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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

Can traditional Japanese life concepts--like loyalty, harmony, meticulousness--make sense in Western societies?

Updated: Jun 17


Japaneseness by Yoji Yamakuse cover art
Japaneseness by Yoji Yamakuse cover art

Japaneseness: A Guide to Values and Virtues by Yoji Yamakuse offers readers a provocative tour through seventy-six core life concepts that are at the foundation of Japanese behavior, belief, and beauty.


Japaneseness will be of particular interest to students of ethics and humanism as well as those living, working, or traveling in Japan. And it raises an intriguing question: Can traditional Japanese values—like loyalty, meticulousness, sensitivity, reverence, hierarchy, trust, and harmony—make sense in modern Western societies?


You are encouraged to think about how Japanese virtues can cultivate inner strength, mindfulness, and long-lasting relationships at your own homes and workplaces.


Japaneseness by Yoji Yamakuse is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Get your copy here.


Read a sample from Japaneseness below:



 



publisher’s preface


To the Western world and to its Asian neighbors, Japan has presented many different faces over the centuries: friend, enemy, artist, craftsman, purveyor of pop culture, high-tech wizard. Like every nation and culture, Japan has never been just one entity, although its distinctive social cohesion and normative behaviors at times make outsiders feel they are dealing with an obdurate and single-minded monolith.


The world’s fascination with Japan coupled with Japan’s ability to absorb and recast its old traditions into one modern form after another insures that Japan remains very much a part of our international environment. We like what is new about Japan, but we also like how many things from Japan seem to carry something older, and weightier, something distinctly “Japanese.” In our dealings with Japanese people, from all walks of life, we sense that they embody something of their nation that goes far beyond citizenship. There is a sense of strong bonds between friends and workers, duty to one’s family and long-dead ancestors. Whether we are talking about food, architecture, religion, sex, art, clothing, or gizmos, we are aware of a certain, in a word, “Japaneseness”—the quality of being Japanese—that signals not only the tradition and culture from which those things emanated but presages our experience of them tactilely and emotionally.


We must emphasize that this book is not meant to be a reductionist interpretation to prove Japanese “uniqueness.” All countries and cultures have something unique in their value systems. Japan is no more distinct, no better, no more real than any place else on earth. Japan has also had a long and close relationship with other Asian cultures and value systems, particularly China’s, and quite a few of those “foreign” values have found nourishment in Japanese soil and become deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche.


But Japan, an island nation for all its existence that then deliberately isolated itself from the rest of the planet for some two hundred and fifty years from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, has had a chance to incubate its value system and develop enduring and idiosyncratic forms. When modernism finally came, Japaneseness was not swept away but became absorbed into modern life, making Japan’s modern life at once strange and familiar to us.


There have as a result been innumerable attempts to explain Japan and especially to enlighten the West about traditional Japanese thought and the country’s value system—that is, “the heart of Japan” or its “Japaneseness.”


These efforts are exemplified by Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1899) and Tenshin Okakura’s Book of Tea (1906) and by more modern works like The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) by Ruth Benedict, written during World War II to explain the Japanese enemy to the American people, and Takeo Doi’s The Anatomy of Dependence (1971), which analyzed interpersonal and group relationships in Japan.


One thing shared by all these works is an emphasis on “obligation” and “duty” as central principles in the Japanese value system. But where did these values come from, and what place do they really have in modern Japanese life?


In this book author Yoji Yamakuse takes up seventy-six identifiable aspects of modern Japaneseness. Originally he wrote this book for Japanese people seeking to explain themselves and their culture to their non-Japanese friends. We are here re-casting that discussion slightly for an audience outside Japan. In doing so, we are not merely hoping, as the author does, that this text will lead to better international understanding. We also hope that this book will illuminate for many admirers of Japanese things some of the deeper aspects of the culture from which those things arose. And we are especially hopeful that these traditional Japanese values and virtues, so intimately tied to Japanese behavior and cultural endeavors, will shed light on what it means to be a human being and will offer readers everywhere fresh but time-tested tools for solving problems, getting along with each other, appreciating nature, and making new toys and technologies.


Stone Bridge Press

Berkeley, California


on reading the japanese heart


Harmony (wa) is the principal value in the Japanese system. By positioning it in the center, showing its relative relation to other values, we get the illustration here.


In every culture, when its constituent values coexist and function together without friction, the people who belong to that culture feel a sense of tranquility.


For the Japanese, harmony represents tranquility, and in order to achieve it a typical Japanese person, consciously or not, will adhere to the various values, virtues, norms, and moral precepts described in this book.


In Japan, a person who embodies the totality of values inherent in the core value of harmony is a person of virtue, and this great virtue is consistent with the Japanese ideals of beauty.


Refer to this illustration while reading this book so that you can understand how each value is linked to the others.


 

Maintain Harmony


harmony


Harmony is the key to the Japanese value system. Avoiding conflict, being mindful of the needs of others, creating a basis for mutual cooperation—these are the foundation of the Japanese approach.


The Chinese character wa means “harmony” and is also used to mean “Japan.” For example, Japanese cuisine is known as wa-shoku and Japanese clothing is known as wa-fuku.


“Harmony” is a basic value defined as the ability of people to cooperate and work together well.


Japan is a country whose traditions developed out of an agricultural society where people were forced to work closely together on a limited amount of land. In order to maintain this type of society, the needs of the village were more important than the needs of the individual, as all labored together to plant the rice and harvest the crop.


Some anthropologists suggest that therefore, in contrast to hunter- or immigrant-based societies, where a high value is placed on the power or actions of the individual, a society developed in Japan where value is placed on understanding those with whom one must interact and on taking action in groups. That is the definition of wa.


Wa is at the heart of what has been necessary to nurture everything in the Japanese value system. (See the diagram on page 13).



hospitality


Harmony is achieved by the attitude with which you approach other people. First put yourself in their place and with all your heart understand how they feel and what they need.


Omotenashi means to treat or entertain someone sincerely and warmheartedly, whether that person is a visiting guest, a business contact, or a friend or acquaintance. Hospitality exists in every country: whenever an important person is received, every preparation is made to assure that the guest enjoys him- or herself.


So what distinguishes the Japanese hospitality from that found in other countries?


At the core of omotenashi is attentiveness to the needs of others (ki o tsukau). To be attentive means to read the atmosphere, sense the mood, and feel the invisible energy suffusing an occasion. To treat someone well, or to entertain a person as a guest, therefore means to create a comfortable ambiance, the conditions that enable a guest to feel at ease and relaxed.


Ultimately, it means that you do not entertain your guest to achieve some kind of self-satisfaction, but that you are quick to perceive your guest’s needs and desires and the overall mood, and to entertain him or her accordingly.


During the affluent bubble period of the 1980s, when Japan was looming large on the world stage as an economic powerhouse, Japanese often went too far in keeping their foreign guests up late at night drinking pricey liquor and eating expensive food; by trying to impress their guests they ended up distancing themselves from the true meaning of omotenashi. Worse, hosts sometimes went too far in pushing the uniqueness of Japanese culture on their visitors from overseas.


With the passage of time and changed (more humbling) circumstances, the true meaning of omotenashi is now being re-examined in Japan.



 


Japaneseness by Yoji Yamakuse is available in both print and digital everywhere now. Get your copy here.

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