Japanese Culture

Core Concepts

  • Belonging
  • Harmony
  • Group orientation
  • Politeness
  • Modesty
  • Gentleness
  • Patience
  • Formality

Japanese culture is multifaceted and very distinctive, having evolved rapidly in the past century. The advancements of technology, the government’s adoption of democratic rights and the country’s population boom have introduced new lifestyles to its people. These modern developments can often seem inconsistent with the traditional virtues of Japanese culture. For example, while Japanese culture classically emphasises a patient, gentle and harmonious way of life, today it is normal for people to be packed into Tokyo trains like sardines and work long hours with little rest. Nevertheless, many traditional values of Japan still underpin the culture.

For instance, harmony remains a guiding philosophy in Japan that affects many features of society – especially that of family and business. Working in harmony is viewed as the crucial element for productivity; thus, the Japanese have a predisposition to be indirect, gentle and courteous even if they disagree with what you are saying. This ethos of cooperation is impressed upon Japanese children at young ages. The educational systems stress interdependence over independence. Such sensitivity to respecting one’s relationships in the community manifests into many of the behavioural attitudes foreigners observe of the Japanese (such as their emphasis on politeness and teamwork). It is rare for Japanese people to disagree openly or voice any opinion that could create friction. However, shyness is starting to be considered less of a virtue and more of a limitation to some of the younger generation.

The importance of harmony in Japan also means that emphasis is put on modest and gentle interpersonal relations. As such, the concept of face has remained very central to Japanese communication. Face is the quality embedded in most Asian cultures that indicates a person's reputation, influence, dignity and honour. By complimenting people, showing them respect or doing something to increase their self-esteem, you give them face. Similarly, people can lose face and save or build face. Therefore, individuals in Japan usually act deliberately and with restraint to protect their self-worth and peer perception. Conservative conduct is the norm, as people don’t want to stand out and/or risk losing face by doing something inappropriate. For many Japanese, the fear of letting down family or society dominates almost everything else. However, for the younger generation, a person’s social media profile has now become a significant way of maintaining face and gaining status in one’s social hierarchy. As a result, some Japanese are becoming less concerned with the importance of their behaviour during interactions in person.

Japanese culture is also very collectivistic. Individuals often perceive themselves to be members of 'groups' rather than autonomous actors. These groups reflect or come to define who its members are and often implicitly demand a high degree of loyalty. In return, an individual gains a sense of belonging, protection and unity. It is important to note that over 98% of Japan shares the same Japanese ethnicity, making it one of the most homogeneous societies in the world. There tends to be an automatic and unique sense of group belonging to the nation itself. Sharing a common heritage, history, culture and identity, people in Japan broadly anticipate their perceptions to be consistent with the other Japanese people around them.

The Japanese language itself also influences people’s perception of situations and one another. The language is very formal and observant. It diverges into different styles of speech for people depending on their status. For example, natural speech changes to be more respectful when people speak to someone older than them. This distinguishes distinct hierarchies in society as deference and adherence to societal roles is naturally implied through the language.

Japanese culture puts heavy emphasis on participation, diligence and performance in people’s professional lives. The workforce is extremely dedicated and there is much pressure to strive for excellence and perfection. This has led to a disturbing trend in Japanese society; many Japanese (men, in particular) work to the point of utter exhaustion or even sometimes death. Japanese youth can feel a sense of trepidation as they grow up, foreseeing the day they too will have to join the workforce. They are conscious that it will likely involve giving up many of the luxuries they enjoy as minors. Japan is extremely productive and technologically advanced, yet it is one of the most sleep-deprived countries in the developed world.

As a reminder, this general summary does not necessarily apply to all Japanese people. Japan accommodates many different microcultures that contribute different characteristics to both rural and urban society. A diversity of lifestyles are also emerging as people reevaluate their goals and values in the modern age. However, modesty, honour and ultra-politeness are generally valued by most. The Japanese are largely private, patient and thoughtful people.

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