Looking over my pictures from a recent trip to Japan (click on photos to enlarge) got me thinking about this centuries-old culture. It’s a beautiful country with a certain set of characteristics that make it seem insular, cohesive and unique. There is a tight-knit social fabric, no immigration and the only spoken language is Japanese.
With over 34 million people in Tokyo and the surrounding areas, it’s amazingly well organized. Trains and subways run exactly on time, like a Swiss clock. You don’t see any graffiti in common areas or trash on the streets even though there are no disposal cans. It seems as if every person has a role to play that contributes to the collective wellbeing. There’s awareness that whatever one does has an impact on everyone else. Respect, at the core of their cultural values, is ingrained in the rituals and traditions:
Respect for others. Fundamental moral standards are woven deep into the society. Individuals have a strong sense of duty toward family, colleagues and community. Japanese hospitality, called omotenashi, is ever apparent in the hotels, ryokans and restaurants you visit. The employees anticipate the needs and desires of each guest. This includes everything from making sure you feel relaxed and satisfied, to the host’s genuine attitude and attention to detail. Honestly, the service everywhere is exceptional and the series of bows you receive when you leave is humbling. Bowing back just becomes automatic.
Respect for rules. Good manners and being sensitive to other people is taught to very young children at home and in school. Fierce loyalty is valued and saving face is seen as bringing honor to oneself and one’s culture. Persistent negative emotions such as anger, disappointment and sadness as well as having problems like bankruptcy, divorce or addiction are often considered shameful. Unfortunately, suicide has long been a means of atoning for defeat, disgrace, or any dishonorable action.
Respect for beauty. You see the extent to which the culture values harmony with nature when enjoying a traditional multi-course dinner. It is called kaiseki and consists of 15 different dishes, all with natural, fresh and high quality ingredients. Attentive and graceful women in kimonos serve and the presentation is breathtaking. The food is creative, often adorned with flowers and leaves. Served in tableware of different colors, shapes and designs with various tastes and textures, It’s an assault to your senses.
In many recent disasters, the Japanese people have persevered, remaining civil and considerate while enduring impossible hardships. This is known as gaman, a Zen Buddhism principle that means suffering the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. Gaman has been described in many ways-as a law, a virtue, a trait or an attitude.
Suffering selflessly and helping others are at the core of Japan’s national character. When do we put the common good ahead of individual interests? What are examples of our collective tolerance and patience? How can we better demonstrate strength and caring in the face of crisis? Some food for thought around the holiday table.