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Japanese Formality

In: Philosophy and Psychology

Submitted By fionnalui
Words 1781
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The United States helped Japan draft its Constitution, which laid the foundation for a
“new” Japan. Although Japan had many outside influences after World War II, Japanese culture shares few similarities to those in America today. Values are one's judgment of what is important in life to guide his or her behavior in society. Formality is the strict following of rules of behavior under customs and rules of convention in an area. It would be one of the differing values between the Japanese and Americans. The idea of formality in Japan is one that is held to a relatively high importance, while formality in America generally tends to be of lower importance. The Japanese base their actions and interactions based on certain formalities that must be upheld in order to treat others with respect. On the other hand, Americans don't have a certain set of formalities that their actions or interactions are based on. Examples include how a person acts at the dinner table or how a person interacts with others in their society. Different formalities cause people of different cultures to act in a certain way. As a result, if formalities of different cultures were to intermix, many people would be shocked or taken back by the behavior of the people in the other society.
The Japanese have a strict set of rules instilled into the people since a young age that guides them through everyday actions. For example, during meals in Japan the Japanese follow certain speech and action patterns. To start off a meal, they say, “Itadakimasu” which translates to “Thank you for the food.” This shows their appreciation to their host for taking them in and

providing them with a meal. At the end of the meal they say, “Gochiso sama deshita” to thank the host for the meal (Uyemura). If left unsaid, it would be an example of impropriety, and would be considered rude. Between those two statements, the dining time would generally be quiet because they would rather savor the flavor of the food than chat. During the meal, there are certain unspoken rules one must adhere by. The use of chopsticks is one major example that consist of many actions one must be weary of. Such actions include: not passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another, not placing one’s chopsticks upright into food, especially in a bowl of rice, as well as not using chopsticks to move the food around searching for a certain piece.
Much of the reasoning for these actions refer to funeral rituals. Passing food around would be like passing around bone fragments of the deceased, and placing vertical chopsticks into a bowl of rice would represent the incenses burning at the funeral. Rummaging around the food would symbolize moving the soil around for one’s grave spot so it would be highly inappropriate to do during meals where one is showing signs of gratitude to his or her host for the provision of a meal. Additionally, when one pauses or puts his or her chopsticks down, he or she must not place it on top of the bowl (Kwintessential) . Even if there is food left, by placing the used pair of chopsticks on the bowl signifies satisfaction and an end to the meal. To those who are actually finished, one would not leave his or her glass completely empty because it would be a signal for someone else to continue serving, since it is also uncustomary to serve ones self. People follow these rules so there is no confusion on what one actually wants or means. The Japanese are keen on formalities because they do not want to be considered rude, especially since breaking these rules would be considered embarrassing.

Unlike Japan, America is a country that has entered the age of individualism and does not hold formalities as strictly as many other countries do. For example, instead of showing up exactly on time or early, people prefer to arrive around 5 to 10 minutes late. Within the new generations, formalities can sometimes be seen as arrogant and stuck up (Kohls) . Children are taught formalities for different occasions, but these formalities have the little expectations. Not only does one learn that he or she shouldn’t act like a child and have no manners, but also that going over the top to the point that it would make the other people feel uncomfortable is a no-no.
In America, while eating, the people are rather lax as opposed to when Japanese people eat.
Americans will eat using forks, spoons and knives, but there is no specific way to do so. With certain foods, one could also use his or her hands to eat, and doing so would not be considered impolite at all. Rather it would actually be considered acceptable; some prepared foods, known as “finger foods”, are intended to be eaten by hand. Unlike the Japanese getting served by the people surrounding him or her from family style plates, food in America is often times served in individual plates. Everyone is served their own plate of food rather than having large dishes of food shared by all members at the table. Also, if the feeling to consume more food arises, he or she will not hesitate take another serving . Yet if one is offered food he or she does not particularly want, a kind rejection would be accepted with no questions asked. Because
Americans prioritize eating to socializing, dining in America tends to be shorter. American informality is common because there are not a set of specific rules.
When it comes to friendships in Japan, the Japanese tend to be quite aloof due to formalities. Respect is shown by using honorifics in speech, and referring to someone using the wrong one would be considered insulting. In Japan people prefer to be referred to by his or her’s

last names followed by “san”. However, if he or she is in a higher rank to those they are talking to, one would be referred to by their surname followed by, “sama”. Therefore the way to guarantee not insulting someone would simply to not speak to them at all. The Japanese feel that there is no reason one must converse with another if they have no relation. They follow the
“mind your own business” mindset. The start of a conversation with a stranger would often times need a third party to have a proper introduction (Salvaggio). This ensures that they know what rank the person they are talking to is in. Although the Japanese people may know someone for many years, it takes a lot of time before they call the person a friend. Since creating new friendships are a lot of work, once the friendships are created, they stay put. The Japanese tend to put less effort into their friendships once formed because of their low levels of relational mobility. This is because people tend to stay in the same proximity, so there really is no where else they run away to. In friendships, the Japanese still tend to be quite tight lipped. This is because one do not want to burden others with his or her own problems. Because the Japanese don’t disclose their feelings, they don't reveal their insecurities and show weakness. They care too much about their rank and how they are seen in society, so they have certain formalities to make sure they are well respected and their rank is acknowledged, even by their friends.
In America, people are quick to recognize others as their friends. This is because socializing in general tends to come easier in an informal society. Unlike Japan, Americans are not worried about insulting others by referring to them with the wrong honorific. Instead of having to phrase things a certain way or have a certain “polite” greeting, people can simply start a conversation with a stranger just by saying, “Hi” or , “How are you?” This makes conversation easier, as it is more relaxed and more in the moment. Though the person who asked may not

particularly care how the other person’s is, he or she asks to show recognition that the other person is not viewed as lower than themselves. Since people are all viewed as equal, started in the Declaration of Independence, “All men are created equal”, people do not view others as higher or lower ranked than them (University of Portland) . While the Japanese prefer to be called by their last name followed by their honorific, Americans prefer to be called by their first name to have a more relaxed conversation. Since there are no written set of rules on how one should converse with another, American friendships take many twists and turns.While
Japanese friendships last a lifetime, American friendships can end as fast as they were formed due to their lack of formality.
Americans are accustomed to less formalities than the Japanese. While the Japanese have their specific rules for how to behave during meals and how to interact with others in their society, it can be hard to get accustomed to their culture if you are used to the formalities accepted in the American society. Little details or actions one may not think is a big deal in
America may be a huge deal in Japan. Calling out to a person in Japan can have very different outcomes compared to calling out to a person in America. In America, people call each other by their first names without restraint, merely using a name as a form of recognition. However, if the same was done in Japan, the person may be taken back or even offended, since Japanese people refer to each other by their family names followed by an honorific. With differences in formalities, slight or extreme, it can become easy to offend others if left unaware of the formalities of other societies.


1. "Japan - Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette." Kwintessential, n.d. Web.
24 Dec. 2015.
2. "Japanese Eating Customs." Essential Japan Guide RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 24
Dec. 2015.
3. Kohls, L. Robert. "The Values That Shape U.S. Culture." The Values That
Shape U.S. Culture (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 26 Dec. 2015.
4. "USA - Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette." USA. N.p., n.d.
Web. 26 Dec. 2015.
5. Uyemura, Brandy-Ann. "Japanese Culture and Traditions." LoveToKnow. N.p.,
n.d. Web. 24 Dec. 2015.
6. Salvaggio, Eryk. "On Friendships in Japan." This Japanese Life. N.p., 06 Nov.
2013. Web. 27 Dec. 2015.
7. "U.S. American Values & Assumptions." International Student Services: U.S.
American Values and Assumptions. University of Portland, n.d. Web. 28 Dec.

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