In the wake of recent devastating events in Japan, the world has marveled at the Japanese people’s resilience and maintaining of social order.
This week we’re posting an excerpt from “The Lowdown: Business Etiquette – Japan” by Rochelle Kopp and Pernille Rudlin. Here they talk about the importance of etiquette and order to the Japanese.
“You’ve probably heard that the Japanese are very particular about etiquette - and indeed, that’s true. By why is it that etiquette is so important to them?
It starts with the native Japanese religion, Shinto, which places an emphasis on purity and ritual. The Japanese language itself also emphasizes ritualized ways of speaking in certain situations. Then, as Japanese society evolved, a complex set of rules evolved that governed how people should interact with each other - and breaking those rules could even result in death (from a samurai’s sword, or through the obligation to commit ritual suicide).
This was in part due to the influence of Confucianism, which emphasizes the proper display of respect between people of different ranks. Today, proper etiquette, as well as the general idea that there is a right way to do everything, is emphasized in the Japanese educational system. And when fresh graduates join Japanese companies, their orientation typically features intensive etiquette training on how to behave in business situations.
All in all, this leads to a lot of consciousness among the Japanese of the need to do things properly!
Let’s go through some of the fundamentals of Japanese culture – the “why” of why the Japanese pay so much attention to etiquette – the Confucian roots in Japanese society, the need for harmony and the strong focus on relationship building and the group.
Confucius was Chinese, not Japanese, but Confucian thought was introduced to Japan nearly 2000 years ago, and was heavily pushed from the 17th to 19th centuries by the Tokugawa Shoguns as a way of trying to pacify and unite the country after a long period of civil war.
Confucianism isn’t a religion - it’s more of a philosophy, and one of the key elements of it is the idea that societies are fundamentally unequal and that there’s not much you can do to change that. However, you can make life more harmonious and pleasant for everyone if each person behaves appropriately according to their status. Basically, the person with superior status should be benevolent and the subordinate should be obedient. If both parties do this, it works - on a reciprocal basis: it’s easy to be obedient to someone who’s kind to you and it’s easy to be kind to someone who’s loyal to you. So it helped the Tokugawa Shogunate maintain their feudal social order, and enforce loyalty.” – Rochelle Kopp and Pernille Rudlin