yamato-mapTakuan Amaru

For Japanese, being a member of the group is what gives a person his power. The group-dynamic is an energy field created by the people. This power surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the society together.


Any true Star Wars fan should recognize the above quote as a clever reconstruction of Obi-Wan‘s explanation of “The Force” to a young Luke Skywalker. Star-Wars-Episode-IV-A-New-Hope-Luke-Skywalker-Obi-Wan-KenobiAnd just like that impenetrable energy-field, in Japan, the power of the group is both omnipresent and omnipotent. Japanese society operates very similar to a hive of bees, a colony of ants, or any organism which exhibits extreme social behavior. Perhaps the best example is how Japanese workjapnese meeting in concert to make collective decisions on every short-term or long-term objective. Anyone who has worked in a Japanese company will attest to how much Japanese love to have meetings! In short, making collective decisions, living up to any obligations incurred in those meetings—which relates to staying on code—as well as having children: believe it or not, this is the essence of being Japanese…of Yamato Damashii.

“Japanese Spirit”, “Japanese Soul”, “Yamato Spirit”, or even “The Soul of Old Japan,” these are some of the accepted translations for Yamato-Damashii (大和魂). Coined during the Heian Period to juxtapose Japanese cultural values against those of the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) as well as the rest of the Asian continent, the Kanji characters literally mean “Spirit of Great Harmony.” In the early 20th century, Japanese nationalists propagandized their own translation: “the brave, daring, and indomitable spirit of Japanese people.” In spite of its bright, rosy appeal, Yamato-Damashii is also mixed with a certain level of pragmatism, which was expressed by Toshio Iritani in his description of life on the streets of Tokyo during the waning days of WWII.

When people gathered together in groups not a single complaint could be heard and they endured hardship in silence for the sake of their pride. Such reticence stems from ‘the Japanese spirit’ (Yamato Damashii) which, in this writer’s opinion, is still alive in the minds of older Japanese who will clench their teeth and bear suffering no matter how gruelling it is.

~Toshio Iritani from the book: “Group Psychology of the Japanese in Wartime”

Group Orientation

Nippon Series 15 discussed how schools in Japan purposely create crowded conditions to teach/force their students to persevere and coexist (Ganbare!). In order to operate as a collective, everyone must discover his/her role and learn to work together in unison. Therefore, from childhood, the need for cooperation is drilled into the subconscious. One way to achieve this, which incidentally goes hand-in-hand with the densely-populated classrooms, is the official decree that is heard numerous times throughout the school-day: “Junban!” (順番) wait in lineThis literally translates to “Order” but, more colloquially means: “Wait your turn.” Writers such as Hunter Nield have expressed awe and fascination with “Japan’s love of line-forming,” which he affirms “begins with the lessons kids learn as early as kindergarten.” Linda Bennett, in her essay entitled Expectations for Japanese Children, points out how Japanese kids learn from all aspects of society: family, school, community, and the even the nation, itself. “In each group (classroom),” she writes, “a child learns the self-discipline and commitment expected to be a supportive and responsible group member…” As I continued to read the Expectations, as laid-out by Ms. Bennett, I felt as though she was hinting at something which I suspected as far back as 2005: the Japanese psyche has been programmed more like that of a soldier than a normal civilian.

Army of the People

It is no secret that Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (日本国憲法第9条) officially demilitarized the Armed Forces, leaving in its place a de facto peace-keeping squadron referred to as the Japan Self-Defense Forces. However, please never forget that, in Japan, situations  are seldom what they appear to be on the surface. That is Tatemae. On the other hand, if we examine the educational objectives of Japanese schools, and then compare them with the Seven Core Army Values (Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage)we find out that every Japanese citizen has been indoctrinated with a code of ethics which is startlingly similar to that of an American soldier—this is the deeper picture known as Honne.

  • Loyalty, which means “bearing true faith and allegiance to the Constitution, the Army, your unit, and other soldiers” is equivalent to Shakaisei (社会性), being socially conscious. For Japanese, the group is more important than the individual, and an individual should never stand out. Appropriate behavior includes being reserved, cooperative, and supportive of the group. Other relatable tenets expressed in the Expectations essay are: Kyochosei (協調性), translated as “being cooperative or harmonious” and, Yasashii (優しい), being kindhearted to members of the group.
  • Duty. This one is easy. Fulfilling your obligations corresponds, first, to Loyalty to the society at large and, on a more personal level, “studying hard” which is translated to Susunde benkyo (進んで勉強). Please note that failure to perform one’s duty results in shame—which can lead to a state which has been described as “Communal Purgatory.”
  • Respect along with Loyalty are principles which are constantly being imparted through the Confucian teachings that were adopted into the culture.
  • Selfless Service. Putting the welfare of the nation, the Army, and your fellow soldiers—i.e. the group—before your own is a foundational principle for every Japanese. Omoiyari (思いやり) is the ability to be sympathetic/empathetic to those around you.
  • Honor is Meiyo (名誉) in Japanese. According to the U.S. Army, honor embodies the other six ethics; so it is a matter of carrying out the values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, integrity and personal courage in everything you do. However, this is not ‘honorable enough’ for Japanese; therefore, they came up with a more comprehensive code of honor containing eight virtues. You may have heard of it: it’s called Bushido.
  • Integrity is a quality you develop by adhering to the moral principle of doing what’s right for right’s sake. This corresponds to Hansei (反性), which is “self-discipline or self-reflection.”
  • Personal Courage. The ability to live honorably on a consistent basis is the measuring stick; so Jobu na (丈夫な), meaning “being strong and healthy,” and Gambaru (頑張る), “doing one’s best and having persistence toward a goal” fit the bill nicely.

Ms. Bennett goes on to explain that each child is cared for by the whole society, and all Japanese adults are responsible for helping to teach the norms and customs of the society. For this reason, she claims, they are members of a “National Family.” Once again, her description perfectly describes the relationship between commissioned, as well as non-commissioned, officers with the lower-enlisted personnel within the Armed Forces. Oh, and let’s not forget that Japanese children practice “how to march” in school as well. Please think back to your elementary school days: do you recall having lessons on Drill and Ceremony?

Japanese Acceptance

Many foreigners complain how Japanese are inflexible toward them. No matter how long they have lived in Japan, or how fluent they become in the language, or how accustomed they are to the culture, they are always treated as “outsiders.” Let’s take it a step further: over the years, I’ve had dozens of conversations and even received some e-mails from disgruntled exchange students, foreign nationals, as well as teachers, who show little trepidation at using the “R-word,” racism, to define the society’s xenophobic attitude toward anything deemed not Japanese. Hearing first-hand accounts by the victims of biased mistreatment, most notably, Brazilians, Koreans, and Peruvians, not to mention Ryukyuans, Ainu, and Burakumin (部落民), it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Nevertheless, in regards to English-speaking westerners, in my opinion, the situation is different because when most Japanese address the descendants of their conquerors, their Japanese Complex triggers a passive response in their brain.empty seat So unless you are the type who compares inconveniences such as people on the train not wanting to sit next to you with atrocities like Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa, or Jim Crowreal racism—it might be necessary to come up with an alternative to describe the uncomfortable feeling commuters experience on their ride to and from work. Far beyond just being insulted on a personal level, bona-fide victims of “real racism” are attacked on institutional, cultural, structural, as well as interpersonal levels, which has been explained in the article, “The Many Types of Racism: 5 Terms to Know. The truth is, a large percentage of these “Japanese are racist” indictments have been lodged by people who are classified as white, or non-whites who have acclimated themselves to European norms, standards, and values. Let’s face it, many of these folks have been spoiled by “white privilege” and therefore believe it’s “natural” for them to be liked and accepted. And for those who weren’t necessarily born with a silver spoon in their mouth, they probably don’t realize the city or town where they live, or the company (or school) they work for, functions like a military installation. In other words, being a foreigner in Japan has much in common with the status of a civilian who lives or works on an Army post. If you haven’t gone through the requisite training, just buying something at the Post Exchange (PX), or walking around the post doesn’t make you a soldier.

In Nippon Series 13, we discussed how there is only one “correct way” for Japanese to approach every situation. How many of these complaining westerners would be willing to adjust their behaviori.e. the way they walk, when/what they eat, sleeping patterns, etc.—to be in accordance with their neighbors? This is only a very small part of adopting the Yamato Code. An office lady (OL) in her mid-forties, once asked me why I had chosen to live in Japan. Without hesitation, I ran-down the same song-and-dance-reply I always gave of wanting to connect with my Japanese roots and visit my ancestor’s graves, etc. “No,” she cut me off in mid-sentence. “I mean, you used to be free…in America, right?” The urgency in her question threw me for a loop. “So,” I considered my words carefully, “here in Japan you’re not free?” As I attempted to elicit more information, she realized she had went off-code. “Never mind,” she brushed me off. Nonetheless, in that momentary lapse, Suzuki-san had divulged more information than she could have imagined. Reflecting on the deeper meaning embedded in her question allowed me to mature to having a frame-of-mind which could shrug-off extra stares on the train, realizing I was probably unwittingly doing something off-code; and more times than not I found this to be the situation. Usually it was something as innocent as humming, or nodding my head to the music in my headphones—both of which are serious glitches in the matrix! The point is: it seems many of those who file complaints about not being accepted lack a clear understanding of what they’re talking about. 

Wisdom of Understanding

Understanding when to (and when not to) follow the Yamato Code has allowed me to live peacefully in Japan and preserve who I am—no small feat in a society which has a “cookie-cutter approach” for assigning roles to people, whether foreigner or Japanese. This does not mean I am treated like a born-and-bred native; however, whenever challenged in an unappealing way, by tapping into my knowledge of the Code, not only am I able to avoid pitfalls but in most cases—and this is important—I set in place a precedent which discourages this type of situation from occurring in the future. Being able to “stand on your square” while “saving face” is a skill that few Japanese master, let-alone someone who was not born and raised in the land of Yamato. Although it took a decade of observation, surprisingly, my awareness of its existence began when I ceased to take personally any strange or peculiar happenings—especially anything which seemed controversial. Having established my third-person perspective it was easy to see the Code for what it is, their religion…i.e. God. And accordingly, every year, thousands are sacrificed to the spirit of Yamato via suicide or, unable to endure the daily strain of having to conform, they decide to bow-out of society. In a future installment of Nippon Seriesby simply navigating the Code, we will discuss how to side-step some of the stress which is inherent in Japanese society.

Note: The “quote” at the beginning of the article about “The Force” was reconstructed by Takuan Amaru. In Japanese: 天流沢庵

天流沢庵 is the author of Gaikokujin – The Story.