Social Concepts

The Japanese society is one that is held together largely by understood social concepts. Certain behavior patterns are expected and their violation is very upsetting to the Japanese.

Some of these behavior patterns are somewhat minor in nature. For example, you don't walk around the house in the slippers placed outside the toilet area. You don't blow your nose with your handkerchief. Don't walk on tatamis while wearing shoes.

There are other social concepts, though, which are of much greater importance in nature. This includes wa or harmony, gift giving, giri, loyalty, and a number of others.


The entire Japanese culture seems to be centered around the concept of wa or harmony. The Japanese nation is one that is densely populated and unless some social system evolved that allowed people in close contact to get along there probably would not even be a Japan today.

Some type of society-wide standards have to exist for a densely-populated group to avoid destroyed itself. Those standards, of course, may be very complex and totally alien to Western modes of thinking but the important thing is that they work.

Gift-giving is a very, very important aspect of Japanese culture. Omiyage gifts are obligatory gifts you give to new acquaintances you meet to ask for their help and kindness. There are seasonal gift-giving times, gift giving for housewarmings, graduations, birthdays, weddings and on and on.

Once a gift is given, however, it puts an obligation upon the receiver of the gift to balance out the scales of gift-giving. This leads to o-kaeshi gifts which are ones in repayment of debts, not just for physical gifts but even for good deeds done.

This can become very complex but it does set up an inter-locking system of each person receiving something, giving something in reply which sets up another feeling of obligation and the process continues binding the givers/receivers into one entity.

Giri Obligation

In general giri means obligation, duty, justice. From birth onwards the Japanese were bound to each other by specific kinds and degrees of obligation to parents, siblings, teachers and anyone else who touched their lives.

In the feudal period giri to a feudal lord could result in a samurai being required to commit seppeku. In today's world a person in charge of a company where something major goes wrong will resign.

In today's world giri centers around gift-giving, attending things like weddings and funerals and avoiding doing anything that would damage anyone's reputation.

The giri must also be fulfilled in certain proscribed manners; failure to do so is called giri ippen or "fragmentary giri". In an extreme case of this several school girls killed one of their classmates because the student did not show proper sincerity at the funeral of one of the girl's mother.

Companies may send gifts to customers to show that they are giri-gatai or faithful. Gifts can include things like cases of drinks, canned food or candies.

When one goes on vacation that person will buy small souvenirs for their coworkers. New Year's greeting cards and Valentines Day chocolates are still other examples of this process.

These and other practices all serve to help bind people to other people and thus keep society working with people being bound to other people by these principles.

Tatemae and Honne

In the West people are generally of the "what you see is what you get" variety. There are always some forms of personal deceptions and game-playing going on, or some form of hiding things, but in general the "face" you present to the world is your "real" face.

In Japan, on the other hand, there are two kinds of "face." One is tatemae, the outer appearance of the individual. This is really a screen or cover-up, though, for the person's inner "face" which is referred to as their honne, or their true thoughts and intentions.

In ancient Japan samurai could kill a peasant for any supposed slight whatever, so the peasants learned to present an outward appearance that would be acceptable to the samurai and their lords while keeping their true feelings hidden. Personal survival depended on their developing this skill.

This in-grained pattern continues today and it is easy for a Westerner to misinterpret what a Japanese person actually believes by just observing their outer appearance.


Ko basically refers to reverence and respect for ones ancestors. The Japanese festival bon or o-bon is an example of how this is followed. Visits are made to the graves of family ancestors. The graves are cleaned and prayers offered.

Again using anime as an example, in the Tenchi Muyo series there are several times when we see Tenchi and other members of his family visit his mother's grave and burn incense and offer prayers. In the series Maison Ikkoku the lead female character Kyoko visits her husband's grave every year with her family and the family of her husband, again offering incense and prayers.

Thus, respect for the living and respect for the dead go hand-in-hand and can reinforce each other helping to bind the society closer together.


Loyalty has been an important social factor since ancient times. In the feudal period a samurai's loyalty to his lord was unquestioning; if told to commit suicide (seppeku) he would do so without question. In today's world this is represented by loyalty to one's company. Although the practice is decreasing, in many Japanese companies the company you start work at after college (or whatever) is the one you will work at for your entire life. The company takes care of its workers and the workers have great loyalty for the company. Leaving one company and going to a competitor, for example, would be looked on very badly in Japan.

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