germ-ridden. The inside is, by contrast, a place of purity, which must be kept clean, both physically and symbolically, and may not be polluted by shoes that have been in contact with external impurities. We should remember that the Shintō religion is centrally concerned with purity and purification.
It is widely argued that, by extension, Japanese people are acutely aware of uchi-soto distinctions in society itself. The family, the work group, the company, the guild of craftsmen, the political faction (habatsu) are, in this argument, expressions of such distinctions (see FACTIONS WITHIN POLITICAL PARTIES). Relations with the uchi are close, warm, informal, affective, whereas relations with the soto are more distant, cool, polite, businesslike and, in some circumstances, hostile. The Japanese language makes complex and subtle distinctions between levels of politeness, so that the difference in behaviour is clearly marked. On the other hand, the uchi is not impermeable. In certain situations (marriage being the most obvious example in the case of the family) outsiders-even foreigners-are welcomed into the uchi. But those within an uchi must conform to the norms of that uchi. Behaviour appropriate to relations with the soto will not be appreciated, nor will uchi-type behaviour in the soto. It is important not to over-simplify the case, because uchi and soto are not rigidly separated from each other. Indeed some prefer the metaphor of concentric circles to express differing levels of uchi-soto relationships. Though the social connotations are not identical, the difference in French between 'tutoyer' and 'vouvoyer' may be borne in mind.
The implications for understanding political behaviour are obvious. The pervasive tendency to form factions within parties and other types of political organisation may be explained in terms of rational choice. But such explanations fail to account for the organic and durable character of many habatsu-type organisations