The Japanese have a strong propensity for taking personal responsibility for failure. Westerners frequently misunderstand such admissions of apparent guilt as contrived or insincere when in fact such personal responsibility is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. Fosco Maraini, the intrepid Italian anthropologist, wrote in his memoir Meeting with Japan that even if the term Bushido, translated as ‘the Way of the Samurai’, is no longer practiced in daily life, the nucleus of traditional ideas such as honour and self-sacrifice continue to influence Japanese politics, business and family life.
When in February in 2010 Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota, testified before the U.S. Congress and took personal responsibility for the failures of his company’s safety lapses, thus widespread recalls within the USA, in Japan his apology was seen as a matter of course. But can one even imagine an American executive from General Motors apologizing in the parliament of another country?
Japan is certainly a society that is ruled by the concept of shame, where people are deeply concerned with how behaviour appears to others. Being exposed to public shame in Japan is not something to be taken lightly – think Samurai acts of ritual suicide that are seen by Westerners as completely incomprehensible.
Guilt-based vs. shamed-based cultures
The United States is a culture of guilt and Japan a culture of shame – so argued Ruth Benedict, in her seminal study of Japanese culture The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.
In Japan, relationships between people are greatly affected by duty and obligation. In duty-based relationships, what other people believe or think has a more powerful impact on behaviour than what the individual believes. Shame occurs when a person feels they have failed to live up to their obligations or other’s expectations, or they have acted dishonourably. This is in contrast to Western cultures, which are more ‘guilt’ or ‘conscience-based’. Most of the West is based on guilt where truth, justice and the preservation of individual rights are a more important component of consciousness.
Shame loves perfectionists
Generally speaking, ‘well-behaved’ Japanese avoid shame and fear losing face. Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That is why perfectionism has become an insurance policy for Japanese in avoiding shame.
According to Dr. Brene Brown, author of the Gifts of Imperfection perfectionism has accumulated around it a considerable mythology. She thinks it is helpful to start by looking at what perfectionism isn’t:
- Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if one does things perfectly and looks perfect, then you can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that people lug around, thinking it will protect them when in fact it is a camouflage that prevents their ‘true selves’ from being seen.
- Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a real hassle.
- Perfectionism is not the key to success. In fact, research shows that perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis or missed opportunities. The fear of failing, making mistakes, not meeting people’s expectations and being criticized keeps people outside of the arena where healthy competition and striving unfold.
- Lastly, perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame. Perfectionism is a form of shame. The struggle with perfectionism is the struggle with shame or the avoidance of blame.
Whilst it is true that the Japanese are very hospitable, impeccable, polite and kind, the above definition of ‘Perfectionism’ might help subtly explain Japanese motivational behaviours in serving their customers. Westerners may have encountered Japanese services with inflexibility or stiffness. This is a dark side of trying to be a perfectionist. Think about the situation of trying to send money overseas from bank in Japan, where the policy and procedure are so inflexible that it drives Westerners crazy. Here perfectionism is a true Japanese defence.
Japanese ethics are more based on the circumstances of the moment – a system that the West calls “situational ethics”, which is much to the chagrin of foreigners doing business in Japan. In Japan shame isn’t just personal feelings, it is a relationship-based emotion that serves as a form of social control. If there is any family or clan-kinship shame then it is totally covered up. This is also in stark contrast to the West where private affairs on talk shows are seen as socially acceptable. For example the Japanese aren’t big on updating strangers on their menstrual cycles via Twitter!
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