Nobel-prize winning chemist Hideki Shirakawa told the New York Times, "Fundamentally, Japanese culture is based on rice farming. Rice farming requires a lot of water, and water must be shared evenly by everyone. Planting rice also required teams of people walking from row to row, as the same speed. And all of this has meant that uniqueness had to be suppressed."

The collapse of lifetime employment, low birthrates, and the withdrawal of young adults from society is causing profound, fundamental changes in Japan that some experts have said are as profound as those in the United States in the 1960s and 70s.

Japan is 7th in the world according to he global human development index. In Japan there is a reassuring rhythm of order and predictability. From an early age Japanese children are taught to do their best, persevere and suppress one’s own feeling for the benefit of the group.

“The Chrysanthemum and Sword” by Ruth Benedict is a classic book on the Japanese character and society but many think Benedict’s “ Patterns of Culture” is more representative of her theory in which culture is depicted as an intrinsic principal that “shapes the meaning of our lives” and argued that customs shape our perceptions and behavior and provide a “lens without which we cannot see at all.” Other classic books on the Japanese character and society include the “Vertical Society” by Chie Nakane, and “Bushido” by Inazo Nitobe.

Good Websites and Sources: Google E-Book: Japan in the 21st Century, Environment, Economy and Society (2005) books.google.com/books ; e-book: Japanese Society by Chie Nakane (1970) books.google.com/books ; Wikipedia article on Nihonjinron Wikipedia ; Chapter on Nihonjinron junana.com ; Maintaining Identities japanesestudies.org.uk ; 2004 Commentary on Ruth Benedict and the Chrysanthemum and the Sword jpri.org/publications ; Bibliograpy of Japanese Society gakkai.ne.jp ; Essay on Age of the Middle Class aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Japan Echo, a Journal on Japanese Politics and Society japanecho.com

Sites for Expats Japanable site for Expats japanable.com ; That’s Japan thats-japan.com ; Orient Expat Japan orientexpat.com/japan-expat ; Kimi Information Center kimiwillbe.com ; Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report on Japan fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad ; Student Guide to Japan www2.jasso.go.jp/study ; Japan in Your Palm japaninyourpalm.com

Links in this Website: JAPANESE PERSONALITY AND CHARACTER Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE POLITENESS AND INDIRECTNESS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE SOCIAL LIFE Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; RICH IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; POOR IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SOCIAL PROBLEMS AND SUICIDES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Confucianism and Character

Confucianism is important in shaping character and society in Japan but not as important as it is China and Korea.

Confucianism puts a strong emphasis and following teachers, superiors, family members and elders. Love and respect are principals that were practiced more in the context of the family than in society and humanity as a whole and equality was not necessarily the goal of a just society. These ideas help explain why nepotism is so rampant, Japanese are so horrified by the way Westerners treat the elderly and the Japanese are more likely to mind their own business if they witness a great injustice being inflicted on a stranger.

Confucianism stresses the importance of precedent and universal truths articulated by sages of the past and emphasizes self improvement. The two major doctrines of Confucianism are: 1) zhong, based on the Chinese character that combines "heart” and "middle," meaning fidelity to oneself and humanity within; and 2) shu, meaning cherish the heart as if it were one’s owner.

Confucianism was a social code based on morality rather than laws: Confucius said: “If you govern by regulations and keep them in order by punishment, the people will avoid trouble but have no sense of shame. If you govern them by moral influence, and keep them in order by a code of manners, they will have a sense of shame and will come to you of their own accord.”

Confucius believed people should look to the past to gain insight into how to behave and said virtuous men should follow the examples of the great ancestors. The Analects outlined the four basic concepts of Confucian thought: 1) benevolence, love of humanity and the virtues of the superior man (jen); 2) moderation in all things (chung yung); harmony with nature (T'ien): 3) filial propriety, duty and the rules that define good social relationships (li); 4) and 5) the "rectification of names" or recognizing the nature of things by giving them their right names (cheng ming).

Five Virtues of Confucianism

Confucianism recognizes five cardinal virtues: 1) benevolence in terms of sympathy for others (jen); 2) duty reflected in the shame felt after doing something wrong (yi); 3) manners propriety and feelings of deference (li); 4) wisdom, in terms of discerning right and wrong (chih) and 5) loyalty and good faith (hsin).

Benevolence is regarded as the most important of the virtues, and some effort is made to define it, with the Golden Rule being only one attempt. Manner is also given a lot of attention and means both the outward actions and inner feelings of respect. The concept embraces not only etiquette but also customs. rituals and conventions of all kinds.

Confucians focused a lot of attention on the relationship between morality and human nature and the whole idea that they were dovetailing and conflicting forces. Almost every view was taken on the subject. One prevailing view was that human nature is a mixture of good and bad and the amounts of each can vary a great deal from individual to individual. Another view was that human nature was something that was evil Yet another view was that human nature was something that was in tune with the forces of heaven.

In the end the view expressed in the “Book of Rites”—that in man which is decreed by heaven is what is meant by “nature”; to follow his nature is meant by the “Way”; cultivation of the Way is what is meant by education? — became the prevailing view.

Confucian Beliefs About Social Relationships

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person’s worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person received respect and obedience from the subordinate person but was by no means a dictator. He was supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars used grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules: and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the idea that it was important to worship one's parents while they were still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In the Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too.”

Patriarchy remains deeply rooted in Japan and presents many obstacles that prevent women from achieving equal rights.

Social Harmony in Japan

The Japanese put a strong emphasis on social harmony and group consensus. These notions are best summed by the Japanese concepts of “wa” (the idea of being one the group and maintaining harmony), “giri” (the traditional code of duty, gratitude and mutual obligation to a community) and “kazoku” (literally meaning "family" or "harmony" but inferring loyalty to an authority).

The Japanese ideas of making decisions by consensus, groupism and shared responsibility are all tied up with the idea of social harmony. Being different is regarded disruptive and stressful. Japanese have traditionally been resistant to foreigners and foreign influence partly out concerns and worries about disruptions to Japanese society.

Trust, reliance on others and knowing that others won’t let you down are regarded as particularly important in Japanese culture. A study of suppliers in the automobile industry by economic researchers Mari Sako and Susan Helper found that Japanese buyers and suppliers not only had a higher level of trust than their American counterparts they also distinguished between different types of trust and found that contracts tended to “breed and institutionalize suspicion.” [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, September 2009]

In the late 1940s an American psychiatrist noted that even the most violent patients in Japanese insane asylums lived together in rooms that were separated only by thin rice paper walls, and concluded, "even when insane the Japanese conform to authority."


Wa is expressed in trying to get along with others and working together as a group. In his book “You Gotta Have Wa” (1989) Robert Whiting, wrote “If you asked a Japanese [baseball] manager what he considers to be the most important ingredient for a winning team, he would likely answer wa. If you asked home to knock a team’s wa, he would probably say “Hire an American.” See Baseball

Anthony Failow wrote in the Washington Post,”In Japan, wa surrounds you. You can feel it on the priciest sushi bars and lowliest noodle parlors. Call it the particular Japanese way of looking at the world: of harmony, of collectiveness with do-not-rock-the-boat spirit. In the mythology of the “Star Wars movies, the “wa” is like the Force. To mess with the “wa is a cardinal sin”.”

People who have written books about Japanese business have called wa “integral to Japanese business relations” and “undoubtably the single most popular component in the mottos and names of companies across Japan.”

Wa was at the heart of Japan’s first constitution promulgated by prince Shotoku in 604. It stated that wa will be the guiding principle, with an emphasis on harmonizing Shintoism, Buddhist and Confucianism. “Yamato”, a word meaning Japan, was written with the Chinese character for “big wa.”

Homogeneity in Japan

The contemporary bestselling author Haruki Murakami told the New Yorker, "Japan is a non-racial country. There is this feeling of togetherness, of sharing a landscape, or the imperial system, or, indeed, the love of listening to insects."

Japan is regarded as one of the world’s most insular countries. Law enforcement officials and scholars sometimes begin their explanations of Japan's low crime figures with statements like "we are a homogeneous race" or Japan is a "monoracial society." Hundreds of studies and books have been published and read voraciously by Japanese on the attributes of collective Japanese culture and what makes the Japanese different from everyone else in the world.

In Japanese newspapers, renowned scholars write things like: "The Japanese are Mongoloid... Mongoloid children should be raised slowly and carefully in large families and be exposed to complex social relations. This kind of environment is essential in raising Japanese children to ensure their frontal lobe develops properly." The same scholar wrote this also wrote the traditional Japanese fish- and rice-based diet is "most suited for the brains of the Japanese."

Japan expert Ian Buruma told the Japan Times: “When Japanese talk about “uniqueness”...what they are in fact doing is picking up on a particularly 19th century idea of nationhood, mostly originating in Germany, which is based on a sort of mythology of blood and soil, of one religion and so on.”

Japan is not as a strict monoculture as say Korea. This is due in part to the eclectic nature of the first Japanese who arrived from different places: the Asia mainland, the islands of Southeast Asia and the islands off of Siberia.

Japan doesn’t have a very good reputation for accepting outsiders both within Japanese society in regard to those that didn’t fit into “the system” or without, i.e. foreigners and immigrants

Interdependency in Japan

The Nobel-prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Se described Japan as a “culture if interdependence, of communal participation, or combined responsibility, with sense of sympathy for others.” The Japanese psychoanalyst Takeo Doi argued that in Japan “amae” or dependency, is encouraged in interpersonal relationships, which has its root on the interdependency between parent and child.

Sawa Kurotani, an anthropologist at Redlands University, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “the multi-generational, hierarchal structure of traditional “ie” (family), “amae” was an asymmetrical relationship between the young and needy on one hand, and he mature and responsible on the other. In contemporary Japan , however, “amae” has grown more symmetrical and participants of an “amae”relationship are “codependent”. While grown up children continue to be dependant on the indulgence of their parents, parents, too, indulge in the “amae” relationship with their adult children, and depend on their children for emotional comfort and fulfillment.”

“In he past two decades,” Kurotani wrote, “this codependency between Japanese parents — particularly mothers — and children has been blamed as the root cause of many social problems involving Japanese youth, from “hikikomori” (‘shut ins: who refuse all social contact), to an increase if in-family and school violence.”

Conformity and Exclusion in Japan

Conformity is a strong force in Japan. Japanese hate to miss out on something that their neighbors, friends or coworkers are doing. If one bride wears four different mega-expensive dresses on her wedding day, then other brides feel they have to do the same thing. If a certain shrine has been deemed the place to be during the cherry blossom season then everyone wants to go and the shrine is suffocatingly mobbed.

Roger Cohen write in the New York Times that in Japan there is “tremendous conformity. On Sundays, when traffic is closed around the imperial palace, I saw lines of people waiting for pedestrian lights to change even though there were no cars. Smiling deference can seem so uniform as to constitute a gleaming wall. I can see how the urge to escape from this homogeneity could be strong.” [Source: Roger Cohen, New York Times, December 14, 2009]

One of the worst fears of a Japanese individuals is to be excluded from a group. Office workers feel obligated to do things socially with their coworkers and mothers go through great lengths to be accepted by other mothers in their neighborhood. People who are not welcome in clubs or cliques are told things like "there are only enough snacks for our members" or "there is no room in this park for your child."

Going against the grain is not encouraged and being labeled as different can be a crushing insult. This view is summed up by the common Japanese expressions: "The nail that sticks up will be hammered down," "We are all are one silk sheet," and "The head that stick up above the others gets lopped off." The Japanese word for ant is written by joining the Chinese characters for “insect” and “loyalty.”

In Japan people are often taught there is one right way to things with few allowances made for personal differences. Richard Lloyd Perry wrote in the Times of London. “An intense and thrilling energy drives Tokyo, but it is one narrowly channeled by the constraints of convention and conformity. This is the source of the famous Japanese restraint and politeness, but it greatly complicates the business of reading people and understanding situations.” One Japanese psychologist told the Times of London. “Japanese have weak individual identities. They feel more secure losing themselves in, and identifying themselves with a group.”

But all this is less true today that it was in the past. On the nail sticking up expression, Japanese culture expert Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The Japanese saying is rarely quoted by Japanese except perhaps when talking about Japanese culture with a foreign person. Perhaps it’s not necessary to speak of it because it so embedded as a type of behavioral cautionary advice. It’s interesting that...it also quite common in English to give voice to similar kinds of warnings and guidance such as “Don’t make waves.”

Gaman (Self-Restraint)

Ben Macintyre wrote in the Times of London, “Gaman is part of the glue that holds Japanese society together, a way of thought instilled from an early age. It implies self-restraint, suffering in silence, denying oneself gratification and self-expression to fit in with the greater good. Originally a Buddhist term, it has come to signify self-denial, solidarity and a certain patient fatalism. This hardiness and social cohesion enabled Japan to emerge from the devastation of world war and thrive. But the rigid order and self-abnegation that it implies are also what keeps the beleaguered "salaryman" at his desk, toiling away with grim determination. That rigid conformity, obedience and sense of national purpose helped to propel Japan recklessly into World War II. Some in the West find the Japanese unfeeling in their reaction to disaster, and assume that "normal" human emotions are being suppressed.” [Source: Ben Macintyre, Times of London, March 20 2011]

“The cult television show Endurance (Za Gaman in Japanese), in which contestants try to win by withstanding unpleasant experiences, is a target of mockery in the West, but it is more than entertainment in Japan, where physical and mental endurance are so highly prized. In the West, we look for reasons for natural disasters: we blame global warming, government failure or God. The Japanese relationship to nature is different: humanity is neither battling nature nor at its mercy, but part of it. Japan is braced for nature's violence like no other country.”

Village Ostracism Lives on in Japan

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Murahachibu is a type of village ostracism that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867). Families that did not toe the line might be sanctioned in this way. According to anthropologist Robert J. Smith, the official notification of murahachibu customarily contained the phrase "having disturbed the harmony of this otherwise peaceful community." Mura means village, and it is generally believed that hachibu means "eight parts" because the break with the shunned villagers was not total — they were usually still assisted in cases of fire, death, and so on.[Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, December 28, 2010]

“Extreme it may be, but a few years later, I discovered that it was not completely outmoded. In 2007 a district court in Niigata Prefecture dealt with a murahachibu case. Eleven families in a rural area had been shunned because they did not participate in a local fishing contest. Among other restrictions, they were not allowed to use the waste collection depot, and community bulletins were not to be passed to them. The village leaders claimed that their non-participation in an important event was selfish and detrimental to the community. The court agreed the shunned villagers had been dealt with unjustly and ordered three village leaders to pay 2.2 million yen in compensation.”

In his book “ What is Japan? Contradictions and Transformations “ , Taichi Sakaiya, a former director general of the now defunct Economic Planning Agency, calls social isolation a "fate worse than death." He writes that people may think that the Japanese kamikaze were unafraid to die for their country. On the contrary, he argues, many were quite afraid and did not want to go on their missions, but that refusing to go against the wishes of those around them was more frightening and painful. He does not mention murahachibu specifically, but he notes that traditionally, "falling out of favor with the village group meant that one would not survive."

Japanese Village Ostracism Lives on in a Television Drama

Kate Elwood wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “In Fuji TV's engrossing drama “ Freeter, Ie o Kau (Part-time worker buys a house) “, a housewife dutifully sorts up her family's garbage and takes it out, only to have it repeatedly returned to her by a malicious neighbor who has added things to the garbage bag that belong to another category, making it unacceptable for collection. As a result of this and other spiteful pranks, the woman falls into serious depression.” [Source: Kate Elwood, Daily Yomiuri, December 28, 2010]

“The depressed housewife's family finds out what's going on, but they have no idea why the neighbor — and possibly other neighbors as well — is behaving in such a venomous manner. Then they realize it is because at a neighborhood party her husband bragged that his company was renting them their house for just 50,000 yen a month. As all the neighbors were struggling with onerous home loans, jealous ill will developed.”

“The part of the episode related to this state of affairs seemed almost like an educational video that might be titled something like "How to get along with fellow PTA members and neighbors: Keeping in line with the Joneses." The English phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" has been used for almost a century to express the striving not to fall behind neighbors in terms of material possessions and social status. In Japan, conversely, the onus is often firmly placed on those ahead of the rest not to vaunt their success. No one likes arrogance, of course, but in Japan, as the drama points out, more effort may be expected to be made in lessening any evidence of someone having greater social status than another.”

“First, there is a scene in which the freeter's sister, who is married to a doctor, is having lunch at an inexpensive restaurant with other mothers in the PTA. The other mothers comment on how she must enjoy 10,000 yen lunches when she is with other doctors' wives, which she deftly deflects. She eyes the various lunches on the menu, silently wavering between the 850 yen set and 1,050 yen one, but as one after another of the women chooses the cheaper option, she follows suit.”

“In the next scene, she, the freeter and their father are together. The sister rebukes her father for the damage he has caused their mother by his heedless boasting, in an impassioned outburst in which she says "The people of this country love lining up side by side (yokonarabi). Those who are different from everyone else are expelled (hajikidasareru). Then she uses the "M" word: "It's murahachibu for life."

Tradition, Morality, Justice and Equality in Japan

On whether issues of justice and morality are seen from a philosophical point of view or from traditional or historical aspects, Harvard’s Michael Sandel told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Tradition, history and shared cultural values can be an important source of moral argument and reflection. Many of our values derive from our traditions, our moral and cultural traditions, our spiritual traditions. But the reason I say it's only a partial source is that we still need, all of us, to discover and debate the meaning of the past for the present. We still have to figure out how the values that come from tradition can apply in the present, how they should inform policy, law, and the way we treat one another, even within family life and social life... So I would say that tradition and history is a starting point for moral argument and reflection, but it's only a starting point because people do disagree, even people who share a common past.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 16, 2011]

On equality in modern Japan, Harvard’s Michael Sandel told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “In Japan, traditionally, there was a greater degree of economic equality than in the U.S., but in recent decades, inequality has also been growing in Japan. I think there is a connection between a big gap between rich and poor, and the erosion of community. Because one of the things that holds communities together and provides for social cohesion is the ability of everyone to have access to basic care and support. For medical care, for care after their working career has ended, in retirement, and growing inequality can make it difficult to provide access for everyone to basic health, education and retirement support when they are in need.”

Middle Class Society and Equality in Japan

Japan is home of one of the world's wealthiest and most egalitarian societies. Wealth is spread relatively evenly. Not long ago 90 percent of Japanese referred to themselves as middle class. The gap between the highest and lowest incomes is the smallest among advanced nations. Many factory workers and construction brokers fit comfortably in the middle class, able to afford nice houses and cars.

There is less emphasis on being number one and winning in Japan than in the United States. Individuals that do excel at something are taught that their specialties or skills should be done for the benefit of the group not just for themselves.

In elementary school sports festivals, there are no winners and losers, no medals or ribbons are given to the winners, and every child revives a small gift. In some events, children are to run together, locked arm and arm, rather than against one another. Students are also generally not sorted out according to ability.

The middle class in Japan has been anchored by corporate policies of lifetime employment and seniority-based promotions. Economic reforms that began in the 1990s have made the workplace more competitive and jobs and middle class stability more insecure.

Some say egalitarianism in Japan is on the decline as economic pressures have forced Japan to be more competitive and more like the United States. The gap between rich and poor is widening and the numbers of homeless and people on welfare or struggling as temporary workers are increasing.

Hierarchies and Vertical Society in Japan

The Japanese place enormous importance on rank and hierarchy. “Jumbahn” is a word that describes keeping things in their proper order and staying in one's assigned place. In work situations Japanese tend to use titles instead of names and decisions tend to be made through the chain of command. A typical memo reads, "I gave the assistant manager's report to the section chief."

Japan is often described as a vertical society. This is a hold over from feudal times — which ended relatively recently in Japan, in the 19th century — when society was stratified like a pyramid with the emperor on top, followed by members of the royal family, court officials, priests, military personnel, scholars, artisans, farmers and merchants. Members of these classes displayed their rank through their clothes, hairstyles and family crests.

The concept of a vertical society has its roots in Confucianism. It defines the way Japanese interact with one another in relationship to rank and age within a group and shapes relationships that are not unlike those of a family.

The vertical society is often manifested with Confucian relations between juniors and seniors and defined by people's place within a company or bureaucratic structure. People are ranked by their titles within the hierarchy of their group. Within companies people are addressed by their titles rather than name. One reason why business cards are so important is they help define rank. Uniforms are also important it defining rank.

Groupism and Group Spirit in in Japan

The group is regarded as more important than the individual. Individualism has its place but in the case of companies and bureaucracies is not a defining characteristic.

Most Japanese are part of some group, either through their work, school, club or community. These groups are central to their lives and loyalty to group is often considered a virtue above all others. These groups are often in competition with one another. This partly explains why Japanese sometimes seem distant and rude to strangers and people outside their group.

Many Japanese view decision making and responsibility in terms of the “bubub shakai” ("party society"), a concept in which society is viewed as multitude of collective entities, whose primary duty is meeting the needs of their individual members. The system ensures the survival of a variety of social, political and economic groups at the expense of individual rights.

Tensions between individualism and groupism are expressed in art and society by the conflict between “honne” ("individual personal views") and “tatemae” ("roles of the individual in the group") and between “ninjo” ("human feelings") and “giri” (social obligations).

Group dynamics is viewed in terms of differences between “uchi” (inside/home) groups and “soto” (outside/strange place) groups. Groups of various kinds are found in the social, economic and political world and the roles people play are characterized by perceptions of insiders and outsiders with competition between groups being very fierce.

Kimiko Manes, author “Culture Shock in Mind”, wrote in the Daily Yomiuri: “Japanese people tend to make groups, seeking solidarity with others within the group...From birth, a Japanese will belong to many groups, starting with family, then their school class, various clubs and eventually their work place. Each Japanese person, individually, has many group circles, and within those groups, they cooperate to achieve goals, enjoy each other’s company, sharing their joys and success and suffering the pain of despair. Whatever their problem, whether it is relationship-related, or a spiritual/moral dilemma, it is easy to find someone to listen to you because these are people who share the same thought process nurtured by a common background.”

Stu Levy wrote on The New Yorker blog: “In Japan, while there is plenty of individual expression, the society is, more than in the United States, focused on the group spirit, or community. Geography plays a role, too: I’m continuously fascinated by the juxtaposition of Japan’s population density and its archipelago-island village mentality, even in Tokyo. In my apartment building, the first person to swipe their access card is always the one others let enter the door first, even if others are physically closer to the door. It’s an unspoken etiquette that Japanese people somehow simply know. Societal mores such as when to bow, speak, or step aside at a funeral, when not to leave work (if one’s boss hasn’t left), even subtle timing such as nodding to a stranger passing in a hallway — all of this is deeply ingrained. This intuition includes imprinted nostalgia for moments such as Hanabi (fireworks) on the beach in the summer, yukata-clad young women eating snow cones at a matsuri (festival), a night out with friends singing karaoke until dawn.”

Duty and Following Rules in Japan

Japan has been described as a group society with a strong emphasis on trust. Rules are obeyed and complied with. In many cases they don’t have to be codified or spelled out they are simply followed.

T.R. Reid wrote in National Geographic that he overheard a guide tell a group of 50 climbers ascending Mt. Fuji, "We won't make it in time to see the dawn unless we stay in order and think of the group. If you stop to take a picture or make a sketch, if you fall even 10 meters behind the rest, that's a serious setback for the whole group. Don't be so selfish that you threaten the order of our group."

Life in Japan often seems like a series of duties and obligations. The Japanese cherish rules, revere authority, associate order with respectability and regard stability as something that must be preserved at all costs. Traditionally, the greater good of society and family have been placed above individual needs. It has been said the Japanese love to give orders and, even worse, obey them.

Traditionalists view life as matter of duty, fate and “giri”, defined by one dictionary as “the proper way of things, the morals, which guide personal and social conduct, that which must be done in social relationships.” Giri can manifest itself in an employee who feels loyalty to his company even though he hates his boss and has received better offers elsewhere or a consumer who buys his cars from the same dealership every time.

Passivity and lack of questioning tied to giri and duty are seen by some as being at the root of Japan’s inability to solve entrenched problems. The writer Yi Miri told the New York Times, “Most people don’t want to think about their role in society. And popular culture, magazines, TV, encourages that passivity. Do that people don’t have to think...This weakness of self comes from people not having meaning in their life.”

Loyalty to a group is strong but often this loyalty is to a small group that ignores the interests of the general public. Schoolgirls on bicycle hog entire sidewalks. Construction of a new badly needed runway ay Tokyo’s main airport is held up by a small group of farmers.

Honest Society Japan

If you loose something in Japan there is good chance you'll get it back. Everyday, laptop computers cell phones, and umbrellas are dutifully picked up by the people who find them and taken to local lost and founds. Of the 1.6 million or so items — including dentures, baby carriages, gold bags and a cash register — turned into the Tokyo Metropolitan Lost and Found about 72 percent have been returned to their owners.

If someone finds your wallet or purse there is a good chance they will check out your address on your driver's license and personally deliver it to you with all the cash and credit cards inside. One time my wife lost her wallet and the person who found it tracked her down using our her video rental card. Keys and jackets that are found in parks and along sidewalks are hung from a fence or bush so the person who lost them can find them the next time they pass the same way.

If you lose your subway or train ticket, train station attendants will generally take your word and let you out of the station without any problem. In some cases, if you are short of cash and need to buy a train ticket to get home, you can borrow money from a policeman or a train station attendant. Most Japanese who do this dutifully pay back the money the next day.

In 2008, 17.34 million items were handed in by Japanese train passengers, an 86 percent increase from 2007. Among the items left behind on Japanese subways and trains have been two dozen marching batons, a life-size inflatable albatross and three prosthetic left legs.

In Japan there is law — Article 28, paragraph I of the lost property law — that says the finder of a lost object should receive between 5 percent and 20 percent of the value of the object. At lost an found's if no one claims the object after 6 months and 14 days its finders keepers. In the mid 1990, a bag worth $90,000 worth of cash was found and returned to its owner. In 1980, $950,000 was found and never claimed. The finder got to keep it. During the hard times of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 some people used the law to make money, with some finders taking their cases to court. One man in who found a briefcase with three bankbooks in it with a total savings of $33,000 demanded 15 percent of the bank savings. [Source: Times of London, November 2009]

Tom Miyagawa Coulton and John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, Altruism and honesty among different cultures are difficult to measure and compare, but in 2003 a University of Michigan Law School professor conducted what he called a comparative study on recovering lost property in the United States and Japan. The professor, Mark West, left 20 wallets on the street in Tokyo and 20 in New York, each containing the equivalent of $20. In New York, he said, six wallets were returned with the cash intact and two were brought back empty. In Tokyo, finders returned 17 of 20 wallets, all with the cash intact, and all but one waived the right to claim the money if the owner wasn't found.” "There's no evidence Japanese people have extreme norms of honesty," West recently wrote in an email about his 2003 study. "It's partly cultural training, but mostly the law urges people to hand in lost property to the police." [Source: Tom Miyagawa Coulton and John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2011]

Brigitte Steger, a researcher at England's University of Cambridge, recently spent a month observing the daily lives of people displaced by the 2011 tsunami who were still housed in evacuation shelters. She found that residents were driven toward honest behavior by what she called the social balance that provides the cohesiveness of any community. "That social balance would be destroyed as soon as you're caught stealing someone else's belongings," Steger said. Saiki said the case that moved him most didn't involve cash, but something more valuable: a set of lost family photo albums. When the owner saw the pictures, he broke into tears.

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Not all Japanese are totally honest. “Alibi-yas” (based on the world "alabi") are services that cost about $100 month and provide alibis to husbands, wives and parents for people who do things they are not supposed. Many of their customers are daughters and wives engaged somehow in the sex trade or men enjoying the sex trade.

Alibi-yas have their own offices, receptionists and telephones numbers. Clients are given business cards and pay stubs that indicate they have a respectable job at a respectable company. If someone calls the fictional company a receptionist answers the phone and tells the caller they person they are looking for is busy and will call them back. The receptionist then calls the client, who calls the caller back.

The Alibaya will even provide a fictional boss to give a speech at a wedding party or provide presents and souvenirs from places a client he said he visited as part of his alabi.

Space and Privacy in Japan

Many Japanese customs, values and personality traits arise from the fact that Japanese live so close together in such a crowded place. Everyday the Japanese are packed together like sardines on subways and in kitchen-size yakatori bars and sushi restaurants. A dozen lap swimmers may squeeze into single lane at a swimming pool. Bicycles and pedestrians fight for space on crowded sidewalks, which are especially packed on rainy days and sunny days, when umbrellas are out in force. If there weren't such strict rules and strong pressures to obey them people would be all over each other, in each other’s face, and at each other's throats.

Businessmen spend the night in coffin-sized sleeping capsules. People entertain outside their homes because there is no room to entertain guests inside their homes. Lawns are so small they are cut with scissors and gardens are so small Japanese say they will fit on a "cat's forehead." The shortage of space has been the inspiration behind Japanese engineering wonders such as the Walkman, candy-bar size cell phones, compact cars and wafer-thin television sets.

"Foreigners are amazed by the smaller scale of things here," said William Bodiford, a UCLA professor of Asian languages and culture, told the Los Angeles Times. "Natives get used to negotiating tighter spaces. They're raised to be very aware of one another, notice their surroundings." Such spatial negotiation doesn't come easily. "It took me a long time to realize why I felt so clumsy in Japan and not nearly so in America," Bodiford said. "The desks and ceilings are lower, the spaces cramped. It's so much easier to bump into things."

With personal space being so hard to find in Japan the concept of privacy is more of state of mind than a condition of being alone. The Japanese are very good at shutting out the world around them and making their own privacy by losing themselves in reading a comic book or sleeping while they are surrounded by people. But even that is not enough for some people. All over Japan, you see men parked in their cars sleeping or reading, sometimes for hours at a time.

Rising Sense of Individualism in Japan

Young Japanese are much more individualistic than older Japanese. They have been called the "bean sprout generation." like bean sprouts they grow fast but in the dark so they have no strength.

Many scholars believe that traditional Japanese group society is collapsing and being replaced by a more individualistic one. "Japan," wrote author Jonathan Rauch, "is being 'set free' not from state tyranny, but from a complex network of social constraints that produce repression and self-control in equal measure. Sometimes it's hard to tell where liberation ends and social decay begins, and every time I go to Japan I feel I see more of both."

As old ways of doing things break down and many people are not sure what they are going to be replaced with. And in many was the signs are not encouraging. The novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote “Our identity as Japanese has withered away...Now we have nothing but the reflection of ourselves we see in the eyes of the West. We are confused and lost. The response to that lostness is nationalism.”

But some see the rise of individualism and rejection of the status quo as a driving force behind creativity and entrepreneurship and find more hope in that than doing things in old, stodgy Japanese way.

Japanese has its share of eccentrics. Hiroshi Nohara won some notoriety after spending four months living Terminal 1 of the international airport in Mexico City, somewhat like the character in 2004 Steven Spielberg movie “The Terminal”. The only difference was that Nohara had a valid visa and a ticket home.

Breakdown of Traditional Values in Japan

On why the elderly are sometimes neglected in modern Japan, Harvard’s Michael Sandel told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “I think part of the explanation is that contemporary market societies have achieved a great deal of good, as we see with rising levels of affluence. But the individualism, the sometimes extreme individualism associated with market societies, poses a challenge to community and social cohesion. So what I think we need is a public debate that addresses not only the economic but also the moral dimensions of modern social life in market societies.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 16, 2011]

“I think what we need to work out is a sense of shared responsibility as a community for the elderly members of the community. If they're not being cared for by the extended family structure, we need to work out a new system of care and responsibility that the community agrees to as part of its understanding of the common good. We have to work out a shared understanding of the common good that reaches across generations, so that there is a communal responsibility for the elderly to help make up for the shift from an extended family structure to a nuclear family structure.”

“We need to build new structures of community and a new understanding of the common good, so that it is understood that there is a communal responsibility for the elderly, and that requires a kind of public discussion, and the solution may vary in one region to another how best to work this out. Whether to create communal living facilities that are supported to provide care for the elderly: Different communities, different regions, may work out the details differently.”

Image Sources: 1)Visualizing Culture, MIT Education, 2) Brooklyn University; 3) and 4) Ray Kinnane, 5) xorsystblog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2011

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