What the World Could Learn About Japan: Honor


What is Honor?

One can hardly speak for long about Japanese history and culture without mentioning the word “honor”.  Surely, all the world is familiar with the samurai era custom of hara-kiri (also known in Japan as seppuku) whereby it was a more or less regular practice for people in positions of authority or trust to engage in ritual suicide in the face of dishonor or betrayal of that trust.  And though such historical references may well have some relevance in modern-day Japan, it is not quite that cryptically stoic and historically dark manner of honor that I mean to refer to here.  What I refer to as honor in Japan is simply the preeminent importance of how one is perceived by others such as can be found in various and sundry manifestations within any culture and amongst any group of more than three people. 

Self and Others in Japan

Having grown up in inner and outer New York City, I have always been partial to the thinking that it matters decidedly less what others think than what one thinks of oneself.  This is likely due to the Judeo-Christian legacy in which America is steeped.  I was taught that it takes strong individuals to make a strong group rather than the other way around.  However in Japan, in the absence of this Western ethos, all individual strength, value, purpose and direction is derived from the group.  Hence, there is no significant difference between what others think and what one thinks of oneself.  At least, not as far as can be witnessed in mundane social performances.

The Real Japanese Person

A basic search on Google Translate will soon reveal to the reader that the very different English words “person”, “persona” and “personality” all translate to the same Japanese word (“hito”).  Meaning, to a substantial extent perhaps, that a person’s outward appearance and a person’s inner reality (and the manner in which the one may give way to the other) are essentially the same.  Hence, one’s honor, previously established as how favorably one is perceived by others, may easily become tantamount to the self in actuality and quite regardless of any other potentials.   To lose face before others is, essentially, to die unto oneself.

The Faces of Japan

Often, it has been held that Japanese people have two faces.  That what you see is not really what you are getting in any geniune way.  But I have not discovered that to be accurate.  Instead has time spent with and amongst Japanese people revealed to me that honor, such as it is in Japan, drives people to present the most suitable and therefore the best “face” or way to deal with the people, places and circumstances they chance to encounter.  Steadfastly refusing to act in any manner or present any face unless and until it is well understood what the best one is.  Though this should never be taken as  a stereotype to be applied thoughtlessly, to the most common Japanese mind as I have observed it to be, it matters least who or how a person really is and it matters most what the situation calls for… Not what I want to be, but what they (or you) want to see.

The Authentic Self?

So why should the world learn from this?..  Or, more pointedly, what could the world learn from this?  For, even as I articulate this system of thinking and being in Japan, it occurs to me that- for all of our contrastingly individualistic philosophy in the West,  it is not so terribly different around the world… even in the Western or  “New” world.  We all want to say the right thing at the right time and in the right place.  We are all constantly creating and recreating rules as to what should or should not be done, when and where.  Here, in this very “Great Again”/“Me Too” moment, we are given fair warning as to just what the cost might be of saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time or in the wrong way or place… And with the tacit understanding, often credited to Japan, that everything has a time and a place.  The problem is that we are decidedly less willing to acknowledge that we are doing this and so we are therefore, just as decidedly, less conscious of it.  If nothing else, a study of the Japanese way of doing things might rekindle within us the awareness of what we so often are doing on one level while believing that we are being our authentic selves on another.

By Justin T. Reed


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