What defines the Japanese character?

By Casey Baseel

For most of its history, Japan was separated from the rest of the world by the surrounding seas and an isolationist policy strictly enforced by its feudal period government. These centuries of isolation led to a unique culture, and it’s long been a favorite challenge for researchers and commentators to try to pin down just what defines the Japanese character.

Chinese news portal BW Chinese recently published a list of characteristics of the Japanese psyche, as originally put forth by Australian Gregory Clark, whose educational and professional career dealing with Japanese sociology, education, and economics has spanned more than five decades.

1. Group mentality

First on Clark’s list is Japan’s well-known propensity for putting the group before the self, and by extension following orders from one’s superiors. Clark points to the danger such a mentality can pose if the controlling force is malicious in nature, illustrating his point with the snowballing nationalism that led to Japan’s overseas aggressions leading up to and during World War II.

In more ordinary circumstances, this tends to manifest itself most noticeably in the workplace. Part of the reason workers in Japan do so much overtime is that it’s traditionally seen as bad form to leave the office before your coworkers, and especially before your boss. Even if you’re done with your individual tasks, it’s considered polite to remain in the workplace, either to lend a hand to your fellow employees or, as is sometimes the case, to busy yourself until everyone is ready to go home.

2. Honesty in dealing with others

Soon after arriving in Japan, when I was still getting used to commuting by train instead of car, I left my bag on the Yamanote Line. As soon as I noticed, I told the stationmaster, who suggested I wait the 60 minutes until the same train came back around, as the Yamanote is a loop line. Sure enough, when it did, my bag was right where I’d left it. Nothing was taken from inside, despite the hundreds of people who’d passed through the carriage with ample opportunity to take whatever they’d liked.

Similarly, Clark speaks of how in Japan, one of the major functions of the police boxes that dot the country is to serve as local lost-and-found centers, which are frequently utilized by honest citizens who find someone else’s unattended property.

3. Respect for order and cleanliness

Along with the obvious example of Japanese travelers following their tour guide in neat, well-disciplined lines, Clark makes mention of the nation’s infatuation with high-tech toilets. Next time you stay at a fancy Tokyo hotel and are baffled by the control panel of your bidet-equipped toilet, remember, each and every one of those switches, buttons, and knobs is there because a designer thought, “You know, someone here in Japan would appreciate this kind of attention and service for their posterior.”

4. Preference for doing things by hand

But despite the acceptance of toilet technology to keep you backside squeaky clean, plenty of things in Japan still get done the old-fashioned way. In the West, writing your resume with a pen is a surefire way to get it pegged as coming from someone who simply doesn’t know how to use a computer, and thus tossed in the trash can. In Japan, on the other hand, job hunters often buy blank resume sheets and painstakingly enter their pertinent information in neat, handwritten characters, as a show of sincerity in their respect for and interest in the position they are applying for. It probably also serves to show that you’re one of the few who can still correctly recall and write kanji characters without relying on a computer to auto-convert it for you!

5. Affinity for teamwork and familial managerial styles

Related to the group mentality mentioned above, Clark says people in Japan work well in groups, whether they take the form of sports teams, student associations, or workplace committees.

Clark also describes the preferred managerial style as being familial in nature. Indeed, Japanese companies often express a desire for open communication between workers and managers, which even influences office interior design. In Japan, managers almost never have separate offices from their direct subordinates. Instead, the entire team sits as a group in the same room, and often at the same table, to facilitate the exchange of ideas and feedback.

6. More open-minded in dealing with things from abroad than people from abroad

Clark touches upon one of the most puzzling dichotomies about Japan. As Japanese travelers increasingly go abroad, and as more foreign visitors come to Japan, this is becoming less of an issue, but in a country that was so homogenous for so long, there are still those whose inexperience means they’re not entirely sure how to interact with people from another culture.

7. Undefined political ideology

Japan’s two largest political parties are the Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Party. Clark observes that the similarities between the two run deeper than their names, commenting that their platforms tend not to be so different from each other.

Setting aside the possible societal repercussions of a lack of earnest debate at the highest levels of government, this does at least mean that you’re much less likely to have a barbecue ruined by two friends with different political philosophies getting liquored up and tearing into each other than in many other countries.

8. Emotional and aggressive

Although most people who have been to Japan would likely describe the population as calm and reserved, Clark points to the country’s invasion of China in the 1930s as an indicator of aggressive tendencies. We’re not even going to comment on that one…

9. Lack of clear diplomatic or economic policy

Clark characterizes Japanese foreign and economic policy as straddling the line between two courses of action until a decision must be made. He cites this lack of clear direction as being a major cause of Japan’s so-called Lost Decade, the period of economic recession during the 1990s which followed the boom of the 1980s’ Bubble Economy.

10. Lack of critical thinking skills

While praising the Japanese primary and secondary education systems, Clark is unimpressed with the quality of the nation’s universities. Japanese colleges place little emphasis on debate between instructors and pupils, and university is generally seen as the least grueling stage of the Japanese education process, perhaps with the understanding that many Japanese companies will retain their employees for life, providing them with enough on-the-job training to get them up to speed and be successful in their careers. Nevertheless, Clark bemoans what he feels is the system’s inability to properly teach critical thinking skills.

11. Importance of shame in morality

In Japan, one of the heaviest condemnations of character you can lob at someone is “haji shirazu,” or “you have no concept of shame.” Once again tying in to a strong group mentality, people in Japan are usually concerned about the way in which their actions affect others, and so when a mistake is made, it’s something to be taken seriously. It’s no wonder that Japanese has no less than four commonly used ways to say “I’m sorry” (gomen nasai, sumimasen, osore iremasu, and moshiwake gozaimasen).

12. Dislike of lawsuits

Japan is far from a litigious society. Part of this can be attributed to a desire not to cause trouble for others, which often leads people in Japan to put up with situations they’re not really happy with (see sticking around the office even though you’re done with your work, as discussed above).

Even when problems that must be rectified crop up, though, the preferred method is to meet as individuals and try to talk things out without getting extensive legal teams involved. This can be easily seen in the length of Japanese business contracts, which tend to be rather short by Western standards, with the understanding that should there be any bumps in the road, both sides will work towards a mutually amicable resolution.

As expected from someone with his level of experience in the field of Japanese studies, Clark makes several compelling observations. At the same time, a number of illustrations come from over 60 years ago. In the time since, Japan has evolved and grown. The nation is now made up of over 120,000,000 individuals, and, as the word implies, each has their own, unique mindset. These points make a nice primer, but the best way, by far, to understand the “Japanese character” is to spend time in the country, interacting with its people.

Source: Yahoo! Japan

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Businesses anger universities by offering jobs to their students -- The importance of “aisatsu” -- The top 10 words to describe Japanese people (according to foreigners)

© RocketNews24

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Clark points to the country’s invasion of China in the 1930s as an indicator of aggressive tendencies. We’re not even going to comment on that one…

Why not? is it taboo? are we being forced into the same denial as them

8 ( +12 / -4 )

Interestin read, but stay very much pn the surface. The doing things by hand thing for example is not a preference though. A lot of friends complain bitterly about these backward methods. And honesty in dealing with others is misleading. Things are indeed very safe but it certainly doesn't mean people don't lie to you or take contracts by word.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

That flag in the picture sure as heck does not represent the national character. However, the relatively few nationalists of Japan and the war lovers of this site will be very pleased to see this flag and all the other suggestions of war symbolized by more talk about the emperor (with two articles about the emperor on the front page) and the multitude of articles lately about those useless islands (useless for everything but starting a war of course). We have even had articles and pics about the SDF.

I believe the majority of the Japanese is anti-war, and that is their character. But they are not nearly aware of it enough. And so the war lovers will take advantage of that lack of clarity and drag them kicking and screaming into another war just like they did in WWII. And Japan will lose in the end again because unwilling soldiers are poor soldiers.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

I'll stay out of this one. It'll all be bias, one way or the other, in terms of comments, and the article itself is really just a lot of generalization and something I'm not sure is unique to the national character.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

Ascribing personal characteristics on people based on nationality is as dangerous as doing it based on race and religion. We have stopped the later, so why can't we realize that saying an entire nation of people has a particular personality type is ridiculous. This kind of thinking can be used just as easily to demonize groups of people as to praise them.

2,3,7,8 and 10 seemed to be conclusions based on well hashed stereotypes that anyone has spent time in Japan knows are not necessarily true. Number 7 could be written about just about any democracy these days including his own country, I think Mr. Clarke himself is showing that he has a lack critical thinking skills, unless of course his original list goes into a bit more detail than this superficial nonsense. Of course things are done differently in different cultures but to say that makes all the people are the same.

Everything that I have seen from rocketnews24 suggests that it is little better than right wing nonsense and this is dangerous thinking if it catches hold. They write a series of articles which attempt to prove how different and special (read superior) Japan and the Japanese are based on little more than stereotypes and anecdotes. The problem with doing this is that you are inferring that all other cultures are inferior.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Typical Nihonjinron fluff.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Japan is filled up with fake, scared people who are terrified of making mistakes in public, and are led by corrupt politicians who are backed by moneyed corporations.

Just like pretty much any industrialized country in the world.

5 ( +9 / -4 )

Dislike of lawsuits

but happy to hire the Yakuza to do the job.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Honesty in dealing with others

1) If you ever find something and take it to your local koban, you'll be in for a miserable experience; as they interrogate you and accuse you of stealing it, and expect to spend a few hours answering questions on what you have been doing all day and how you came across the 'lost goods'...

Honesty in dealing with others

Just check out the Diet members, police force, construction companies, corporate officers, nuclear inspection officials - prime examples of honesty...

Most of these academic generalisations/ coffee table anthropology can generate numerous exceptions. No doubt others can dissect some of the others....

5 ( +8 / -3 )

Fluffy observations, some of which have hints of truth, but just superficial snapshots on the whole. The lawsuits part caught my eye - in particular:

both sides will work towards a mutually amicable resolution.

...which, in reality, means that the person who is deemed to be wrong, with or without compelling evidence, will have to pay a large amount of money. Knock an iPod-wearing, email-writing high school student off his/her bike on the way to work in the morning and be prepared to part with a few million yen. This is, of course, assuming you don't kill them with your car.

This article isn't as bad as the 'J people don't blow their nose on the train' Lonely Planet rubbish I read before I came to Japan 15 year ago, but it is overly romanticised fluff.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

I have a lot of respect for Gregory Clark, particularly his writings on China which were refreshingly knowledgeable and balanced in contrast to the tiresome China-bashing or apologists trying to justify state murder. These ideas are boring, hackneyed and tell us nothing new. Come on Gregory, you're better than this.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

There is a preference for making things take a long time, like paperwork in the office, and the Japanese can be passive-aggressive, but if one really generalises, the rest of this articles is basically true. Respect for cleanliness though. Really? There is no soap in JR toilets and many men don't wash their hands after having a sit-down. There is rubbish all over the beaches and concrete flung everywhere as the Japanese have no sense of aesthetics. I am not sure any claim of cleanliness can really be applied here. The concept of Japaneseness is missing from the list, the "nihonjinron" that means Japanese people often do things mindlessly because they are Japanese. Japan is awash with fairly pointless ceremony, justified by an (often incorrect) sense of tradition. And of course the Japanese obfuscate all the time, which clashes with the honesty notion.

7 ( +9 / -2 )

As far as generalizations go, these are fairly spot on. Like a few have said typical Nihonjinron. We have all seen a zillion lists like this pretty much 100% the same. For the most part, as far as stereotypes these are pretty accurate. But we all know that stereotypes are often, like these, only surface deep. and we all know major exceptions in our everyday lives to all of these.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I agree with Saxon on the cleanliness thing. Soap should be a given in any lavatory, but public buildings (libraries, stations, parks) seem to regard it as an outrageous luxury.

If you can't rely on being able to wash your hands post-poo, and you know that every doorhandle in the vicinity has a fine coating of faecal particles, you can't claim cleanliness as your speciality.

I'm certainly with the writer on point 10, though. The problem-solving strategy most often employed in my office is to say "Dou shiou?" and look anxious until a white man sorts it out.

-1 ( +7 / -8 )

The problem-solving strategy most often employed in my office is to say "Dou shiou?" and look anxious until a white man sorts it out.

We can almost see the pith helmet.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I'm certainly with the writer on point 10, though. The problem-solving strategy most often employed in my office is to say "Dou shiou?" and look anxious until a white man sorts it out.

By Jove, Carruthers... the natives need us to solve another of their problems! As GetReal said, you sound like a Victorian in Africa.

As far as the article goes, these are pretty much the stereotypes everyone expects to see when they visit Japan.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Number 5 is a joke...I would call it more like a militar management style, where the only moment you can talk openly is in the nomikais when everyone is drunk.

3 ( +4 / -1 )


Really ? I found a wallet on my way to work a couple of years ago, stopped by the local cop shop with it, first question was "Are you in a hurry?" Told the guy I was on my way to work, so he did the paperwork as quickly as possible. Took about 3 minutes.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Ascribing personal characteristics on people based on nationality is as dangerous as doing it based on race and religion. We have stopped the later, so why can't we realize that saying an entire nation of people has a particular personality type is ridiculous. This kind of thinking can be used just as easily to demonize groups of people as to praise them

Is it really wrong to link personal characteristics based on nationality? Even if it turns out to be correct?

You assert that it is invalid (and taboo) to link nationality and religion to personal characteristics, but I believe that these are pretty good indicators of predominant or common differences in characterists. We may as well change nationality and religion to "upbringing" because that is what it means.

Humans do not have random beliefs and personality, but are in part a product of their nurture, beyond their nature. You appear to be claiming that nature is 100% and nurture 0% in forming our personalities. That is nonsense.

You seem to have a typical early 21st century politically correct view of all things relating to nationality and religion. No doubt a common trait among people from your nation!

This does not mean that a lot of the traits in the article are not lazy, unscientific stereotypes (sorry for the tripple negative, Japanese readers), but this does not mean it is invalid to identify characteristcs.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Is it really wrong to link personal characteristics based on nationality? Even if it turns out to be correct?

I think so. It feels wrong to me to say that everyone in X group has (fill in the blank) personality. History is full of horrible things that have happened and sometimes even with good intentions. To say that Japanese people are group orientated I feel is OK but to say emotional and aggressive crosses a line. Japanese like anyone else have individual personalities and to say they all have the same personality is not only ridiculous but it can be dangerous. We are only one step away from saying all black people are ......, all jews are ..........., all aboriginals are ........... when we start doing this. Culture and upbringing is one thing and of course there are differences which account for shared values in a society but personality is something entirely different. I know Japanese people who are out going, critical and imaginative and I am sure they are not the only ones.

Humans do not have random beliefs and personality

I completely disagree with you. You are right about the beliefs but entirely wrong about the personalities.

You seem to have a typical early 21st century politically correct view of all things relating to nationality and religion. No doubt a common trait among people from your nation!

You seem to have an extremely patronizing tone, no doubt common to people of your nation. See I can do it as well but it is an assumption and a generalization, so I will retract it and immediately apologize. But to be serious, there is a reason why we stopped ascribing personality traits etc. to race and religion. Many ideas that were prevalent, especially in Europe led to the most brutal atrocities of the time. Thank god that in this at least we have woken up a little.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I wish articles written like this would at least give more thoughtful examples if they are going to present 'facts'

For example how the author relates 'shame in morality' to saying sorry in #11

It’s no wonder that Japanese has no less than four commonly used ways to say “I’m sorry” (gomen nasai, sumimasen, osore iremasu, and moshiwake gozaimasen).

Although I agree that being fearful of upsetting the group harmony is a very important (maybe the most) part of Japanese society, this is hardly a logical way to exemplify the point. Surely many languages can and do say sorry four ways ( I'm sorry, excuse me, I beg your pardon, Please accept my humble apologies)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

What defines the Japanese character??

Always trying to define the "Japanese character".

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Ah_so, I see you have fallen into the trap that so many have: you simply cannot assign personal characteristics or traits to any nationality. It's like me saying all Americans are money-mad burger munchers. While that may be true of some it's hardly an American personality.

I dare say that some Japanese people, working in the cities, have fairly regular routines and regimented lives, but only some. Others will be different, and those living and working outside the cities will be even more so. You can't generalise based on a snapshot of a select group... unless you subscribe to the belief that Germans have no sense of humour, British have bad teeth, Russians are drunks and Aussies are laid back BBQ demons for example...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Thunderbird2 - Although I agree with your statement that IN REALITY

you simply cannot assign personal characteristics or traits to any nationality.

But, they way most Japanese speak, their seems to be preference that they are considered all the same. 'the mail that sticks out' and all that. I think I have offended people in Japan more by saying that people here are individuals, too. Seems to be an undesirable trait.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

*the nail

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Japanese, like all other people, are humans, and human character varies greatly. Some humans are warm and sincere while others are cold and insincere.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

In summary the lack - and refuse - of accountability makes the Japanese society unique.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

HIstorically, japan is recently out of feudalism. That explains a lot about its group-oriented, hierarchical, status oriented society.

Its geography also explains a lot: a mountainous archipelago isolated from the Asian mainland. First, though each domain was constantly threatened by its neighbors, no one domain had enough power to conquer all her neighbors. Ever shifting alliances lead to a balance of power, and each domain could remain independent given the inability of a central power to force compliance. No steppe hoards or "barbarian invasion" ever swept through, replacing the political elite.

That Japan had never been invaded by an alien power also not only helps to explain their political culture but also their cultural particularities and the pronounced tendency to take pride in those particularities. Especially in the face of rapid social change since modernization.

Finally, the village system. Recall that samurai withdrew to the castle towns, and left the country side in the hands of self-governing farmers. One notable element to this system was collective punishment. Again, reinforcing the hiearchical, group-oriented nature of society.

Finally, there never has been an enlightenment in Japan, in the sense of formulating an individualistic and liberty-based opposition to all the emphasis on group and getting along. Indeed, Japan's modern revolution -- the Meiji Restoration -- was not a liberal (in the classic sense of the word: John Locke, Adam Smith etc) but a conservative one.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

JTDanMan: very good and concise analysis of "modern" Japan. Rules are made by the elites for the populace - only- and none rebels against that!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Japan is a pretty good place.

3 ( +3 / -0 )


Thank you for the compliment.

Modern Japan differs from late Tokugawa Japan. I wrote about the influence of that tradition on modern Japan.

Modern Japan began with the Meiji Restoration, where, significantly, a meritocracy was strongly promoted by the conservative elite from Satstuma and Choshu who ran the country. To be sure, the old regime held on as best it could. But the amazing thing about the Meiji period, after the hold outs were defeated down in Kyushu and up to the the mid 1890s or so, is how social novelty and change was enthusiastically embraced. Civilization and Enlightenment ( 文明開化, bunmeikaika.) really took off because so many really dug it. The primary reason for the rapidity with which the new elite, after seizing power, were able to modernize so rapidly is the lack of an entrenched conservative push back. And that was because the removal of the samurai from the countryside removed the feudal class from its landed gentry base.

And so Japan modernized, and did so with an amazing amount of social mobility. Fortunes were made. Nearly all the big banking conglomerates of today were founded in the late 1800s. And WWII once again allowed new opportunities for advancement: Toyota, Honda all formed after WWII. Outside of the world of entrepreneurs, the greatest way for most in Japan to move up the ladder was meritocritous: school exams.

Japan is still, on a global scale, relatively free; still, the decline in social mobility since the 80s with its stagnant ecomony is greatly lamented by most thinking Japanese.

In short, no, the Marxist inspired model of an entrenched elite running Japan, and the sheeple plodding along does not fit the facts.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Collection of typical stereotyping of Japan and Japanese. It is obvious he is not familiar with Japanese industry, politicval party development, mentality of Japanese, etc, I stop here. All items, I can dispute but it is not fair to him if I write on each his stereotyping concept.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Cleanness, Discipline

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

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