"wa" or harmony in Japan

Stephen Bezruchka sabez at u.washington.edu
Thu Feb 17 11:33:52 PST 2005

Japan is the healthiest country in the world so there is much we can learn
from it. Many local values fly in the face of American's. We can be
justifiablly proud that we re-made Japan the healthiest country with a
little rescue medicine at the end of World War II, and allowed its own
values to re-surface. Such pride would probably not be "wa" in Japan.

by Robert Levine

Americans typically think it dishonest when people change their
presentations to please their audience-of-the-moment. It smells
of hypocrisy. American men, especially, think of self-consistency
in moral terms. An honest person should act true to himself--the
"I did it my way" school of thought.

To much of the world, however, the notion of an immutable self
is considered rather odd. In Japanese society, for example,
acting untrue to one's inner beliefs is not only accepted but is
it's own moral virtue. The most important of all Japanese social
values is "wa," or harmony. If achieving wa requires a bit of
play-acting, then so be it. The Japanese distinguish between
"honne"--one's true feelings--and "tatemai"--the face one wears
in public. When your honne is at odds with the harmony of the
group, a mature, virtuous person is expected to rise above his
or her own selfish feelings and, for the welfare of the majority,
put on a good face. To "stick up for what you stand for" is not
a Japanese ideal. Most Japanese understand there's a difference
between this public play-acting and reality, but nearly everyone
is agreed upon its importance. In other words, what Americans
may perceive as hypocritical, dishonest behavior is not only
tolerated in Japan, but esteemed as good citizenship.

It's interesting to compare Japanese and Western attitudes
toward professional acting. In the West, actors try to appear
informal and natural. They strive for the illusion that they're
presenting reality. A good actor makes the audience forget its
all fake. In Japan, it's the other way around. Ian Baruma, who
has written extensively about Japanese arts and society,
observes that Japanese audiences aren't "so much interested in
'real selves' and no attempts are made to hide the fake. On the
contrary, artificiality is often appreciated for its own sake.
Performers do not try to seem informal or real, for it is the
form, the art of faking, if you like, that is the whole point of
the exercise." Good examples of this are the stylized patterns
(known as kata) in traditional Japanese arts, such as Kabuki
theater, which leave almost no room for personal expression.

This tight choreography spills into real life in Japan.
The virtuous Japanese person believes in the importance of
playing different social roles, each according to script.
Baruma observes that, "Acting, that is, presenting oneself
consciously in a certain prescribed way, is a part of social
life everywhere. But an increasing number of people in the
West are so obsessed with appearing 'genuine' that they fool
themselves they are not acting, that they are, well . . . real.
Carried to its extremes, rudeness is seen as a commendably
honest way of 'being oneself'. In Japan, it is still in most
cases a necessity to subordinate personal inclinations to the
social form."

Cultural differences like these are, of course, ripe for
intergroup misunderstanding. 

Robert Levine is associate dean, College of Science and
Mathematics, and professor of psychology, California State
University Fresno CA http://www.psych.csufresno.edu/levine

More information about the Pophealth mailing list