The Japanese Culture

17 10 2009

Being extremely acquainted with the Japanese culture, I immediately had an inkling of what to share on my blog when we covered the issues regarding ‘Culture’ during COM101 lecture this week.


In the Japanese society, there is a dominant recognised social phenomena known as  Tatemae and Honne. This concept forms one of the main facets of Japanese culture, the public persona and real feelings.

Tatemae (建前) , literally “façade,” is the behaviour and opinions one displays in public. Tatemae is what is expected by society and required according to one’s position and circumstances, and these may or may not match one’s honne.

Honne (本音 ) refers to a person’s true feelings and desires. These may be contrary to what is expected by society or what is required according to one’s position and circumstances, and they are often kept hidden, except with one’s closest friends.



Most countries in Asia, especially countries such as Japan or Korea, belong to a collectivist culture system. This implies that social behaviour is largely determined by the views, needs and goals of the group rather than self. The social norms and duties are defined by the group rather than for self pleasure, beliefs are shared rather than being individualistic, and there is great readiness to cooperate with the group as a whole. In such a society, interpersonal sensitivity and tact is extremely important.

Similarly, with Tatemae, the Japanese believe that they have a specific role due to their social status or position and behave as they are expected to behave in the situation, regardless of personal opinions. The core of Tatemae is to avoid confrontation and unhappiness as far as possible. The Japanese take moral values such as respect, politeness and being humble, extremely seriously. The idea of breeding harmony in both the workplace and society is highly sought after, so as to work towards a close-knit co-operation within society.  Honne is only revealed to a select “one or two ingroups”, such as one’s family and close friends. It is not something one is encouraged to show in public, especially during business dealings where it is considered to be “unprofessional” or bordering on being “rude and insensitive”.



The Nihonjinron (日本人論 ), theories regarding Japan’s natural & cultural identity, further affirms the nation’s collectivism-infused and high context culture.

Some specific theses of the Nihonjinron included:

  1. The belief that the Japanese race is a unique isolate, having no known affinities with any other race. In some versions, the race is understood as directly descended from a distinct branch of primates.
  2. This isolation is due to the peculiar circumstances of living in an island country cut off from the promiscuous cross-currents of continental history, with its endless miscegenation of tribes and cultures. 
  3. The Japanese language has thus a unique grammatical structure and native lexical corpus whose idiosyncratic syntax and connotations condition the Japanese to think in peculiar patterns unparalleled in other human languages. The Japanese language is also uniquely vague. Foreigners who speak it fluently therefore, may be correct in their usage, but the thinking behind it remains inalienably soaked in the alien framework of their original language’s thought patterns.
  4. Japanese social structures consistently remould human associations in terms of an archaic family or household model characterized by vertical relations, clan , and (foster-)parent-child patterns. As a result, the individual (個人,) cannot properly exist, since groupism (集団主義,) will always prevail.

From this, we can note the high degree of collectivism present in the Japanese culture. Ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is superior to all others, is predominant. The vague and subtle structure of the language itself forms a part of a high culture context, and the fact that groupism will take priority over the individual further confirms upon a collectivist society in which the fulfillment of other’s needs takes precedence over the individual’s.


Perhaps these beliefs and ingrained value system in the Japanese culture appear intriguing to the Western world which remains wholly individualistic and in which their societies inculcate opposite viewpoints from that of the Japanese.

What is your personal stand regarding Japan’s high context culture based on collectivism? Which extreme do you think our nation swings towards, and why? ;)




8 responses

24 10 2009
Ho Q

Every country has its own set of dynamics- a unique culture, traditions, practice, politics and school of thoughts. With regards to Japan’s high context culture based on collectivism, I do not have a definite stand. At first glance, it may seem to be much desirable as the Japanese can be inculcated with a strong sense of identity and nationalism. It also serves to protect the interests of the majority than the individual and of course preserve their proud culture and history. On the other hand, to adopt collectivism in the country would also mean that individuality and diversity are stifled by insisting upon a common social identity. Collectivism is also often linked to statism and the diminution of freedom when political authority is used to advance collectivist goals.

HAHA. I am pretty reluctant to discuss on my nation’s politics on such a public platform. *coughs: internal security act. What I do feel is that my nation is that of a democratic society, albeit one that swings towards a social democracy than a liberal democratic one. Individuals do have channels to voice of their opinions and interests, however this is often made through proper and legalized channels, so that any minority or certain groups would not be marginalised or worse discriminated, especially in our multi-racial and multi-religion society.

8 11 2009
Min Hyo

Being Korean, I am able to fairly understand the societal behavior amongst the Japanese, as the two cultures are similar in many ways. I think that being Asians, it is dominant in our society and traditional ways, to think for others before ourselves, till a point that Westerners may feel that our culture isn’t individualistic and is rather conservative and bland. However, I feel that we are increasingly, although slowly, opening up our mindsets towards the world, and adapting accordingly. It would be unfair to condemn us as being “hypocrites” based on another set of culture principles and values.

8 11 2009
ChianLeet Sern Jeremy

Hey zhi!

I think its pretty cool that you know so much about the japanese culture.
and yeah there are alot of different cultural beliefs and stuff that they do as compared to the chinese culture.

I think being collectivist has its pro and I think its pretty hard to judge whether it is good or bad.

however, i think you linked your communication theory quite well with the japanese culture:)

8 11 2009

At first glance we might think that Japan’s high context culture based on collectivism might seem as a policy that might curb the right to freedom. On the other hand, it seems that the Japanese themselves, seem to be doing great under it and are taking pride in their unique culture. So I guess, if they like the way they are being ‘governed’ they should have the sovereignty to do so.

P.S. Your entry is very informative and interesting!

8 11 2009

I’ve always like Japan’s culture. Their language their food their culture and even the way they conduct themselves. They always seem so respectful and take pride in whatever they do. Now this reminds me of Jackie Chan’s comment, of one in which he commented he would rather purchase Japanese goods than China made ones. Maybe we can account this to Japan’s high context culture based on collectivism.

8 11 2009

As long as the Japanese are having a high standard of living and a good quality of life in Japan, I guess whichever policies that are already in place, like those that steers towards collectivism, should be maintained.

As for our nation, I think we’re a nation that’s quite neutral. We do have rules and regulations that govern us to maintain a harmonious and effective society. At the same time, we also have channels, proper ones, for us to voice of our opinions.

8 11 2009

I think that each and every country has its own set of culture and traditions. I believe that Japan being what it is today has its reasons.

I feel that whichever policies they have currently in place should continue, including those steering towards collectivism as it is these methods that make them unique among the rest.

11 11 2009

Cool website, I’ll bookmark it

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