The Power of Japanese Cultural Ethics - Part 5

John Middleton
July 19, 2023


Functioning in our modern, ever evolving world can feel chaotic. I find myself wanting to cling to the past and to simpler guiding principles. (like "everything I ever needed, I learned in kindergarten.") When you boil things down it becomes easier to apply using any new technology. But often we throw older ideas out rather than allowing them to anchor us.

The world just keeps moving forward and changing. New factors keep getting added: new experiences, decisions, cultural changes, theories, technologies, etc. It can feel harder or more complicated to find common ground between us.

People as a group are hard to organize. They all want to go in their own directions and have their own priorities. It can feel like managing the toddler Jack Jack (in the Pixar film Incredibles 2) with his multiplication powers. So stop trying to manage people. The Japanese have developed techniques, rules and formality which offer some stability for visitors and themselves so that people end up managing themselves (generally speaking). Over the years they have been guided through war, challenging geography, shifting tectonic plates and tectonic shifts between generations, internal and external cultures and technologies. They have leveraged adversity by embracing it.

Wa (和) Harmony, Religious and Cultural Influences

Historically, China, India, the US, and Korea's influences have been large defining roles. Often through conflict and subsequent periods of cultural exchange. Religious and cultural influences such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Daoism, and Christianity continue to harmonize and shape a unique Japanese cultural identity.

This mindset is formal, polite, thoughtful and creative. It is an Idealistic mindset that suggests to foreigners they are welcome and offers a framework for cross-cultural communication. Yet, it still manages offer its citizens a firm anchor of cultural identity. This intentionality provides internal stability over time and still offers the flexibility to build external ties through generous sharing.

This sense of self-responsibility and a willingness to harmonize with others is something that will never be complete. But it is exactly the pursuit of ideals/aspirations that establish strong shared community intent. It encourages continued development of a robust and uniquely Japanese identity across generations. Encouraging the young to adopt and cultivate fresh perspectives, without sacrificing the progresses of the past, is no small feat.

The worldwide fame of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films is one notable example. His films offer fans a childlike sense of wonder while dealing with complex and often heavy subject matter. His movies invite them to come along with him and his stories are delightful, magical, strange and complex. To become a fan of something we decide we can surrender to it. We become a supporter without even fully understanding why we love it. We trust because it is generous, open, honest and expansive.

The focus the Japanese place on harmony and respect is central, idealistic, and nuanced (it leaves room for individual interpretation while still offering guidance and perspective). Japanese people embrace, adopt and adapt through skill, understanding, enthusiasm, consideration and careful practice. Their pursuit of harmonizing everything - the willingness to look for value and nuance in the unmeasurable and unpredictable - feels like their most generous contribution.

Japan has a sometimes violent and brutal history as do all nations that rise to power. Bushido or Budo  (The Way of the Warrior) is therefore also a key influence. Similar to the Chinese idea of Kung Fu (or Gong Fu excellence of self), the Japanese have unique but similar ideas about how you identify and express who you are by what you do and how you do it. How you become fully yourself and doing it as a part of a community is a huge aspect.

Japanese identity flows freely back and forth with individual identity always looking for balance between the collective and the individual. Conflict or difficulty are not something to be avoided but something else that can be harmonized through rituals, habits, intentions and daily interactions. They freely share these cultural ideas as a part of the products and services they offer and the way they interact with the world.

For example, a lovely book (The Art of Peace) by Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), O’ Sensei expresses the ethics of the Japanese martial art of Aikido. It is a book that challenges the individual to transform the culture through self excellence and self control. Training the mind and the body. He challenges us to practice "the art of peace" by refocusing attention from conflict as something separate and outside, an opponent, to something within ourselves. Something between us and the rest of the world that is seeking harmony but needs grace and cooperation to guide it. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.  His approach elegantly demonstrates this Japanese idea of harmonizing.  It takes martial arts, which are normally about fighting, and transforms training the body into actions which have the purpose of turning enemies into companions.  His lessons from life show us how to reconcile (harmonize) these two seemingly contrary ideas of war/conflict and peace. It is poetic, simple and practical without being quippy or making you feel that, because it is simple, it should be easy. Here are a few of my favorite quotes.

"The supreme challenge
of a warrior is to turn
an enemy's
fearful wrath into
harmless laughter."

Japanese traditions combine form, function, beauty and grace, with how to be your best self. They achieve this in simple and elegant ways. This might be a pattern for how cultures can influence and contribute to one another through stories. We might become rivals that challenge each other to be our best, through vigorous competition rather than enemies who seek to trample and eclipse each other's spirit. Strength can be discovered in the ways they embody, communicate, and share universally consumable ideas. They don’t just preach ideas, they demonstrate them, with tangible expressions, habits and actions, sending them out like skillfully crafted gifts to enjoy and reprise (I recommend a wonderful anime called Forest of Piano, known in Japan as Piano no Mori (ピアノの森) )

Photo by Tianshu Liu on Unsplash

So, the result is, we can easily learn to value and embody these very Japanese concepts and values. And yet they still feel shared, universal, familiar, and natural. There are quite a few more popular examples such as: Pokemon, Erased, and a few other popular shows like Tidying up with Marie Kondo, Shinichi Suzuki's famous method for teaching music to children, or Toyota's quality management system (TQM). There is a universality to such methods that relies on stiviing for excellence and reaching out to find ways to embrace and learn from others. The culture or languages may be unfamiliar or hard to understand... maybe we can see our neighbors as friendly rivals,  always with a core of respect, politeness, curiosity and grace.

If we can cultivate simple habits like this, that flow from an attitude of respect and curiosity for each person who crosses our path, we may be on the right path. I can't help thinking of Mister Rogers Neighborhood as a western master of true hospitality and community. He seemed to be able to engage with anyone and everyone with the same level of patient attention and concern. He also confronted tough questions showing respect and trust to children by talking directly to them rather than about them. As thought they were helpless to understand and find solutions. This is a secret to empowerment we should learn from. We all want to have a say and be heard don't we? One thing we need though is a friendly rival who can ask us thoughtful questions and then listen and invite us to contribute, within our means, to find something better and more generous and persevere through our struggles.

Impact for coworking communities.

Making room for diverse community can feel overwhelming, complicated or intimidating. But in the generous, simple, unique, fierce and humble Japanese style we can find balance, hope and strategies to face those challenges. We can make space for differences, recognize opinions can be strong and compassionate. We can hold our values dear while at the same time listen to others experiences. Disagreements can be approached in generous ways. We can find ways to make space, listen and learn from diverse points of view. We can challenge one another to do our best for the community while recognizing the incomplete and imperfect nature of our own understanding. Let's work together. よろしくおねがいします.

Links, references, and attribution

The Culture of Respect in JapanYouTube · ClickView6 minutes, 9 secondsJul 27, 2021

I used the online AI Rytr to come up with example outlines for this blog 🙂.

Credit for the gorgeous photos:

Photo by Tianshu Liu on Unsplash

Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

Photo by Sorasak on Unsplash

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

​​Photo by Linh Le on Unsplash

Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash

Photo by Hiroko Nishimura on Unsplash

Photo by S. Tsuchiya on Unsplash

John Middleton