Japanese culture is often looked upon by the rest of the world with a heady mixture of intrigue and respect.
On the one hand, the various toys, gadgets, anime and even food can seem a little bizarre to Western tastes, but it’s hard to argue with the country’s work ethic, its pursuit of perfection, and the loyalty and attention to detail of its citizens — as the world’s third largest economy after the US and China, with a reputation for well-made cars and electronics, it must be doing many things right.
The business practices of the Japanese are often hailed as some of the best in the world, with American car manufacturers flocking over in the 1970s and 1980s to learn about efficiency and quality from their Far Eastern counterparts.
Ironically though, it is the nation's extreme dedication to their art that Westerners can also find so difficult to relate to, and one of the reasons that Japan feels so strange to them.
After all, there are few countries in the world where people can set their watches by the running of the trains, with the operators issuing a report that employees can present to their bosses if they happen to be late. Such is the unlikelihood of this happening.
Learning the lingo
Traits like honour, loyalty, perfection and dedication are so prevalent in Japanese culture that specific words are used to describe its beliefs and attitudes.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the concept of ‘kaizen’. This typically means the idea of continual improvement — the pursuit of perfection (itself known as ‘kodawari’) through the constant monitoring of an operation, looking for ways to increase production, improve efficiency and minimise waste, for example.
Kaizen happens while a process is under way, rather than stepping in and making changes only when something goes wrong. Essentially, it’s the art of anticipating mistakes and stopping them before they happen.
The concept was reportedly first demonstrated to American businessmen in Japan when they visited the Toyota car factories. The company’s 67,000 employees had all been encouraged to speak up whenever they saw room for improvement in their particular roles, with 700,000 suggestions submitted from them every year and 99% implemented. All of the production lines ran well, with high productivity and very little error.
This example draws on other Japanese cultural beliefs, namely ‘giri’, meaning honour, where an employee would feel obligated to improve the company environment, understanding that more can be achieved together rather than as individuals — ‘wa’ being the notion of group harmony, where all of its members carry a shared goal.
The same applies to the management style of Japanese companies, who adopt the ‘ringi system’, with decisions only made after a document is circulated and approved by all of its senior executives, allowing for greater input, maintaining morale and sharing the element of risk.
Where do these traits in Japanese culture stem from? One might argue that they have always been present, and evident in the country’s ancient arts, such as sushi, bonsai, origami, ‘ikebana’ (flower arranging), swordsmithing, and porcelain crafting.
Some may look to the samurai — the military nobility of early-modern Japan — who lived by their own codified way of life and moral values. This sense of discipline became known as ‘bushido’, and centred around the ideals of frugality, loyalty and honour, which during the 16th century became formalised into Japanese feudal law. From here, these traits found their way into all aspects of daily life, from traditional crafts to modern business practices.
The spirit of the samurai and their sense of dedication live on. For example, those in the restaurant trade will explain that it takes 10 years to perfect the knife skills required to make sushi correctly, carving the skin and fat away to create equal-size portions of fresh fish correctly.
Other Japanese artisans will be just as dedicated to their own craft, sticking to one particular role or pastime, repeating it relentlessly, over and over, decade after decade, until they have become the best they can possibly be.
This singular focus is referred to as ‘shokunin’, and will be as relevant to the Samurai swordsmith, sushi chef or Ikebana flower arranger as it is the ageing tempura maker, who has learned the subtle differences that temperature and time can make, possible only through his many years of dedication. The modern Japanese office workers will find themselves similarly disciplined for their own daily tasks.
While Japanese practices can seem bizarre or extreme, sometimes taking away flexibility, and to an extent individuality, it can only be a good thing that at least one country in the world strives for this level of perfection.
Japanese standards are unrivalled anywhere else, perhaps showing the true extent of what human beings are capable of achieving.