Let’s Explore the Power of the Japanese Cultural Ethics Part 1 of 5

John Middleton
June 19, 2023

Every culture has values that, they hope it's members will follow. The Japanese have deep cultural practices that pay attention to very small things. Humble things often have less chance of becoming popular in the sense that when they become popular the must be stripped of their nuance and by extension their intrinsic value. It is in the exploration and meditative curiosity that is generated when the value is hidden that the real benefit is revealed. When something can become completely explainable it somehow loses it's soul. 

Japanese ideas are held together with a tension and harmonizing sensability that embraces both nuance and complexity while infusing a simplicity that allows for application or habits you can implement into your daily life. These simple ideas are surprisingly applicable, such that they grow with you and act like levers that help you start and then help you grow. Like great chefs, the Japanese are students of ingredients. They strive for beautiful flavor combinations that can excite possibility and encourage exploration and discovery.

Different, seemingly conflicting ideas are both held up and supported by this cultural skill. Intentionally vague or unclear ideas can be simple to understand but hard to explain. It is this holding space that creates a familiar and welcoming environment that allows us to engage with them so readily. For example asking, 'what's our responsibility" and phrasing it in a way that invites us to ask "where can we participate in the fun?" are how they make it simple to adopt the idea as well as make it useful to society. Seemingly conflicting concepts such as beauty and impermanence, symmetry and asymmetry, space or silence, can actually communicate love or acceptance through the tension or clash of "flavors". Creating an on-ramp of how we can apply these concepts to solve real-world problems such as clutter (i.e. Marie Kondo - She is really just leveraging core Japanese values to transform peoples lives by not only cleaning or de-cluttering but establishing habits they can involve the family in that truly bring joy and peace to your home when you follow through with them).

I chose the word ethic because these are ideals that form a kind of cultural creed, framework, or social contract by which each person is able to see how having equal responsibility can help them as an individual and at the same time benefits the community. The hurdle is that there is something I have to give up in order to gain this value, but they are able to show the value up front so that people can choose to engage but they know the cost.

In Japan formality, politeness and gracious effort act like a constitution that people recite and remind each other of throughout the year. They do it through traditions, behaviors and conversation. The harmonization in which all these ideals swirl and interact enable them to become powerful and unifying forces and flavors that can delight and bring people together. Ideas like yearly spring cleaning or the cherry blossom festivals etc. Holidays maintain a connection to practical experiences and benefits.

Photo by TOMOKO UJI on Unsplash

Here are a few of these core ethics from Japan:

  • Ganbaru (頑張る) - to give your best effort, doing your best, giving your best effort, working hard
  • Gaman - (我慢) - perseverance, enduring, striving through difficulties, to persist with an attitude of intention to survive and thrive through hope paired with hard work
  • Ikigai (生き甲斐 or  生きがい) - live with personal purpose and passion.
  • Oubaitori (桜 梅 桃 李) -
  • Omotenashi - (おもてなし or お持て成し) - to offer light; refreshment; hospitality and reception; service; entertainment  
  • Omoiyari (思いやり - consideration; thoughtfulness; sympathy; compassion; feeling; kindness; understanding; regard; kind heartedness. To think of others, and to know or recognise your role in a given situation and applying the appropriate level of respect/ honorifics. To embue compassion into your life, work, a product design…any and all aspects
  • Wa - (和) - harmonizing, working with others, working in a group, valuing community, showing respect to others- This requires individual effort and taking responsibility in order to benefit the broader community. Other values must contribute to the whole. But in balance or in harmony with other values. Each of these are not considered separate or special concepts, but simply ways of living or thinking about personal contribution to the community:
  • Wabi-sabi - be grateful, see beauty in imperfection.
  • Mono no aware - detach from material things, outcomes, or old beliefs.
  • Mottainai: A concept of not being wasteful, repairing or reusing things, and even a focus on recycling.

Over the next few weeks I will expand on these ideas and attempt to energize you to experience life differently by engaging with the world through our curiosity.


Japan and Japanese culture cannot be easily summarized or categorized (especially by an outsider); however, I want to attempt to highlight aspects that have resonated with me over the years, and how they welcome me into a form of observance (which I intend as, the sincerest form of flattery).

There are dark sides to all cultures. This article is not an attempt to over glorify the good and ignore these downsides. It is an attempt to value the intent and concepts and implement them in ways that honor the culture they come from. I will do my best! Please help me.よろしくおねがいします.  😊

Photo by Sorasak on Unsplash

John Middleton