The Power of Japanese Cultural Ethics - Part 2

John Middleton
July 7, 2023

Part II

Omotenashi (お持て成し) or Omoiyari - (思いやり) - to notice and think of others

In Japanese there are several ways to express this culturally and most of them are difficult to translate into a Western context because the culture that developed them is nuanced and has developed over hundreds if not thousands of years. The meaning also changes based on the circumstances and the situation. Also the Buddhist traditions that have influenced and shaped these ideas (mindfulness, non-harm and respect) have become integrated principles. This is culture by design when individuals put these concepts into practice with their unique interpretation.

One such practice is the use of Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu as a greeting

(よろしくおねがいします or お願いします). Kanji for Yoroshiku (夜露死苦 or 宜しく)

In a 2018 BBC article Yukari Mitsuhashi expresses this concept well. “Is this phrase the Swiss Army knife of Japanese?” She writes:

“If you can get the hang of the phrase’s use and nuance, your time in Japan will instantly go more smoothly. That’s because the phrase’s meaning is a peek into Japanese values.

“Saying yoroshiku onegaishimasu in advance is an attempt by the requester to admit the imbalance within the situation and to repair it in order to maintain a positive relationship,” says Kei Ishiguro, a sociolinguist and a professor at National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics.

At first glance you might wonder why this should warrant it’s own blog post. This example of greeting helps us understand the Japanese mindset and it’s depth. Design is seems to be the difference. The concepts are foundational and each one relates to or depends on the others (a lot like the community itself depends on the other members to reinforce and uphold these values contributes to the enjoyment and warmth of the personal experience). Some individual freedom is given up for the sake of the community.

Simple concepts and practices are naturally infused with deeper meaning and significance. Meaning and significance is not seen as separate from the processes the individual is responsible for, they flow through intentional actions. If your intentions don't match your actions there will be confusion and possible conflict. Examining behavior carefully and working diligently and carefully to establish consistent practice demonstrates through actions consideration for others. (We will learn more about this in Part III).

The Japanese are encouraged to ask questions, discuss ideas and reinforce behaviors through careful practice and observance.  Social formality, expectations, and pressures are there to focus individuals on personal improvement for the benefit of the community.

Careful procedures are followed when introducing yourself. The formality allows the detailed picture to unfold. Creates expectations and creates space for interaction. Formal politeness is intended to be balanced out by the other concepts within the culture. So the concepts of endurance, giving it your best, etc. are all concepts that must remain in balance or in harmony with each other to retain the intent and enable interpersonal harmony.

For a person of higher status such as a boss to a subordinate, honor is given by offering grace and recognizing the imbalance in power. Sharing honor is to prevent differences from becoming barriers to working together. The person of higher status has a burden to recognize that their higher status comes with great responsibilities. The person of lower status can appreciate that aspect and graciously offer thanks and respect to somewhat equalize the relative differential in status. These things are done through rituals of greeting and showing of honor.

Honor for the community and to others is not unique to Japan, but they have given it a unique Japanese identity. You see it expressed in all aspects of expression: cultural behavior, art, the design of cities, furniture, Anime, TV and movies…. literally every aspect of life in Japan is shot through with this concept.  

These practices can remain consistent and fresh due to the shared appreciation and warmth they cultivate. As children in school, they establish the idea of practicing and giving feedback. Each class elects officers and rotates chores of cleaning up and keeping the school nice. As you go through these experiences the values are enforced and children may also gain a deeper experiential understanding of why these ethics are important through bad experiences as well as good experiences. The framework of cultural expectation can offer support and guidance to children and teachers alike.

In short, simple ideas take work and preparation if we hope to convey the meaning we intend. And the alignment between intention and actions cannot be overlooked. Each person is encouraged to add their own individual talents and even bring their own idiosyncrasies to the community. Consideration is needed to ensure this respect can be offered and felt evenly.

John Middleton