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Three key cultural dynamics

Japanese people are renowned in the West for being opaque and inscrutable, and even those who have lived and worked among them for a long time still sometimes have trouble understanding their reactions. Part of this difficulty is because Westerners do not fully appreciate the hidden dynamics at play when Japanese interact with each other. Three key factors that shape Japanese people and influence their behaviour are group identity, deference, and shame.

Group identity

Japanese people commonly say to each other “wareware nihonjin” (“we Japanese”) as a self-reference to explain why they do the things they do. We Japanese are Buddhist. We Japanese go to Shinto shrines. We Japanese don’t push ourselves forward. To Western-influenced ears, this may seem an inadequate explanation for a particular act, but for Japanese people doing something because everybody else does it is a deep-rooted motivation for action. It is foundational for Japanese living. It maintains harmony in relationships and preserves their sense of identity as Japanese.

If you broach the subject of Christianity in Japan, you frequently receive the reply: “We Japanese are Buddhist.” There is no rudeness here. It is like you saying “I live in Tokyo” and them replying, “We live in Osaka.” It is not an issue of personal conviction but of group identity. The implication is that it is fine for you to be a Christian and we Japanese are not. We Japanese are Buddhist.

Such a statement is complicated by the fact that few Japanese know the four noble truths of Buddhism, and fewer still follow the eightfold path. When they say they’re Buddhist, they usually mean a Buddhist priest will conduct the family funeral. More important than the religious content of the ceremony is that they use the Buddhist sect the family has always used. Group identity surfaces again.

Japanese take their babies to Shinto shrines. They take their new cars there too, to have them purified and protected. As a church leader in Japan, I was asked to conduct car blessings too, and did. Parents dress kids up in traditional costumes and take them to shrines (at ages three and seven for boys, and five for girls). Everyone does it because everyone does it. If you do not do it as everyone else does it, there is a fear that if something bad happens, you might be blamed.

Many weddings are white, held in a churchy sort of room, with a cross at the front, and a foreign man dressed as a minister-like person. Again, there is not much concern about content but rather a desire to follow popular fashion.

Japanese society is a group society. It may be more deeply so than most others because of the centuries of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world (between the 1630s and the 1850s). This period distilled the cultural values of that day—values that persist despite the modern-day façade. It is particularly noticeable in the rigorous adherence to ceremony and ritual. For example, at schools, there are all sorts of assemblies. In our children’s local primary school, there was a pool-opening ceremony in the summer term. Everyone was there. Everyone participated. The words read at the ceremony were the same every year. Japanese feel at ease within this highly choreographed structure. It helps them find a place, belong to a group, and be assured of their identity.

When asked in the UK what religion the Japanese adhere to, I usually reply (a touch provocatively), “Being Japanese”. To Japanese, being Japanese means doing what Japanese do. This applies to being a family member, a company member, or a member of the class that graduated in 2004. Japanese feel these group ties strongly. It is the preservation of these meaning-giving ties that lies behind the other two influences of deference and shame.


The suffix san and the more polite sama placed after people’s names indicate that I consider you above me. As a church leader in Japan, I also received the suffix sensei (literally, one who has lived life a little longer). Verbs and verb endings also change depending on the deference needed. There are subtleties on subtleties. Japanese show everyone the appropriate level of respect in everything they do—from how they address others, to grammar changes, to the length and depth of each bow.

In case we think this is easy and automatic for them, the following incident shows otherwise.

One year my daughter had a Japanese friend stay with us over Christmas. Her English was excellent. I tried many times to switch into Japanese with her. She never wavered in using English. On the third day, I asked her about using Japanese and she replied, “Yes, but how polite do I need to be with you?” I had made constant comments that she was part of the family while she was staying with us, but that left her unsure of what to call me if we used Japanese. In English, I was just “Graham”. In Japanese would I be Graham-san, Orr-san, or Orr-sensei?

If you ask any Japanese person what causes them the most trouble and stress in life, you will receive a uniform answer: human relationships. Deference is just one small area. All relationships require it, and it extends to all areas of life from pouring drinks of water at a meal table to what time you are allowed to leave the office after work. If a person at school, work, or church is a year older than you, their opinion has priority; yours is best left unmentioned. You do whatever someone above you requests. You do it humbly, without questioning. And you have the security of knowing that the person above you will take responsibility for you. Showing deference in all situations can be quite tricky.


It may seem to Western-influenced minds that Japanese avoid dealing with issues when in actual fact they choose to deal with them indirectly and invisibly to save public face. When I first lived in Japan, I was hired by a language school in Sendai that made out my contract on two sheets of paper. At the regional immigration office the school’s business manager submitted the top page that fulfilled immigration requirements and omitted the second sheet that did not comply with requirements. I saw what I thought was going on and told the immigration officer it was a lie. I was a young, naïve Westerner who didn’t understand! I caused the business manager huge embarrassment when he was just trying to help me get a job. In retrospect, I can see that the business manager showed deference to required form, and that he and the immigration officer knew what was going on, but they could not say so without causing shame, embarrassment, and a breakdown in relations.

Deference is shown in all public relations to preserve group harmony, while the underlying private communications are surmised, discerned, and guessed at—but never mentioned. When these unspoken codes of conduct are not followed, relationships break down and cannot be mended. If someone is found to be involved in a financial scandal at a company, they resign. They remove themselves from the group in shame because they’ve let the company down publicly, and the whole group feels shame that one of their group has been found out. Often the boss also resigns to take responsibility for the group’s shame.

All is well as long as the public face is preserved. No one thinks financial mismanagement is not happening; the problem and the accompanying shame only arise when it comes out and the public face is damaged.

The second article in this series looks at how these dynamics work out when Japanese travel and live abroad. The original article on which this and the second article is based is available at https://omf.org under the title “Japanese Cultural Dynamics: Their Influence on Japanese Abroad and their Impact on their Return”.

Photo “The Bow” by Flickr user Akuppa

With his wife, Alison, Graham Orr served in OMF Japan from 1993 to 2011, and has served with OMF Diaspora Returnee Ministries since 2013. He leads the Dublin Japanese Christian Fellowship and teaches on cross-cultural issues throughout the UK and Ireland.

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