To look back, Japan was an isolated group of people for hundreds of years. There was not much exposure to the outside influences. In order to get along and maintain balance within society, the Japanese developed successful cultural schemes in order to live in harmony amongst themselves.
Shinto: Harmony with nature
Coexisting in harmony with nature is known as Shinto. They see that every living thing has a spirit and therefore should be shown respect. When nature is shown the respect it deserves, people thrive better. It is believed that respecting nature promotes healthier crops and can even promote better health and fertility within the surrounding population. Even though the implementation of various religious beliefs is seen in Japan today, the practice of Shinto is still strongly predominant.
Wa: the concept of harmony
Harmony translated into Japanese is wa (wa-h) 和. This concept of harmony was created around 600 BC within a hierarchical structured government. Each individual knew their place within society and did exactly what was expected of them.
The Japanese still implement this idea within their homes, their schools and their businesses. Even the way they address each other is framed from the level of importance that person is put within their hierarchical structure. It isn’t seen as oppressive or degrading. It is an understanding that in order for society to work harmoniously, everyone should do what they’re expected to do, address certain people a certain way to show loving care and respect towards others and vice versa. The Japanese would say that this method is what keeps their society working together in what we would call a collectivist culture. In other words, taking the needs and wants of the group as a whole instead of in the form of individual’s needs. Because of this, the Japanese, to a certain degree, will follow this concept to ‘save face’, not only for themselves but for the people they love, like their family. It is also to show respect toward the reputation for the company they work for. To do something disruptive can be detrimental to the individual, that can lead to things like shame and stress, not only to the individual but to anybody else that could be affected by it.
Here are a few things that the Japanese practice to implement a sense of harmony in their lifestyle:
1. Avoidance of confrontation.
It is not that individuals do not have a say. In the scheme of things, it is really about ‘what other people will say’; ‘what others will think’ approach. Situations that cause stress and imbalance only happen if the individual puts their needs above the needs of those around them. Because of this conditioning within their behaviors, it is seen as immoral to lose your temper in public.
2. The individual’s needs are secondary.
This applies mostly in regards to emotional needs and ambitions if it is conflicting with the needs of the family and/or the companies needs in general. For example, Japanese workers rarely take vacation days and many of them only have Sundays off every week, so they don’t fall behind at work. Because of this, the Japanese government issues a lot of holidays, including but not limited to ‘mountain day’, ‘golden week’, etc. This allows the workers to spend time with their families.
Within families, a younger member will take care of the elderly family members. This is why retirement communities are rare in Japan. Most elderly people are taken care of by their own family members, as this is the custom.
3. Respect your elders and your superiors.
Since individual needs are secondary, the hierarchical scheme denotes that those higher up either in age or status are respected and always addressed in a respectful manner. This is seen to create harmony in always showing the people whom have worked hard and lived long that those whom are younger respect and love them. To do that, they avoid disharmony and possible aggression, which in the process keeps their relationships healthy.
4. Appropriate use of language.
There are different levels of language used when addressing others, especially when addressing someone seen as lower or higher rank of importance than yourself. For example, when a shop worker addresses a customer they might say ‘sama’ as a form of politely addressing a person of importance. However, ‘san’ is more commonly used as a form of respect toward someone by adding it after their last name or their societal placement. For example: ‘Harris san’ (same as saying ‘Mr. Harris’) or oka-san (means mother in Japanese. How a child addresses their mother).
Do not use ‘san’ or ‘sama’ to address yourself. It is unheard of and considered rude. When in doubt, just stick to addressing adult strangers by their last name and ‘san’ at the end.