Values are a useful way of trying to understand another culture.
It is often a combination of the values held close by a culture that shape and drive much of their beliefs and behaviours.
For those looking to do business in Japan, appreciating the cultural values that underpin the society can really help you scratch beneath the surface and help you tailor your approach to the Japanese market.
Ganbaru, Gaman and Konjou
First let’s start with Ganbaru, Gaman and Konjou. These can be translated as persistence, endurance and willpower.
Japan’s isolated and inhospitable landscapes have over time resulted in these qualities being seen as essential to life. One must strive, make effort and overcome.
It is these values perhaps that drive much of the innovation that comes out of Japan in sectors such as robotics, software and IT. The Japanese stress collective achievement, which holds that anything is possible when everyone pulls together with a shared vision and works as a group.
Another value that has its roots in the sometimes brutal experiences the Japanese have faced at the hands of natural and man made disasters, is that of Shoganai.
Shoganai can roughly be translated as, ‘it can’t be helped’. It is an acceptance of fate and that sometimes things are just out of your control.
The Japanese mentality therefore is that when something is, or appears to be, out of your control, then you must accept it and move on.
In some ways contradictory to the values of persistence and endurance, however shoganai is more a belief that in life there are greater powers at work. Rather than complaining about things out of your control, you should channel your energies elsewhere.
Our next value is Mottainai which means something along the lines of ‘what a waste’.
Again, closely tied to the Japanese experience of living on an island with limited resources, the Japanese feel regret towards waste of any kind.
It expresses guilt when wasting something considered worthy. This might be wasted food, wasted time or a piano that hasn’t been played in a long time. All are mottainai.
Our next two values are perhaps the most important in understanding the Japanese culture. Both are interrelated and dependent upon one another but for the sake of simplicity lets start with Wa – which means harmony.
Harmony was essential for the Japanese throughout history as a way of maintaining stability. The teachings of Buddhism and Shinto beliefs also came together to stress peaceful unity with others.
At its core, Wa dictates that the harmony and needs of society take priority over personal opinions or interests. This value heavily influences much of the Japanese mindset.
Honne to Tatemae
This is especially so when we consider the next values of Honne to Tatemae.
Honne can be roughly translated as ‘meaning the truth’ in that people say what they really think about something. Tatemae on the other hand is about what you need to say to maintain face, or group harmony or when you represent a group. Tatemae is more about what you say in public as opposed to private. The two can contradict one another.
Honne and Tatemae are often core themes in Japanese TV soaps, films and novels showing it’s central importance in day to day life. For foreigners this behaviour can be interpreted negatively and some cultures might even perceive it as lying or deceitful because people aren’t saying what they think. However, for the Japanese it is tightly connected with the need to maintain harmony and seeing the bigger picture.
Japanese Values and Doing Business
Stressing peace and harmony, stability and the need to sacrifice personal truths and ambitions for the collective good, the Japanese have developed a whole way of thinking, being and behaving that is geared towards making things happen for the group.
This is a key learning point for anyone wanting to do business successfully in Japan or with the Japanese.
Want to learn more about Japanese Business Culture? Have a look at our Online Japan Cultural Awareness Course.