Living & Working effectively in Japan

Japan – Society & Culture

Harmony / Group Focus

Harmony (“WA”) is the key value in Japan. Harmony is the Japanese guiding philosophy in family, business and society. The most literal translation is circle, which was also the first name of the country. The concept is derived from Confucianism and means peace, harmony, unity, and group wholeness. The underlying concept is that the individual is incomplete and the only way to find fulfillment is by being part of the group. As such, the Japanese believe that the needs of the group override their personal desires.

At pre-school, Japanese children are taught to act harmoniously and cooperatively with others. The educational system emphasizes interdependence and working together to achieve a goal. There is an emerging trend for Japanese children to question many precepts of group harmony, preferring to be recognized for their individualism. Due to the strong global influences as well as the economic downturn, teachers complain about the unruly behavior in the schoolroom, something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

The need for harmonious relationships is reflected in almost all behavior. Japanese emphasize politeness, personal responsibility, and working together for the good of the group, rather than the individual. They do not say “no” overtly. Instead, they present disagreeable facts in a gentle and indirect manner. They see working in harmony as the crucial ingredient for working productively.

The Japanese believe that turning down a request embarrasses the other person and causes loss of face. If they cannot agree to a request, they might say, “it’s inconvenient” or “it’s under consideration”. They may also ignore the request and pretend it was never made.

The Japanese define their country as homogeneous and attribute their country’s success to their common values and “Japaneseness”. Naturally, individuals differ, but this diversity is kept private. The Japanese may see themselves differently from other Japanese and have strong views and opinions, but in a group situation, these differences are downplayed.

The reliance on group harmony is seen in the use of the word “we” rather than “I”.

Concept of Face / Personal Honor

To the Japanese, face means maintaining high status with one’s peers. The Japanese try not to do anything to cause loss of face. Therefore, they do not openly criticize, insult, or put someone on the spot. If people are not treated with respect or if you undermine their status, the relationship will be broken.

Likewise, if you do not live up to others’ expectations, which could be demonstrated by breaking a promise or disreputable behavior, you cause them to lose face. Both the victim and the transgressor lose face because anyone who is aware of the situation is embarrassed for both people. Face can be lost, taken away, or earned through praise and thanks.

The family or group can also bring shame and loss of face to the individual, even if they have nothing to do with the situation.

Giving Face

You give someone face by complimenting them, showing them respect, or doing something that increases their self-esteem. For example:

  • Complimenting a person as long as you do not single out one person when the work was a group effort.
  • Praising the group (company, school, family, country).
  • Praising the environment (facility, office building, home) or hospitality.
  • Offering appreciative comments about Japanese culture, history, language, people.

Losing Face

You can cause someone to lose face by causing them embarrassment and/or tarnishing their image and reputation. Examples include:

  • Direct or indirect criticism of a person.
  • Direct or indirect criticism of the group the individual is affiliated with. Be cautious when praising your family, company, country, etc., since such statements may be taken as comparisons and thus criticisms of the Japanese groups.
  • Giving someone a gift that is beneath their status.
  • Turning down an invitation or a gesture of friendship.
  • Not meeting the expectations of the group you are affiliated with or causing that group embarrassment.
  • Not keeping your word.
  • Demonstrations of anger or excessive emotionalism.

Saving Face

If you cause someone to lose face or someone is embarrassed by your words or actions, the best recourse is to appropriate blame for the situation. Some examples are:

  • “Perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly.”
  • “Oh that kind of thing happens in our country too.”
  • “I have done the same thing myself.”
  • “She must be under a lot of pressure.”
  • “You have been working hard. I am sure you are just tired.”

Other important points to keep in mind:

  • In the presence of a supervisor, do not praise a subordinate for their talent. The boss should always be seen as cleverer than their employee. Praising the subordinate makes the supervisor lose face. You may, however, to praise an employee’s hard work.
  • Do not refuse someone’s willingness to pay for a meal or insist on splitting the bill. The Japanese prefer to take on the role of host when in their country. They also gain face by paying.
  • Understand the hierarchy of the business people with whom you interact. Failure to do so will upset the established order, and cause those present to lose face.

Status / Hierarchy

The Japanese are very conscious of age and status. This is derived from Confucianism, which emphasizes social order. Everyone has a distinct place in the hierarchy and belongs to many different hierarchies such as the family, the extended family, a group of friends or a workgroup. There are distinct words to define a sibling based on their age relationship of elder brother/sister or a younger brother/sister.

Status and hierarchy are apparent in language. There are different endings to verbs, depending upon whether someone is higher or lower than the speaker. While it is important to err on the side of formality, do not use language that is inappropriately formal. It is offensive if a woman’s language is too informal.

These rules are taught at school where children learn to address other students as senior to them or junior to them. The more senior students are spoken to with respect and reverence. This communication style and respect for hierarchy carries into business. If two people from the same school work in the same organization, the more senior person is expected to mentor the more junior.

Typically, the oldest person in a group is revered and shown deference. In a social situation, they are served first and their drinks are poured for them. In general, the elderly are treated with the highest regard. There is even a special holiday designated as “Respect for the Elderly”.

Hierarchy is respected in many non-verbal ways. For example, the most senior person enters the room first, followed by team members in descending order of rank. The highest ranking person sits at the head of the table or in the middle of the table furthest from the door and hierarchy dictates where others sit. Therefore, wait until told where to sit. If you are hosting a meeting with Japanese, consult with someone to ensure that you organize the seating in an appropriate manner.


The Japanese approach to religion is multi-faceted and pragmatic. Typically, religion does not enter into daily life. Steeped in both Shinto and Buddhism, most Japanese consider themselves to be adherents to both religions and observe the appropriate tradition for the occasion.

For example, weddings are conducted in Shinto Shrines; funerals are overseen by Buddhist priests; and festivals that venerate ancestors are Buddhist. Given this practical approach to religion, modern-day Japanese are generally respectful of a variety of different religious viewpoints that may not be their own.

Attitudes to Money

Japan used to have one of the highest savings rates in the world; in the 1970s, up to 20% of household income would be saved. But this had dropped to 14% in the 1990s and is now below 7%, lower than that of France, Germany and Italy. There are various reasons for this. Poor interest rates provide less of an incentive to save. Many householders have dipped into their savings in the tough economic times to maintain their lifestyle – even when money is tight, the Japanese love to buy gadgets and expensive accessories.

The high rate of unemployment among young people means the younger generation isn’t saving, and parents are supporting children well into their 20s. Despite the fact that this baby-boomer generation is also likely to be supporting elderly parents, Japan still has an extremely high standard of living. Credit cards are used for larger rather than everyday purchases – Japanese people are more inclined to pay cash for small items. Market penetration of credit cards is much lower than it is in the United States; people in their 40s and late 30s grew up without credit cards and are less inclined to use them.