Understanding Japanese culture
This essay is adapted from an excerpt of the great book “A Geek in Japan” by Héctor Garcia. It is the first chapter of my new Japan 2014 book.
If three Japanese people are talking together, and a fourth one joins the conversation, he will apologize upon approach for breaking the harmony of the group. Why?
In Japan, everything looks like it works to perfection. People do what they’re supposed to. Trains run well. Everybody has a job. Everybody has money to live. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Children study well and are some of the best in the world. Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities you’ll ever see despite being the largest urban area in the world. It seems to be a perfect place. How have they achieved this?
To understand the Japanese way, you must understand a few concepts that are deeply rooted into the culture.
Samurai role model
The samurai adhered to a way of life, ethics, rules, and a code that spread to all branches of society, and even today affects the way Japanese think.
- Buddhism taught them to stay calm and patient.
- Confucianism taught them that relationships between people are the basis of society - to respect our ancestors, relatives, and superiors.
- Loyalty, justice, and honor are central.
- Sincerity, compassion, courtesy, and honesty are important key values.
Though the samurai no longer exist, this way of viewing life is ever-present in society. Students are loyal to their teachers. Workers are loyal to their companies, putting in long overtime hours. Japanese are loyal, honest, sincere, and disciplined at work. They follow rules and try to improve themselves every day, just as the samurai did in their time.
A high compliment is the word “iki” (粋). You say a person is iki if they are original, calm, refined, and sophisticated, without being too perfect, complicated, or self-conscious. It’s similar to the word “elegant” or “graceful”.
“Honne”, “tatemae”, and no “no”
Honne (本音) refers to the opinions and true feelings that everybody has.
Tatemae (建前) refers to social obligations, and opinions that have been adjusted to be socially acceptable - when words and true intentions don’t fully coincide.
What someone really thinks is “honne”, but what they actually express is “tatemae”. In Western countries we could call it hypocrisy, but in Japan knowing how to express tatemae and honne at the right time is considered a virtue.
From the Western point of view, concealing the truth may be looked on with disfavor, but in Japan, preserving harmony is more important. That’s why true thoughts (honne) are not expressed in a straightforward way, for fear of hurting people’s feelings. It’s used to ease relationships and business, where established conventions have to be followed.
Japanese hardly ever use the word “no”. Using it is considered very curt. Instead, there are many ways to say “no” delicately, such as, “A little bit…, ” or “This is very interesting, ” or “We will study your proposal, ” or “This is complicated but…” When someone says these things, they are very politely but clearly telling you “no”.
An example: Imagine you want to buy a ticket and there are no seats left. The ticket salesperson won’t give you a straight answer like, “There are no tickets left.” Instead he will probably keep you waiting, pretending he is looking into something on his computer, make weird faces, and say something like, “Finding seats can be difficult.” This is tatemae at its best.
Modesty and humility
No matter what their social class, talent, studies, or job, Japanese people are expected to behave with modesty.
The most typical way to show our humility is by diminishing our own achievements while praising those of others. If someone tells you that your recent work has been great, you must answer that the credit is not yours, that the latest successes have been achieved thanks to what your boss and company have taught you.
If someone is too ambitious or flaunts their power too much, he ends up being ostracized by his company and society. There are many cases where a person of great promise was too ambitious, and his/her superiors reassigned him/her to tasks such as serving tea in meetings or even cleaning the company bathrooms. The Japanese see ambition as a threat to the inner balance of the system, which might bring them down in the future.