The Cultural Values Of Japan
During the 1970s, one of the European Union’ s commissioners was involved in negotiations with the Japanese over a particularly difficult trade issue. The talks were not going well, and in a confidential briefing to commercial staff at several European embassies in Tokyo, the commissioner admitted that he found it impossible to deal with the Japanese. ‘They are from another planet,’ he was quoted as saying. ‘They are not Earthmen.’
AN ‘ALIEN’ CULTURE
The Japanese are Earthmen, and in the vast majority of their actions and reactions, they are similar to all other Earthmen. As Shakespeare noted about another race that has been consistently misunderstood, if you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh? Indeed, it may well be that the Japanese are easier to deal with than people from cultures nearer to our own. At least with the Japanese you know you are dealing with an alien culture – they look different, they speak a different language and they eat different food for a start – so the visitor is much more likely to be aware of misunderstandings than a British visitor to Germany, for example. At least when misunderstandings are noticed, there is a chance of correcting them.
WA – THE HARMONY OF EXISTENCE
Many different analysts, both from within and outside Japan, have tried to identify what it is that makes the Japanese different from other Earthmen. Some of their conclusions agree with each other, and some do not. Most people would agree, though, that at the heart of Japanese society is the continuous search for wa. Wa is a virtually indefinable term, usually translated as ‘harmony’ . It has overtones of peacefulness and fulfilment within its meaning, and is the essence of how Japanese life should be lived.
The sound ‘wa’ also means ‘peace’ and is an ancient name for Japan itself. If we begin with the idea that everything a Japanese does, thinks or touches has a rightful place in the world, and that this place should not be upset by thoughts or actions that upset the harmony of existence, then we have the starting point for explaining the logic (but ‘logic’ is a western term, of course) behind the actions of the Japanese.
In 1937, the Japanese Ministry of Education issued a document entitled ‘Fundamentals of our National Polity’ (Kokutai no Hongi), and while much of what is in that document has inevitably been superseded by history, the paragraphs on the meaning of harmony remain true today. ‘Harmony as in our nation is a great harmony of individuals who, by giving play to their individual differences, and through difficulties, toil and labour, converge as one. Because of individual differences and difficulties, this harmony becomes all the greater and its substance rich.’
This may be an idealised view of how Japanese harmony works, but it is an ideal that the Japanese believe in. Japan, like many other East Asian cultures, works on a group ethic, but they take this principle to a different level. It is not simply that the good of the group must take precedence over the good of the individual; the Japanese feel that the individual has a responsibility to develop personal skills (and to minimise personal defects) which are then used exclusively for the good of the group. Everybody is an individual, but every individual has his or her own unique and important place within a group.
A KIND OF EQUALITY
The Japanese would also say that this harmony produces an equality that is not found in other cultures. Japanese society, in certain obvious ways, is an equal, if not necessarily democratic, society. As Kenichi Ohmae put it in his ground-breaking book, The Mind Of The Strategist, ‘grossly oversimplifying, one could say that in Japan, every member of the village is equal and a generalist.’ The unique place that everybody has in the group, or village, or company, is equal to everybody else’s place and is also interchangeable. While it is important that everybody has a particular skill that they bring to the group, such as the ability to build houses or do the accounts or cook katsudon, everybody is replaceable and interchangeable. The most important skill that anybody can bring to the group is the ability to be adaptable, and to perform successfully the tasks the group wants you to perform.
EQUALITY VERSUS FREEDOM
Equality and freedom are not often good bedfellows. The French Revolution, which espoused the three causes of liberty, equality and fraternity, soon found itself sacrificing liberty in the name of equality. A very free society, such as in the United States, is not particularly equal, and the Japanese trick of combining equality with liberty seems to go against the natural order of things, However, it is not really so. The freedom that Japanese people have in their lives, which they would all say is very real, is very much circumscribed by the needs of the group. True freedom of action, in the individual sense we understand in the West, is a rarity in Japan. The needs of the group must come first.
This striving for harmony has been noted by many observers of the Japanese and other cultures. The Japanese have a tendency to prove their culture is unique by comparing it with western cultures, as if to try and create a harmonious place for all cultures of the world. Western cultures are happy to stand on their own merits, without having to be compared as better or worse than others. Once again, we see the difference between the analogue and digital approaches to life.
WHAT WESTERNERS HAVE MADE OF JAPANESE CULTURE
A juvenile culture?
Perhaps the most famous of all comments about the Japanese was made by General Douglas MacArthur shortly after he took over as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan in 1945. He called them ‘a nation of twelve year olds’ . What he meant by this comment was that to his American eyes, the Japanese were very keen and enthusiastic, very eager to help and very willing to learn. They were also very unsophisticated and very unable to foresee the consequences of their actions. Viewed from a western standpoint, his observation still has echoes today, but to describe the Japanese as unsophisticated, for example, would be a mistake.
Japanese women may sometimes appear to be annoyingly babyish and ‘cute’ to western eyes, giggling bashfully at every opportunity in public and decorating their apartments with teddy bears, but this is not childishness per se. It is simply a defence mechanism against the realities of a very masculine society.
The general Japanese preference for facts rather than opinions may appear to Westerners as juvenile, but that stems from their education system, where the accumulation of facts is rewarded and the expression of opinions, especially one ‘s own opinions, is not encouraged. One foreign theatre producer, who had licensed a play to be performed in Japanese, came over to Tokyo for the opening night. The next morning he asked what the reviews in the newspapers had been like. ‘We don’t do reviews,’ was the reply. ‘We just record the facts, such as “There was a standing ovation”.’
Change and authority
The first post-war book to try to analyse the culture of Japan was The Chrysanthemum And The Sword (1946), by the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Perhaps the two key characteristics of the Japanese that she identified in her truly brilliant thesis were the contradictory facts that the Japanese can change their society without challenging its underlying values, and that Japan ‘is a triangle controlled by a pin in one corner’ .
A triangle lying on a snooker table, for example, is easily visible, but the way it can be turned, and the side or corner on which it can be made to pivot, is unknown. In the same way, Japanese society is easy to see, but what controls its changes is harder to guess. Will it swivel on the top corner, or to the left or to the right? The architecture of the triangle has a top and a bottom, just as the hierarchy of society does. But the power in that hierarchy may well not be at the top. In fact, in Japanese society and in Japanese business, ‘every effort is made to minimize the appearance of arbitrary authority, and to make every act appear to be a gesture of loyalty to the status-symbol who is so constantly divorced from real exercise of power’ .
This is why Japanese ideas of leadership are so different from western concepts. Where in the West we look for certain qualities in our leaders – decisiveness, vision and man management skills perhaps, but above all visibility – in Japan the blatant exercise of authority is seen as somehow breaking the harmony of the group.
It is also explains why every warrior on every side in every civil war in Japan has always declared his loyalty to the emperor before going out to fight. In this way, Japanese can revolt against the status quo without becoming revolutionary. The civil war of the 1860s culminated in drastic change – the overthrow of the Tokugawa shoguns and the installation of parliamentary government. But this drastic change was called the Meiji Restoration, not the Meiji Revolution. Japan does not have breaks with the past, but at the same time she is eager to embrace the future.
Obligations and decision-making
In 1957, the then British Ambassador to Japan, Sir Esler Dening, retired. In his final letter to the Foreign Secretary he summed up his thoughts on the Japanese a decade after the end of the war. ‘Material progress has been spectacular and industrially Japan today still ranks first in Asia. But the western ways and western ideas, apart from material progress, have by no means been assimilated’ . Dening, who had been involved with Japan for almost 40 years, loved the country and the people but was not afraid to express his thoughts about them.
This contrasted, in his view, with the Japanese themselves. ‘To ask a Japanese what he thinks is usually to be sure that he will not tell you... It has been said that almost from birth the Japanese are under such a load of obligations that they are never free to follow an independent course. It is for this reason that it is impossible to get an immediate decision from an individual; he must always consult first with all the people to whom he has obligations in the matter.’ Nothing much has changed since then. Decisiveness is still a sin in Japan.
ANALYSING JAPANESE CULTURE
A recent social anthropologist who has studied the differences between cultures and come up with some interesting ideas about Japan is the Dutch professor Geert Hofstede. In his major work, Cultures and Organisations, he identifies the cultural pillars of over 50 national cultures, Japan included, and points out the similarities and differences that affect the way cultures relate to each other. He notes that there are five different dimensions to culture, and the way that cultures vary across these five dimensions pinpoints the different ways that cultures approach communication and problem-solving, which is, in most anthropologists’ opinion, the point of a culture in the first place.
He identifies Japan as a collectivist culture. This does not come as a great surprise to anybody who has tried to deal with the Japanese, especially from the background of the three most individual national cultures: the United States, Australia and Britain. Japan is actually, according to Hofstede’s research, reasonably middle-ranked on the world list of individualistic cultures, and there is no doubt that while most cultures have become slightly more collectivist over the past 30 years or so,
Japan has become more individualistic. Yet he uses Japanese examples of a collectivist society when he notes that ‘the maintenance of harmony with one’s social environment becomes a key virtue’ in collectivist societies.
Dealing with inequality
Hofstede also identifies what he calls ‘Power Distance’ as a dimension of culture. Power Distance is basically the way that societies deal with inequality. All societies are unequal, but what Hofstede was looking for was the way that societies dealt with that inequality. The most hierarchical cultures, i.e. those most at ease with inequality, are generally those in which religion, whether Muslim or Roman Catholic, plays a central role. Malaysia, Arab cultures and South American countries head the list, while white egalitarian Europe scores the low scores. Israel is the one culture with a religious centre which scores very low on Power Distance, but Japan, which has a very hierarchical but comparatively unreligious past tradition, earns a very average score. As Hofstede suggests, the Japanese ‘accept and appreciate inequality, but feel that the use of power should be moderated by a sense of obligation’ . We are back with the understated notions of leadership that Ruth Benedict noted in the Japanese.
Masculinity and femininity
The third cultural dimension is that of masculinity or femininity. According to Hofstede, Japan is the most masculine society in the world, easily outranking the second most masculine, Austria. Masculinity is not simply a statement of whether men rule the roost, but whether ‘masculine’ values of possessions, competition and challenge are embraced rather than the ‘feminine’ values of co-operation and relationship building.
At first glance, it would appear that Japan should not score particularly highly on the masculine/feminine scale, because as we have seen, harmony, co-operation and relationship building are central to Japan ‘s way of going about things. There is also the’ feminine ‘issue of lifetime job security, which was certainly the norm in Japan at the time that Hofstede was first carrying out his research, even if that has changed a little now. However, there are other issues, such as the incredibly high level of pressure and competition in Japan’ s education system, the lack of female managers in most areas of business and the concepts of inner strength as espoused by Zen Buddhism, which point towards a society with masculine values.
A study in 1986 (on the face of it one of the more unlikely studies to have received university funding) showed that three-month-old baby boys in Japan were significantly noisier than three-month-old baby girls, while the opposite was true in the United States. The study concludes that this difference was not likely to be inborn, but induced by the mother’s expectations in each society. It also noted that adult Japanese males are noisier than adult Japanese females, while adult females are the noisy ones in any group of Americans. Japan is certainly still a man’s world, even though it may gradually be changing.
Responding to uncertainty
Hofstede’s fourth cultural dimension is something he calls ‘Uncertainty Avoidance’. Uncertainty exists in life, but the way we deal with it helps define a group or culture. Uncertainty Avoidance is ‘the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations’ . On this parameter, Japan scores very high, while the British, Americans
and many Europeans score quite low. The Japanese in general are a far more anxious people than the British or Americans.
As Hofstede notes, ‘In countries with strong uncertainty avoidance, people come across as busy, fidgety, emotional. aggressive and active.’ Clearly, Japanese people do not seem to Westerners to be emotional or fidgety (compare a class of 15-year-old schoolchildren in Britain and Japan for degrees of fidgetiness) but the Japanese have been taught by convention to hide their emotions. Watch a Japanese businessman when he is released from his social obligations with the help of a few glasses of beer or whisky: then you will see emotion.
Precision and punctuality, two other attributes of those cultures who are unhappy with uncertainty, are other features of Japanese culture. In business terms, the Japanese fondness for facts and forward planning is another sign of their need to minimise uncertainty in their lives. Every company in the world produces a forward plan, but only in Japan will companies produce plans for 20 years hence.
The pyramid versus the village network
When Hofstede put together his results for Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance, he realised that national cultures fall broadly into four quadrants, according to whether they have weak or strong Power Distance coupled with weak or strong Uncertainty Avoidance. Japan, with figures on the high side for both categories, comes in the largest group of countries which he describes as having a ‘pyramid of people’ – in business terms with the general manager at the top of the pyramid and everybody in their proper place below.
Britain, the USA, Australia, Ireland and the Scandinavian countries, on the other hand, have comparatively low scores in each category, and therefore place themselves in the opposite quadrant. This means they follow what another scholar, the American Owen Stevens, calls the rules of the ‘village market’, which has little hierarchy or rules, but pragmatically follows the demands of the situation. These two business styles are far apart, and a culture that is based in the village market – practical, opportunistic and decisive – will find it very hard to work easily with those well ordered, regular and hierarchical types who prefer the pyramid of people.
Virtue versus truth
Hofstede’s final cultural dimension is that of ‘Long Term Orientation’, which is not simply a case of forward planning, but what he calls the conflict between virtue and truth, between Confucian principles of virtue and western scientific ideals of truth. As one may guess, the Japanese and Chinese are at one end of this scale, with most Europeans and the Americans at the other end.
A survey was carried out by a Japanese consultancy firm, in which they asked people to name their ‘favourite words’ from a list of values. These ‘favourite words’ were not chosen for their sound but for the relevance of the values they indicated to the respondents’ lives. The survey showed that the ‘favourite words’ of the Japanese were ‘effort’,‘perseverance’ and ‘thank you’, while those of Europeans (a widely varying cultural group, of course) were’ ‘family’, ‘love’ and ‘fun’. ‘Effort’ and ‘perseverance’ are two typically long-term values, while ‘fun’ in particular is of the moment. Neither set of values can be described as better than the other, but they are certainly different.
LEADERSHIP AND THE ORGANISATION
Other scholars have expanded on Hofstede’s work, notably the Anglo-Dutch pair Charles Hampden Turner and Fons Trompenaars, who have shown how the national cultural characteristics apply to organisational culture, and how different cultures view concepts such as ‘leadership’ and ‘corporate vision’. In particular, they measured the response in different cultures to the statement: ‘A company is a system designed to perform functions and tasks in an efficient way. People are hired to perform these functions with the help of machines and other equipment. They are paid for the tasks they perform’.
Ninety per cent of Americans agreed with that statement, as did over 80% of British respondents. However, only about 25% of Japanese went along with the idea. They much preferred the statement: ‘A company is a group of people working together. They have social relations with other people and with the organization. The functioning is dependent on these relations’ .
In the one case, a company’s task is to produce results, first and foremost for the shareholders, while in the other view, a company is an extension of society and functions only through the communal will of those within it. The two attitudes are fundamentally different. Partnerships between people or organisations basing their working methods on these almost mutually exclusive ideals will struggle to succeed.
A second statement that was put to different nationalities was: ‘It is important for a manager to have at hand precise answers to most of the questions that his/her subordinates may raise about
their work’ . The concept that the boss should know how to direct his staff is one that provokes very different responses in different cultures. In Northern Europe and America, fewer than one quarter of all respondents agreed with that idea: for them the manager was not meant to know everything, and debate about questions raised at work is seen as normal and healthy.
The percentages agreeing with the statement get greater across southern Europe, but by the time we reach Japan, the figures show over three-quarters of business people agreeing with the concept. In Japan, you do not question the boss. Reconciling these two methods of running a company or a department or team across cultural divides is no mean achievement. However, being able to identify the issue is a good starting point.
HARMONY IN THE WORKPLACE
Harmony is, as we have seen, a key element in Japan’s ability to exist with itself. The maintenance of harmony is more important than abstract concepts of truth and right. This leads, as we will see in the next chapter, to a great deal of deliberate ambiguity. Ambiguity is ‘a weapon which enables one to co-exist harmoniously with others and to enjoy the benefits of insider status’, according to the Japanese commentator Hiroshi Kagawa. ‘Ambiguity avoids or smooths over conflicts and promotes teamwork, allowing one modestly to blend into the group’. This statement presupposes a common definition of ‘teamwork’, which is probably wishful thinking, but the maintenance of harmony is the overriding rule of the Japanese workplace. Conflict – on a personal level or within the team – is taboo.
High context and low context cultures
The American social scientist E T Hall has classified cultures in terms of ‘low context’ or ‘high context’ . A low context culture communicates through the words, while a high context culture will deliver the message as much through the person who delivers it as through the words it uses. In a high context culture key points are understood intuitively, action is built around relationships rather than tasks and they emphasise reaching agreement rather than completing a task. From these clues, it is easy to see that Japan is a high context culture, while much of Europe and America is much lower context.
The concept of high and low context works equally well with organisations. Some, like schools with their own language and rules, are comparatively high context: it takes outsiders some time to feel at home there. Others, like petrol stations for example, are very low context. They are there to fulfil a task – that of selling fuel, and maybe offering a car wash – but there is no sense of belonging or even of distinction between one petrol station and another.
When somebody joins an organisation, they inevitably have to join as a ‘low context’ person. Everything has to be explained to them clearly until they become familiar and understand certain things more intuitively. Japanese firms routinely run two or three week induction courses to give new recruits a real sense of the values of the organisation, while western managers just spend a couple of hours pointing out the fire exits and the coffee machine. Values and corporate missions in western firms are written in framed documents and hung on the walls of reception areas. In Japanese firms they are built into the way everybody goes about their work. Things are not spelled out.
It was the former British Labour chancellor Denis Healey who quoted in his autobiography the startling statistic that ‘Japan has 1,000 engineers for every hundred lawyers; the United States has 1,000 lawyers for every hundred engineers’ . This is a typical example not only of the inflated figures beloved by finance ministers around the world (America has over 20 times as many lawyers per capita as Japan, but not quite the overwhelming difference that Healey implies) but also of the difference between a high context culture that does things intuitively, and the low context culture that has to have everything written down and agreed before getting under way.
Lawyers do not breed harmony: they thrive on confrontation. Japan just does not see the point of them.