Japan is the Eastern-most culture that has developed over a course of 35,000+ years, and the country being surrounded by water has helped to evolve Japanese people into a cultural body with a distinct set of refine values and world view.
Living among them will surely give you new perspectives and create great diversity within yourself, which is why I strongly recommend people from other parts of the world to not just visit, but live here. However culture shock will creep in on you if you do make it here.
Some foreigners who come to live here choose to not overcome cultural differences and remain a “foreign guest,” treated nicely by the Japanese but not making any meaningful relationships with them. But then there are also some foreigners who strive hard enough to break into the “one of us” zone from the “foreign guest” zone, and establish deep, lasting relationships with locals, developing into unique human beings by absorbing and embracing Japanese cultural values.
It is said that it takes time to develop true friendship in Japan, but friendships last a life-time once they are made.
I would be elated if this blog post helps people who are looking into spending a part of their lives in Japan understand where certain behaviors and tendencies of Japanese people are coming from and therefore mitigate some anticipated culture shocks and conflict. Because the reward of enduring the initial hard times of fitting in is tremendous.
1. One for all, but not all for one
Individualism is a relatively newer concept to Japanese people although more of them have slowly taken individualism on as part of their codes of conduct as the country continues to globalize. Traditionally in Japan, the collective interest of the whole tended to be pursued more so than that of individuals’.
Individuals often sacrificed themselves for the benefit of the whole. Also, deviating from the norm or standing out within the community is often condemned and therefore avoided. There are clear representations of these values almost everywhere in Japan today:
- While company CEOs in the US are paid 354 times more than the average worker, Japanese CEOS are paid only 67 times more. Upward income gap is culturally shunned. (Figures from Statista)
- The first minute of Q&A sessions at school and at seminars often turn out to be painful waiting time because most Japanese people hesitate to raise their hands to ask questions. Some of the reasons are because they are afraid that their questions might reveal that they think differently from others or they are not intelligent enough to ask meaningful questions. Many Japanese people consider putting themselves on spotlight risky.
- It happens much less nowadays now that less people are interested in drinking, but at drinking parties with people from work or college, people were forced to drink until they got stoned by means of peer pressure. People used to be considered socially unadept to think they had a choice not to go with the group’s will.
It is hard to pinpoint the reason Japanese culture came to develop such a value, but it is clearly suggested from historical records that the value existed from long ago. Here are two examples:
- Businessmen put in ridiculously long hours at work during postwar Japan (1955 – 1973) in order to help the country redevelop into an industrial giant. In fact in return for their hard labor, they were all compensated with better pay year after year while the economy continued to boom.
- When Japan was running short of supplies towards the end of WWII (1944 – 1945), Japanese pilots were ordered to board fighter planes filled with fuel sufficient only for a one-way flight (called the Kamikaze operation). They were told to fly their planes into enemy warships “for the country,” and a total of approximately 3,800 pilots died from conducting the attack, along with over 7,000 enemy naval men.
- In Medieval Japan (1185 – 1600), samurai families valued the family’s good name over family members’ or subordinates’ lives. When a feudal samurai lord needed to settle down a territorial dispute it caused with a neighboring lord, a subordinate commander may have been beheaded and turned over as a scapegoat so that the samurai family didn’t have to fight a war. Conversely, when a feudal lord’s territory was invaded by a much greater force and there was no hope for victory, the head of the samurai family would behead himself and have his head turned over in order to plead mercy upon his own people.
Thanks to the introduction of Western values, individual preferences and choices that differ from the group are respected now. But showing even just a little effort in trying to fit into the group is perceived as an amicable gesture – for example accepting invitations to drinking parties with your colleagues one out of every three times.
2. Success is attained through teamwork and bonding
You may notice that professional Japanese soccer players wouldn’t hog the ball during games, and instead pass it around. Like a lot. Even a little too much. The football players not having the physique or ability to hold on to the ball for long may be part of the reason, but there is definitely a cultural factor to it.
In the world of business in Japan, when a skilled and well-respected businessperson is given praise for his/her work, he/she would not take full credit (or any credit at all) of the accomplishment and instead acknowledge the people and departments that were involved in attaining success.
He/She would say something like “No, I didn’t do anything. It was so-and-so who made it happen.”
This is of course not something valued exclusively in Japan, as you will always see Grammy and Oscar award winners thank a bunch of people in their speeches. However I’d like to point out that such an attitude is culturally praised here in Japan.
However, sometimes this value is overly expressed to the extent that it interferes with attaining goals, quite literally in soccer. I remember turning off the TV, in utter disdain, when I saw a couple of Japanese national team “strikers” pass the ball back right in front of the fucking goal.
You should never, ever let your culture take full control of you.
Anyway, because reaching goals through teamwork is considered to be more virtuous than doing so all alone, bonding through spending time to drink with your team persists to be one thing Japanese people try to do pretty often.
So why did Japanese culture develop such a value? People’s lives centering around agriculture in much of Japanese history is the primary suspect of the prioritization of teamwork.
Rice yield determined life or death for Japanese people for the longest time. Until the late 19th century, peasants paid tax in the form of rice, samurais were paid with rice, and rice was traded for money and goods. Growing and harvesting less rice meant an immediate decline of wealth not only for the peasant farmers but also for the village, and at the end of the day, the whole country.
As a matter of fact, years of bad weather resulted in famine and millions of people died of hunger and diseases in the Medieval times. It was wise for everyone to work as one team to maximize crop yield, because otherwise what’s waiting is death.
Villages developed a culture that praised camaraderie and shunned or even punished individualism. Minority villagers who didn’t cooperate with the village’s decisions were socially isolated by the majority, and being isolated meant slow death.
And then again, it was also true that committing to an activity as a big team often brought better results. Therefore at work or school and in neighborhoods or any other community, Japanese people feel cooperation and bonding, or showing the will to bond (at least superficially) are expected.
3. Standing out will get you out
Another traditional Japanese cultural value related to the weight put on teamwork is the avoidance of standing out. Being seen as “different,” “abnormal” or “better than us” had been considered a risk for a long time, until maybe Japanese Millennials and Generation Zs started taking on values of their global peers. Now, it seems like more youngsters strive to differentiate themselves from the crowd in order to gain an edge and/or fame, but again, standing out was always shunned in Japan.
If you live and work in Japan for a long time, you may hear stories through the grapevine about talented employees of huge and traditional companies being exiled to regional offices in rural areas after voicing their disagreement towards the company’s decisions. There is a Japanese proverb that goes “nails that stick out get hammered in” and although I wouldn’t say it’s something that happens exclusively in Japan, Japanese people are especially well-aware of the risk.
So extraordinarily talented businesspeople eventually learn to aim to get buy-in from key decision makers and influencers in and/or outside the company before introducing a new idea or questioning the norm.
Disapproving diversion from the organization’s direction and repressing individual glory is indeed outrageous from an individual’s perspective. But as a matter of fact, Japan has the greatest number of companies that have survived and thrived the longest in the world (there are over 20,000 Japanese companies that have a history of over 100 years, including 1,200 that have been in business for over 200 years, and 7 in business for over 1,000 years) and it cannot be denied that their suppressing individualism may have been one of many factors of the incredible sustainability of these businesses.
However it is also true that Japan has been lagging behind in the developed world in terms of economic growth and innovation lately, and I can say with pretty strong confidence that the discouragement of independent thinking under the traditional Japanese mindset owes at least in part to the country’s not being able to realize exponential growth it once enjoyed anymore.
Anyway, in “official” occasions such as business meetings with two people or more, Japanese people often hide their true feelings and may say something quite the opposite in order to refrain from standing out on the spot. This also helps to maintain the harmony of the group.
They would, however, reveal their real feelings “off the record” when they return to their desks or go out for a drink, or in the case of women, when they go in the lady’s room. The lady’s room is therefore the scariest place to be in Japan.
4. Your good name is for you to protect
The low crime rate in Japan has a lot to do with its culture. Japan comes in the top 5 among almost 200 countries around the world when it comes to having the least number of violent crime per 100,000 people (stats from NationMaster).
It’s pretty well-known that if you lose your wallet in Japan, it will come back to you without getting anything taken. Various kinds of psychological and cultural factors come into play when a Japanese person decides not to commit petty crime, but one of them is the interest of protecting you and your family’s good name.
Iceland and Hong Kong contain crime the best in the world along with Japan, and inferences can be drawn as to why crime is discouraged in these countries because they carry striking similarities in culture. The banning of firearms is not the secret here, by the way – that’s just a no-brainer.
Japan, for the longest time, was divided into small units of local governances like villages and feudal domains, and people could not freely move to other parts of Japan. Living abroad was of course not an option for almost anyone except maybe the academic elites.
And as mentioned earlier, people had to help each other out to sustain the survival and wealth of the community and themselves. So if you, for your own wrongdoing, lost trust in the community and were outcast, you were virtually screwed. People needed to keep their good name in order to be kept accepted as part of the community.
A similar type of psychology can be seen in geographically or politically isolated countries around the world.
Over in Europe: Winters are harsh in Iceland, and cars get stuck in the snow all the time. So Icelanders don’t think twice to help others out when they see someone needing help with his/her car. They know they can’t survive alone. Also over half the Icelandic population is concentrated in the capital so discrediting your name there has devastating consequences in terms of sustaining a happy life as an Icelander.
In Hong Kong, there is no extreme winter weather, but there are only 2 major cities which are collectively populated by almost 95% of the national population. Losing trust in those cities almost equates to losing trust in the whole country.
I think geography has a lot to do with how important reputation is.
5. Seniority earns you automatic respect but also some obligations
Like in many other Asian countries, in Japan you’re expected to pay respect to people who are older than you, and also to those who are more senior than you are in an organization or community.
Respect is shown, for example, through altering your language so that it’s literally appropriate to be used towards an elder or more senior counterpart. Basically, you use politer language towards an elder/senior person. Conversely, you use more straightforward language towards a younger/junior person. This is one of several factors that makes Japanese a complicated language.
Even a one-year difference in age or seniority determines who should be paying respect through words and who should be receiving it. This is definitely a rule of thumb, but reality is slightly more complex.
Traditionally, Japanese people joined a company after graduating college and stayed in that single organization until retirement, so someone being more senior equated to being older. Life was simple once upon a time.
But now that businesspeople change jobs more often, it’s highly likely that you have colleagues who are more senior, but younger. So then how are you supposed to speak with them? Politely or straightfoward-ly? This is an unanswerable question to any Japanese. All they can do is speak in a way that feels right in that moment. They go with the flow.
Another point to consider is “worth” in the organization/community. Imagine you sit beside a colleague who’s both older and senior than you, but performs only half as well as you do. In Japan, you are still supposed to show respect towards that bummer for the sake of observing traditional Japanese values. But of course in heart, what you feel is the direct opposite of respect.
So what happens in this situation? A Japanese person may choose to speak with super polite words but deliver in a tone of voice with a hint of hostility. Scary, isn’t it? But the point I’m trying to make here is that the Japanese value of respecting elders/seniors is rarely ignored, no matter what the circumstances are.
Also to be mentioned is that while you tend to gain automatic respect as you age, you also tend to burden heavier social responsibilities.
Imagine for instance two colleagues going out for a drink. When all the talking and drinking is over and it’s time to head home, it’s likely that the senior colleague will treat his/her junior colleague or pay slightly more than the junior colleague rather than going completely Dutch. If it were an outing between a boss and his/her staffer, the boss would be almost expected to get the whole bill.
If you are invited to a wedding in Japan, you are supposed to bring gift-money sealed in a special, decorative envelope. For example if it’s a wedding of your colleague or friend, you are expected to give 30,000 yen (around 300 US$), or for a very close friend, 50,000 yen (around 500 US$). In case you haven’t guessed, it’s a nightmare when your friends all start getting married around the same year.
Now if you’re invited to a close relative’s wedding and you are in your 20s, your gift-money is expected to be 30,000 or 50,000 yen. And if you’re in your 30s, you’re expected to look at a range of 50,000 yen to 100,000 yen. If you’re in your 50s, you’d be looking into giving 200,000 yen or above.
Are all Japanese people so rich they give away money all the time? No, of course it hurts! But it’s culturally expected that elders make an effort to support the well-being of the young, and I think many feel happiness in doing so.
6. Read between the lines even if there are none
Japanese culture has traditionally expected people to be psychics. You are supposed to know, without being told, what the group you belong to wants through the application of “common sense.” If you could not figure the group’s desire out by yourself, you were considered “abnormal,” which is again the last thing people want to be in Japan.
For instance on a crowded train, a person who keeps standing around in the alley may be frowned upon if he/she doesn’t scoot over to make room for all the passengers who are boarding the train anew. On rare occasions people may verbally tell you to scoot over, but in most cases they give you a negative gaze and squeeze themselves passed you, sometimes giving you an “accidental” nudge with their elbows to passive-aggressively try to let you know that you failed to read their minds.
This is all done in silence without a single word pronounced (because direct confrontation is avoided in Japanese culture, and I’ll discuss this later). You can see in this example that in the Japanese mindset in which the interest of the group is prioritized over the interest of individuals, people think they are doing justice by giving an uncooperative stranger a soft but hostile nudge. In some other cultures, you can easily get into a fight doing this because basically you are being an ass. But in Japanese culture, the passenger who doesn’t realize his/her being expected to cooperate with the group to make everyone’s life as easy as possible is the ass.
As you can imagine, quarrels occur from time to time over who’s the real ass, and quarrels lead to delays of trains, and delays are yet another last-thing-Japanese-people-want. So nowadays during rush hour, train operators make announcements to ask passengers to scoot over at every single stop, to make passengers’ cooperation an official request rather than an implicit social expectation that’s difficult to decipher for everyone all the time.
As Japan hosts more non-Japanese visitors and residents every year, the Japanese value of comprehending and behaving accordingly to group psychology and interests is becoming less expected. Best practices are explicitly stated or written on walls (which means now people are expected to read walls instead of minds).
Japanese service givers are well-known for providing the best customer service in the world with their so-called “Omotenashi” spirit, partly because everyone trains him/herself up to read between lines throughout life. Noticing people’s unvoiced inconveniences or wishes is the first step to developing unforgettable customer service in Japan.
Once inconveniences are noticed, service givers think of ways to fix them; once wishes are noticed, service givers think of ways to realize them, and do whatever it takes to make them happen, all without being told. And of course Japanese people who can pull this off are awed, and therefore, I think, making an effort to read others’ minds will forever be a Japanese virtue.
7. Treat guests nicely but do keep a distance
When it comes to human interaction, Japanese people have a dualistic view of the world and classify people around them into two groups: internal and external. Family members, close friends and colleagues are “internal” relationships. Customers, guests and colleagues belonging to other departments are often seen as “external” relationships.
In many “external” relationships, Japanese people try to behave politely, courteously and professionally so as not to cause any inconveniences, trouble or discomfort for the counterpart. More specifically, they observe many social formalities like the examples below:
- Use polite and formal language
- Call each other’s name with a suffix that indicates representation of respect (like Alex-san or Alex-sama)
- Dress in formal attire to meet with a business counterpart
- Give compliments about the counterpart’s outfit, behavior, experience or anything else that won’t turn out to be untrue
- Bring confectionery as a gift when visiting someone’s home or another company
- Offer the best seat to the guest at meetings and meals
- Bow deeply to the counterpart when it’s time to leave
- Do all of the above with a smile
The objective of adhering to such a code of conduct is to maintain a friendly but professional distance with external people. Japanese people tend to take their time to see if a new acquaintance is worth trusting. If you know any Japanese: as long as a Japanese person keeps using polite and formal language when he/she talks to you, you should know that you are considered “external” in that person’s network.
It’s not until both sides reveal their real thoughts and personalities that they start to consider classifying each other as an “internal” relationship, and this rarely happens in a work setting. It often requires a meal or a drink outside the formal context for Japanese people to start opening up.
Japanese people tend to be cautious about building new relationships, but once they mentally label their counterpart “internal,” they start dropping their superficial-polite behaviors and treat the counterpart as a real friend or family, sometimes for life.
There is no single reason Japanese people came to handle relationships this way, but one may be, again, the idea that people cannot live on their own. Earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons occurred every year throughout history and Japanese people had to join hands with their family and neighbors to survive by collaboratively maximizing crop yields and lending hands.
It was natural that people became cautious about accepting a foreigner into their community because they had to entrust their backs to that new person in times of hardship.
8. Drop your guard with family and friends
So once a community of Japanese people accepts a foreigner as an “internal” person, the foreigner gets treated as family. There will be no more pleasantries, polite smiles or polite laughter that you would receive as a guest. Instead, you get called by a nickname, made fun of readily, and get access anytime to your peers’ real feelings.
It is said that it takes a relatively longer time for Japanese people to open up in a new relationship compared to people in the Western world, but you would know when the transition starts to occur because you will FEEL the wall of “professional distance” being taken down.
They will start abbreviating phrases and words and therefore speak to you in shorter, less formal sentences. They will hang out with you outside group occasions. They will think about how they could make your life just a bit happier. And even if you or your Japanese friend moves away, you won’t be friends just on Facebook – the intimate relationship can last a lifetime.
Other than the above kind of earned friendship, there are automatic “internal” relationships. Family members are of course unanimously “internal,” and another is what Japanese people call Douki, which means colleagues employed in the same year. If you are a Douki with 10 other peers at the company you joined out of college, that means you may have a close relationship with some of them for life.
Traditionally, Japanese companies recruited new grads all at once, once a year, for the sake of efficiency. Everyone had a job interview within certain months of the year, everyone got an acceptance letter on the same day, everyone’s first day at work was the same day, and everyone went through the same training in the first several months of employment.
Although internships have become a common battleground for recruitment nowadays, the new-grad hiring tradition still persists now in many organizations (in order to modernize the new-grad recruitment processes, these circumstances are bound to change from 2021).
And as mentioned before, life-time employment used to be the norm at Japanese companies. So peers who joined the organization at the same time were almost destined to spend a significant portion of their lives together. Therefore there is a powerful sense of camaraderie among Doukis. They will have get-togethers once a year to every few years and stay in touch, often until age and death prevent the majority to attend.
There are many foreign residents who have lived in Japan for dozens of years, but do not speak much Japanese. You can totally live in Japan without speaking a word of the local language, but in case you choose that lifestyle, that means you are fated to only see the superficial face of Japanese culture, which is often kind but dry, and never too intimate.
Making just a little effort with adjusting your language, mindset and behavior towards Japanese culture even so slightly is, sometimes, all you need to get yourself passed the entrance gate into the theme park where you can see, experience and perhaps even absorb the real, complex yet beautiful Japanese values.