Why are Japanese people so honest?

I remember feeling completely stumped. During dinner with some colleagues, the conversation turned to how much more likely it was to recover a lost wallet (with money and credit cards intact) in Japan than in Western countries. Someone turned to me and asked, “Why do you think that is?”

I knew it wasn’t because of a strong Judeo-Christian influence. Nor did it seem to be a particularly Asian trait, since there are many Asian countries where you’d be far less likely to see your wallet again. But I couldn’t think of any convincing reasons for Japanese people’s honesty. Interestingly, even the Japanese people present didn’t have ready answers.

To investigate further, I asked eight Japanese teachers during some free-talk Japanese lessons on CafeTalk.com. All except one were either living overseas when I spoke to them or had lived overseas in the recent past. One teacher had become a Catholic as an adult, while all the others seemed to have had no significant Christian influence in their lives.

Without hesitation, all the teachers said that if they found a wallet they would return it immediately to the owner or hand it in to staff, the lost property office, or the nearest police box. They all said they would do that even if no one was looking (for example, if they found the wallet in a toilet cubicle). For all of them, it seemed like a natural and automatic response; I got no sense that they had to wrestle with their consciences.

While the teachers mentioned various motivations for returning the lost wallet, there seemed to be three main factors: the sense of shame they would feel if they got caught; sympathy for the person who had lost the wallet; and a karmic-like expectation of something bad happening to them if they took the wallet.

Shame

Almost all of the teachers mentioned that a big deterrent was the shame they would experience if they were caught taking the money. Since childhood their parents and teachers had taught them that returning a lost item is what everyone would do and that it was the right thing to do. This shows they feel a strong obligation to conform to social norms even when no one is watching. One teacher mentioned that the shame would not just be theirs alone, but that their greed would reflect badly on their parents, which differs from the Western viewpoint of just the perpetrator of a crime bearing the shame.

One teacher said that due to the strong desire to avoid getting caught up in the affairs of others, many Japanese people wouldn’t even peek inside the wallet before handing it in. And some Japanese would even turn down their right to receive the money if it wasn’t claimed within three months.

Sympathy

Understandably, many teachers said that a large motivation for handing in the wallet was sympathy for the person who had lost it. But while this featured prominently in the reasons given, it didn’t come across as the top one.

Bad karma

For me, the most intriguing reason given was that the teachers felt like a god was watching and that if they did something like taking some of the money when no-one was looking, they would be punished by him later. This belief is expressed in the proverb “The sun god is watching” (Otentō-sama ga miteru). This almost karmic belief came as a surprise to me, as I hadn’t encountered it before, but most of the teachers mentioned it as a compelling reason for not taking the money. They had been taught this belief as children but seemed not to have outgrown it as adults (unlike Western children’s belief in Father Christmas or the tooth fairy). While the god they spoke of was more like a karmic Buddhist deity than the Christian God, it’s hard not to see it as a witness that God has left to himself in the collective consciousness of Japanese people.

Concluding thoughts

Insights such as these might not seem to be immediately relevant to your ministry, but they can be valuable for gaining a deeper understanding of how Japanese people react in different situations and the cultural values that guide their behaviour. That’s important because to minister effectively to Japanese people we need to understand how they think.

Finally, the realization that you don’t understand what was going on in some situation you have encountered personally or have heard about can be great opportunity to discover more. Look out for interactions or behaviours that don’t make sense to you and then ask others, particularly those who have been in Japan longer than you and Japanese people (both Christians and non-Christians).


Wallet photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wallet_on_ground.jpg

Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company and is now the Executive Editor of Japan Harvest. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org

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