CulturallyOurs Sachiko Eubanks Japanese culture and concept of harmony

Exploring The Japanese Culture Of Wa And Harmony

CulturallyOurs Sachiko Eubanks Japanese culture and concept of harmony

Wa – the Japanese concept of harmony

Our conversation with Sachiko Eubanks really inspired us to dig deeper into the Japanese culture of Wa and harmony – the balance of all things in and around us, both literal and implied. Sachiko had such a beautiful poetic way to describe how the culture of harmony plays such an important part in Japan. If you missed her interview, you can listen to it here.

Harmony can be found everywhere in Japan. Whether it’s the clean lines and understated nature of Japanese architecture or the orderly manner in which a Japanese meal is arranged on a plate, the concept of “wa” or “harmony” is at the heart of Japanese culture. Shaped by a rich history and deep traditions, harmony informs all aspects of Japanese law and customs. 

As a guiding principal in all interactions, whether in a family, social or business environment, wa stresses interdependence over independence, cooperation over dissent, and patience over resistance. It’s why Japan is often considered a culture of conflict-avoidance, and to some, Japanese may be characterized as indecisive, reserved or cautious. 

But don’t assume that, just because they act and speak to preserve wa, Japanese don’t have dissenting thoughts or get frustrated. It’s just that achieving wa is so important to Japan’s social values, people distinguish between “hone,” one’s true feelings, and “tatemai,” the face one wears in public. While Western culture may view this as hypocrisy, Japanese understand that rising above one’s personal feelings for the good of society as a whole is its own virtue – you’re not a hypocrite, you’re a good citizen. 

There are some, though, that believe a culture of wa has started to erode in Tokyo, Japan’s capital. While 65 percent of foreigners find that the people of Tokyo have good manners, only 24 per cent of Tokyo residents think so, according to a survey by the Tokyo Good Manners Project (TGMP) Yes, you read that correctly. There is an organization dedicated to improving the manners of Tokyo residents and tourists by encouraging them not to litter and to follow transportation rules, for example.  

It’s not that foreigners have started to perceive a decline in manners among Tokyo residents. In fact, almost 70% of foreigners answered that “people have good manners” in Tokyo, according to a TGMP survey. Of course, a culture steeped in wa has exceedingly high expectations, which is why only 24% of Tokyo residents agreed with foreigners’ assessment. CulturallyOurs Sachiko Eubanks Shrine in Japan for harmonyWhy the perception gap? It helps to understand Japan’s agricultural history and how it shaped a culture that values harmony. 

Japan’s geographic isolation, mountainous terrain and few natural resources necessitated cooperation between farmers, who relied upon one another to maintain the irrigation systems required to grow rice and other crops. To survive, no less thrive, farmers had to work together and place the needs of their farming communities above their own in order to remain productive. Harmony, or wa, wasn’t simply a nice concept, it was necessary for survival.  

This informal social contract between farmers was formalized for all of Japanese society in A.D. 604 when Prince Shotoku Taishi decreed in Japan’s first constitution: “Wa should be valued and quarrels avoided. When superiors are in harmony with each other and inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevails.”

Wa had evolved from a social contract to the foundation of Japan’s value system.CulturallyOurs Sachiko Eubanks Japanese culture and concept of harmony Fast forward to today. In Western culture, where speaking your mind and tackling differences head-on is seen as being true to one’s self, the concept of wa can seem antiquated. But seen another way, people who prefer to foster the harmony of a community over his own personal interests is a unique quality in today’s ‘me, myself and I’ culture.    

When you understand why harmony is valued in Japanese society, you can begin to appreciate that it is more than simply being polite, patient or agreeable (which are traits that can be in low supply today). It’s a result of actions and words and gestures. It’s the sum of millions of people with a shared value that guides them every single day. At a time when Western culture is pulling people apart, wa binds people together. 

“Harmony makes small things grow, lack of it makes great things decay.” – Sallust

{Photo credit : Sachiko Eubanks of Sachiko Eubanks Photography}

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Leave your comments below

  1. masami says:

    i believe that this philosophy only works if everyone involved adopts it. otherwise it just makes those willing to subjugate their personal needs and desires subject to being taken advantage of.

    • Karthika Gupta says:

      Agree! But when the culture as a whole has the similar mindset, it makes the pursuit of harmony even more achievable and brings a certain calmness to lifestyle and society as a whole.