The Japanese Shame Culture
It is said that the Japanese are good at putting themselves in others’ shoes, caring very much about how other people view them. When I was in Japan, a friend of mine came to us after work, chatting and dawdling away his time. When asked why he was reluctant to go home earlier, he said he didn’t want rumoring by his neighbors that he was an early home-comer or a lazy worker.
Since ancient times, “name” and “shame” have been stable rules of behavior in Japanese society, regulating principal-subordinate relations in terms of maintaining “face”. After losing face from humiliation, mistreatment or being dumped by a lover, one should fight to regain it at all costs.
The super-sensibility of “name” and “shame” characterizes Japanese thinking, with Japanese culture paying far more attention to peripheral human relations than self-consciousness. In this sense, it is a sensitive culture.
Christian culture in the West is deemed to be a guilt culture based on a person’s internal moral standard; while collectivist culture in Japan is a shame culture which relies on external sanction. Once the pressure of this sanction is gone, such as during a journey, a Japanese may behave like a totally different person.
While guilt may be redeemed by repentance, shame can only be increased by admission, as a Japanese saying goes, “haji no uwanuri” (confession increases shame). It is therefore not surprising to see a phenomenon in Japan where a Japanese may constantly apologize to you when nothing happens (such as he didn’t step on your toe), but once he did make a mistake, he might just quietly turn away due to shame.
Japanese are usually considered to be highly sensitive to shame, such as in ladies toilets where a piece of river-flowing music is gently played to avoid embarrassment since male’s urinals are normally nearby in the same toilet. However, in contrast, Japanese family members of three generations, including males and females, can bath together. The practice that the Japanese take for granted as an intimate family routine may embarrass Chinese and other nations’ families.
However, dividing cultures of the world into a dichotomy of “shame culture” and “guilt culture” is a bit over-simplified. In fact, the two cultures overlap, but each has its dominant feature.