Key Components of Japanese Culture
As with every culture, Japanese culture includes a number of elements which make the culture uniquely its own. Japan is a very homogeneous nation whose people place high value on the norms of acceptable behavior. The Japanese value harmony, conformity and predictability. Japanese cultural norms require people to go to great lengths to avoid actions that might disrupt the harmony of the group. Japanese people feel themselves to be accountable to the group, not the individual; in fact, individualistic behavior is frowned upon. The Japanese believe that conformity produces harmony, the supreme value (Denison, 2002).
While the Japanese people regard their culture as unique, they are actually very flexible and open to adapting to outside influences. Foreign sports and fashions as well as modern technology have gained wide acceptance and dissemination. Also, Japan’s written language originated in China, while the Buddhist religion came to them from Korea. The Japanese language, with its 4000 character alphabet, has only past and non-past verb tenses (Denison, 2002). The language is also full of American words which are widely used and accepted. (Bucknall, 2010).
While written Japanese is based on Chinese ideographs or characters, spoken Japanese is not closely related to the spoken Chinese language. As part of their written language, the Japanese also use two phonetic alphabets that have been simplified from the ideographs, as well as a third phonetic alphabet that uses Roman letters (Denison, 2002).
Symbolism is also an important part of Japanese culture. Some standard symbols encountered in the arts include the following:
Pine tree — Long life
Bamboo — Constancy and virtue
Fern — Expanding good fortune
Lobster — Old age
Carp fish — Strength and determination
Peach blossom — Happiness in marriage and the feminine virtues of softness, mildness, and peacefulness
Sweet potato — Struggle of the poor to survive
Pine needles, mandarin ducks — Marital fidelity (Bucknall, 2010).
Japanese clothing includes a traditional style of dress known as the kimono. The term originally referred to clothing in general but has more recently come to mean traditional Japanese clothing worn for special occasions. For everyday clothing, Japanese people wear clothing very similar to clothes found in western cultures (Culture of Japan, 2012).
Another cultural norm is the value that the Japanese place on education. Japan enjoys one of the world’s highest literacy rates, with 98% of students completing high school. In addition to their regular schooling, many Japanese children attend juku, that is, extra classes in the evenings and during holidays (Culture of Japan, 2012). Young Japanese are often sent to study in English-speaking countries such as America or England (Bucknall, 2010). Japanese education consists of much rote learning, discipline, and emphasis on conformity while at the same time discouraging questioning and creativity. There is also a fiercely competitive struggle among children to succeed and advance up the educational ladder to the best universities (Bucknall, 2010).
Food plays an important part in Japanese culture. The appearance of the meal is very important; in fact, food and dishes are considered to be an art. Meals are arranged with care on beautiful plates and bowls (Culture of Japan, 2012).
Sado, the tea ceremony, is an art form and an important aspect of the Japanese lifestyle. The ceremony is made up of rituals that must be learned by heart, part of a custom that has been strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism. The tea symbolizes the recognition that every human encounter is a singular occasion which will never exactly recur again; consequently every aspect of tea must be savored for what it presents to the participants. The ceremony consists of the host bringing the tea utensils into the room specially designated for tea, then offering the guests special sweets. The tea drinking is followed by a discussion and appreciation of the qualities of the utensils. The artistic disciplines of the tea ceremony may be studied for years while students accomplish different levels of achievement (Culture of Japan, 2012).
In addition to the tea ceremony, Japanese art takes other forms of expression. Calligraphy, the art form of writing the Japanese language, has been studied for more than three thousand years. Calligraphy is written using line pictures called characters, which must be formed in a set pattern of strokes. Other Japanese art forms include theatre where the characters are actually very large puppets, bunraku, requiring three operators each; origami, the art of folding a single sheet of paper into shapes such as birds, animals, flowers and other objects; and traditional Japanese music called Hogaku played with a variety of instruments (Culture of Japan, 2012).
Comparison Between Japanese, Indian and American Cultures
Hofstede’s framework uses dimensions of national culture to compare countries. The power distance dimension expresses to what degree less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed within that society. This dimension represents how a society handles inequalities among people who make up that society. Societies which show a large degree of power distance are more accepting of a structured hierarchy wherein everyone has a designated place. Societies having a low power distance will have more people trying to equalize the distribution of power and demanding justification for unequal distribution of power (“Dimensions,” n.d.). Japan is a somewhat hierarchical society, more so than the U.S. And less so than India.
The individualism dimension concerns the degree of interdependence among a society’s members. In individualist societies, people look after themselves and their direct family only while in collectivist societies, people belong to groups that take care of them in exchange for loyalty. Japan shows characteristics of a collectivistic society in putting the harmony of the group above the expression of individual opinions. Both Japan and India are far less individualistic than the U.S. (“Japan,” n.d.).
For the masculinity/femininity dimension, a high score (masculine) indicates a society driven by competition, achievement and success. Conversely, a low score (feminine) indicates that a society’s dominant values are caring for others and quality of life. Japan’s high score of 91 ranks it as one of the most masculine societies in the world. However, because Japan is also more collectivistic than individualistic, extreme competitiveness shows up as competition between groups (“Japan,” n.d.). India and the U.S. rank closer to a more balanced expression of only slightly more masculine societies.
Uncertainty avoidance measures how a society copes with the fact that the future can never be known. This measure represents the extent to which members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations. With a score of 92, Japan ranks as one of the most uncertainty avoiding countries on earth. Both India and the U.S. feel much less threatened by the unknown.
The long-term orientation dimension captures the degree to which a society tends to exhibit a pragmatic future-oriented outlook as opposed to a conventional historical short-term point-of-view. Japan’s score of 80 puts it among the long-term oriented societies, with India striking a balance between a future orientation and more short-term considerations. The U.S. is at the opposite end, which is to be expected in a more individualistic society (Japan, n.d.).
Hofstede’s Dimensions Scores for Japan, India and the U.S. 1
1 Source: Countries (n.d.). Geert-Hofstede.com. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/japan.html, http://geert-hofstede.com/india.html and http://geert-hofstede.com/united-states.html
Bucknall, K. (2010, December 15). The most important elements in Japanese culture, especially for those doing business with Japan. Retrieved from http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474977025266
Culture of Japan. (2012). Anicca, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.earthyfamily.com/J-Culture.htm
Denison, B. (2002). A basic overview of Japanese culture. Mizukan Dojo. Retrieved from http://www.mizukan.org/articles/culture.htm
Dimensions. (n.d.). Geert-Hofstede.com. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/dimensions.html
Japan. (n.d.) Geert-Hofstede.com. Retrieved from http://geert-hofstede.com/japan.html
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