By Seiki "Stan" Hirota
Originally published April 4, 2018 on LinkedIn
I have had two business assignments in my career, where I was asked to manage businesses in the US, the first one in early 1990's, and my most recent since 2010. During these assignments, when I interact with business leaders in the US, I am often asked why many of the business people from Japan tend to be very polite and respectful of other.
Like any society, the Japanese society has its issues, problems and exceptions, but the primary reason that Japanese tend to be polite and respectful of others, even with those that have different views and opinions, in my view, has to do with the religious and historical background, and the way we are usually brought up as a child.
In Japan, in order to arouse sense of security among the individuals that comprise the society, a strong emphasis is made on teaching children that as long as we can maintain a harmonious society by doing the right things, there is going to be a proper place in life for everyone to have a good life.
We have a saying in Japan. “Deru kui wa utareru”, which means “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”. It is understood that everyone has a role and a place in the society and the expectation is for everyone to do their share in a balanced way. If you overreach too much and take a selfish action, you will be hammered down.
I do not regard myself as religious because I do not belong to any specific sects of religion, but I do value some of the beliefs and rituals that originate from Buddhism and Shintoism (Japanese evolution of Buddhism), because it’s just a part of being Japanese.
Buddhism recognize that all religion share the same aim of working for the well-being of mankind, and there is never an attitude of “my beliefs are better than yours”. Buddhism believe that differences in viewpoint and culture must be cherished, respected and appreciated, rather than judged and feared, by looking at what is common to improve the situation of humanity by directing people to follow an ethical behavior and a path of love, compassion and forgiveness.
We believe that when you pressure people with the norm of competition, fighting and negativity, it forces people to feel alienated and insecure, which in the end jeopardizes the concept of harmonious society, so we always try to avoid these types of situations. There are some schools that have gone as far as removing competitions in school sports days, which I personally think is too much, but I think you get my point.
We are taught many varied methods, all of which work harmoniously to help a wide spectrum of people to find their place in the society, and the need to make efforts to protect the important relationships that our family has in the society, with proper manners and attitudes. This includes our relationship with nature and the spirits that live in things that bring positive energy to our lives.
In my view, this is the strongest underlining value that we embrace in Japan to maintain a harmonious society to live a good life, and a proper care, mindfulness and respect in dealing with others is a huge importance, portraying whether you are well educated, whether you are from a good respectful family, and whether you have a high degree of sophistication.
You may recall the presentation of the city of Tokyo pitching for 2020 Summer Olympics, which explained, “Omotenashi”, the warm hospitality spirit of Japan, where you can observe one form of care and showing respect to others. The origin of Omotenashi concept is believed to have stemmed from the traditional green tea ceremonies.
In a typical tea ceremony, the host is expected to entertain guests warm heartedly, without expecting anything in return. Omotenashi could be said to be treating others as generously as possible, without expecting any favor in return. The essence of Omotenashi is about putting public need before private need, and demonstrating “Kokoro” or putting heart and soul in making the guests feel important, appreciated and just feeling good.
Although the Japanese society has also rapidly become individualistic and pragmatic under the strong influence of the American culture, the spirit of “Kokoro” is the key essence of the Japanese culture with most of the basic social structures of Japan based on groups, harmony and trust.
Just to give examples, you may observe people putting other people first. Treating people better by giving others the biggest piece of the cake or the last piece of the cake. Giving people the best seat of the restaurant or the safest seat in a taxi. Giving others the center position in a photo. Giving a small thoughtful gift without any special occasion, or simply bowing and thanking for generosity.
In public, we try to hold off our emotions to avoid putting others in an uncomfortable or unpleasant situations like hurting other’s feelings or putting people on the spot. We strive to be patient to listen to others, always clean up after yourself, and the list goes on and on. These are all subtle stuff but when it accumulates, it could makes a big difference in how you make others feel.
Living in a Japanese society is all about being a good citizen in a harmonious society, where everyone has the responsibility of doing the right things in a positive manner.