Welcome to Japan, perhaps the world’s most polite society and where everyone is programmed to follow rules and create harmony in the society. It is such a fascinating culture and I am privileged to get to experience it. It might not be new to you but the Japanese culture has been in the spotlight for years. They made names like the country full of kawaii (cute) things, the world of Anime, healthy and raw food but I want to dig deeper into this culture. The best way to understand Japanese culture and way of life, behavior, and attitudes is these cultural codes. I have a long list of answers and they all have to do with cultural attitudes but let’s tackle ten for this article. These cultural code words reveal why the Japanese society is always in order and their etiquette is a high priority.
In this article you’ll dig deeper:
- How to understand the Japanese culture
- What these cultural key terms can teach us
- The secret to why the Japanese live the longest
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Table of Contents
1. Understand Japanese culture with the concept of Wabi-sabi
Wabi-sabi is a concept in Japanese culture where simplicity and imperfection are valued. It encourages us to accept our imperfections and encourages us to simplify our lives so we can cherish what’s important to us. Let’s understand this concept better separately. Wabi implies the mindset that appreciates simplicity and acceptance. While Saibi can be translated into “antique look or elegant simplicity” Many Japanese people find this hard to explain but my friend put it these brilliant words “Wabi-sabi when they are taken together, it implies an appreciation of simple beauty and imperfection of things”
WISDOM WE CAN TAKE FROM THE WAY OF WABI-SABI
Wabi-sabi teaches us acceptance. When challenges or trials are thrown at us, the best thing we can do is be flexible and let things go. When we learn the power of acceptance, we can embrace change and always be ready to adapt to these changes. It’s like bamboo trees in a storm. They bend with the strong wind instead of fighting. Instead of breaking, they go with the flow. We can approach challenges in life this way too. Accept and continue to grow even when the circumstances change.
Wabi-sabi means tuning into nature. When you learn the Japanese language, you will notice that nature is embedded in the language. Many words are onomatopoeic. Gorogoro is the sound of thunder, kopokopo is the sound of bubbling water while nyanya is the sound cats make. The sounds of nature have shaped the language, and this is also applied in the philosophy of Wabi-sabi. It encourages us to pay attention to nature and become more mindful of our environment. We can notice the quiet and calm feeling nature can bring to us.
Wabi-sabi teaches us to embrace our imperfections and let go of the quest for perfection because as we all know perfection is a myth. It teaches us to appreciate the true beauty of things. In the concept of wabi-sabi, Japanese people believe that only imperfect things like a cracked teacup can be truly beautiful. This can be true to ourselves too. We can only see our true beauty when we accept our flaws and imperfections. We can notice the everyday magic that surrounds us when we stop chasing perfection. I want to leave you with this powerful message.
Life is messy, flawed, and always incomplete. Life is fundamentally imperfect.
2. Wa means Harmony in Japanese culture
What could you do more in your everyday life or relationships to encourage harmony? Harmony is the key term to best understand the part of Japanese culture where everything is in order. It equates to the natural order and harmony in a group. In a homogeneous country, conformity is prioritized to maintain harmony. This means being thoughtful and considerate of others. Be aware of your environment and be careful not to create chaos. This explains why people refrain from talking on the train or bus. Anticipate the needs of other people and adjust accordingly.
3. The concept of Ikigai
Japan ranks highly on the life-expectancy tables and the secret to this narrows down to just one reason. It’s because of the concept of Ikigai which encompasses your reason for living. Ikigai is what motivates you to get up every morning. What’s your life goal and reason to exist in this world? What’s your deep purpose in life? If your Ikigai is your job, you should never quit that’s why Japanese have long-term employment. They stay in one company for the rest of their career. If your hobby is your Ikigai, then you should never give up that’s why a lot of Japanese learn and focus on one sport, instrument, or skill from. They start learning one thing from elementary schools and continue doing it for the rest of their lives.
By finding your purpose to drive you every day, you can focus your energy on that and extend your effort to achieve it. Find your passion and skills to fulfill your destiny. It may be hard to find what you are really passionate about but believe that everyone
has a personal Ikigai, and everyone has the destiny to fulfill. Start with your interest. How do you spend your day? What’s an engaging activity you spend most of your time on? Identify a few and find your passion and skills there.
4. Isshokenmei – Putting One’s life on the line
To understand why Japanese people work so hard, we first have to look at the meaning and history of Isshokenmei. In old Japan, Samurai were obligated to give their lives to defend their master. They have to protect the lives of their family members too and often stake their lives on their behavior. For this reason, the key term ishokenmei was born which means “putting one’s life on the line”.
Although the meaning has changed, it is still one of the most common cultural code words you can hear in modern Japan. Isshokenmei is when people commit to doing something. This can be translated as “I will do my best” and it emphasizes commitment. It’s like taking an oath to do your best before a match or presidency term to them. This concept has shaped the way Japanese people approach things. When you commit to a project, activity, or test you are expected to put your best foot forward.
5. Omiyage – creating obligations and strengthening personal relationships
Omiyage or gifts reveals a great deal about Japanese culture. Gifts are given to express appreciation and to build a personal relationship with your valued clients, family members, colleagues, and bosses. But it can also mean building up obligation or “I am giving you a gift because I might need to ask a favor later”. When Japanese people visit a friend or relative’s house, it is polite to bring gifts like food or drink. When they travel, they always bring Omiyage back, usually famous products of the region or place they traveled to.
Companies send gifts to their valued customers as well as other their partner companies. The largest gift-giving time in Japan is at the end of the year. They send gifts to people to show appreciation for favors they received that year. I personally thought it’s an expensive way and a waste of money, but I fully understood and embraced the custom after living here for four years.
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6. Shinbo – You must have patience
Growing up, I was taught that “Time is gold”. Life is viewed as a precise number of years where no time should not be wasted but in Japan, on the other hand, people were conditioned to believe that life is like a circle. If you don’t accomplish the things you want in this lifetime, there would be another chance. Japanese view then became more time valuing. Things like rituals should not be hurried and the slow, measured use of time is positive and encouraged. The pace of life becomes slow and the relationship with things is more valued. This teaches us then to become more patient in life. Those who are willing to wait and not do things rapidly end up winners at the end of this life. It is better to wait as long as necessary and win than to be impatient and lose.
7. Ude – Having a special skill
It is in the Japanese tradition to develop a skill and this is called Ude. Japanese people were conditioned to develop a special Ude and has continued to be practiced today. The most common skills that they pursue are sports such as swimming, tennis or baseball, singing, and learning a new language most especially English. However, you won’t be hearing them bragging about their skills because they like to keep a low profile. There is an appropriate time for them to show their special Ude. They are careful about how to show their skills because they don’t want to appear arrogant. So next time you meet a Japanese person, be careful not to look down on them because they do not reveal their expertise soon. It does not help to just talk about yourself, brag about your Ude, and underestimate the Japanese.
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8. The concept of Kintsugi
The concept of Kintsugi is very similar to Wabi-sabi. It is showing appreciation for imperfect beauty. Let’s take the art of repairing a broken bowl or teacup. I grew up believing that once pottery is broken, no matter how creative you repair it, it won’t be as pretty as the original. Though, when I moved to Japan, I learned that when you put the shattered pieces of a teacup with golden lacquer, the outcome will be more beautiful than the original. This is the concept of Kintsugi. It teaches us that broken objects are not something to hide but to display. Thanks to their scars and flaws.
What Kintsugi can teach us
There’s so much we can learn from the key term Kintsugi. It teaches us to repair things instead of throwing them right away. When an object breaks, it doesn’t mean that there is no more use. It can be more valuable. By applying Kintsugi in your life, you will develop resilience. Also, you will learn to embrace your scars and transform them into your strengths. Your imperfections are marks of your authenticity and remember that there is beauty in your flaws. Live a life that focuses on intention and happiness instead of trying to live perfectly.
9. Gaman – The art of perseverance and endurance
To understand the ultimate patience of Japanese people, we have to look at the word Gaman suru which means to persevere or endure with patience. It is putting up with an unpleasant situation and build a character through enduring tough times. This concept started in Japan’s samurai class who were trained in endurance since early childhood. The training includes enduring cold, following precise instructions, and other hardships.
In modern Japan, you can feel the perseverance of the people during calamities like earthquakes, and tsunamis. These are traumatic events yet Japanese people endure and even bounce back stronger than before. They have such strong perseverance and strong patience to go through all odds of life.
In my observations in schools where I teach, students in my school are trained to practice Gaman through tough times. While it’s very cold in winter, PE classes or activities are held outside. Kids cannot complain but are encouraged to endure the cold and concentrate on studying. Have you heard how Japanese people patiently wait for a product launch? They line up for hours in front of shops just to buy something. People in busy cities wait for long hours to get to work. These can be understood through the concept of Gaman.
10. Honne and Tatemae
These two concepts are very important in Japanese culture. It is basically the idea of who you really are and what are you expected to be in society. Honne refers to your real and honest opinions, what you really think of something, your real thoughts, and desires. While Tatemae is the behavior that is socially acceptable. Why do Japanese people have Tatemae? The ultimate reason is Wa (Harmony).
People are expected to adjust to avoid disturbing the wa (Harmony) in the group. Sometimes you have to hold your real opinions and put a face so that everything works well and goes smoothly. The display of strong opinions are not usually shown in workplaces because making your boss or colleagues feel good is the priority, but you can always use honne to close family members and friends. This can be insincere for people from the west but that’s just what Japanese culture is.
LEARN MORE ABOUT HONNE AND TATEMAE HERE
Congratulations! You made it to the end. There is so much we can learn from these Japanese cultural key terms, regarding our relationships with others and fitting in the culture, our passion, and personal reasons to live. What’s your personal ikigai? What makes you jump out of bed in the morning? By applying the concept of Wabi-sabi and kintsugi in our life, we can learn to accept our imperfections and see the beauty in broken things. How do you approach things in life? Do you commit to doing something? How do you deal with tough times? Do you wait patiently, accept these changes, and persevere? I hope you had a better understanding of Japanese culture after reading this post.
BEFORE YOU GO
Check these amazing books about Japan and Japanese culture. They have made a huge impact on how I view Japan and I was able to understand the people, society and the history with these books. I hope you learn something from this post.