Japan – The 21st Century Honour Code

One of the most striking aspects of Japanese society that I find I am unable to fully wrap my head around is how damned paradoxical it is. How a country with such friendly people who exercise an unnatural amount of self-discipline can also produce some of the most utterly weird stuff ever!

The country’s amazingly widespread and adhered-to environmental ‘green’ attitude being a prime example. A plethora of different coloured bags for recyclable cans, bottles, paper and so on ensure that the nation’s trash is reused many times over. And yet this country is a big proponent of whaling, commericialised (over)fishing and has no laws against smoking or drinking in public. I guess they just assume one will ‘behave’ or act with honour and appropriate discipline when plundering the seas or sipping some whiskey.

Likewise, upon my trip to Sapporo for the JET programme’s prefectural orientation I received a packet of money from my supervisor, to pay for transport etc. It was a considerably generous amount and I assumed that it was in order for me to pay for my hotel bill on checkout. However, when I asked about this my supervisor assured me that the hotel was paid for by the Board of Education already. Even more curiously, he couldn’t quite understand why I would want to bring him receipts of everything I paid for with the money. No, this money was for me to spend, and it was generally assumed I would spend it as I must. In South Africa, or any western country, this would be unfathomable. If you give an employee a fat sum of money and send them to the big city and leave no measure of accountability, that money is going straight to the nearest casino, liquor store or combination thereof.

Indeed, even upon return my supervisor could not understand why I wanted to give him back the difference left over. Something which left myself a bit confused as well. Completely weird!

The same applies for many bureaucratic and social functions as well (such as the bill for a group meal with drinks being split equally), and it’s truly remarkable to see functioning in such a large population. Indeed, in such a large commercialised population, one would have expected the customs of old to have been cast aside a long long time ago. And yet in Japan it functions, and functions well.

It’s an intangible aspect of Japanese society that I can’t quite understand myself. Most likely because no such notion of personal self-discipline or ‘honour’ really applies in western societies anymore. Or at the very least, do not exist as an inherent national culture. The same people who will allow drinking in public, sing to Elvis remixes and sell panties in vending machines will greet each other every morning at work with a stiff bow, and then say farewell in the afternoon in the same fashion. The same people who practice horrendous policies in fishing rights and so on will allow an employee to travel far far away from their office, equipped with a considerable amount of money, and simply trust that you will spend as much of it as you need, and in a manner that is befitting one’s station as a government employee. There are levels of sophistication and decorum I couldn’t begin to understand in just one year, but I find it fascinating nonetheless.

And yes, because I know you want to find out, I spent the money responsibly… With the exception of one or two (or ten) packs of Pocky candy 😀 As for my own money, however, I wish I could say I was as disciplined!

Written by admin in: Things Japanese |


  • I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Japan – The 21st Century Honour Code, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

    Comment | September 21, 2007
  • To be honest I can’t really explain it fully. It’s like trying to describe something so intangible, yet so very much a part of Japanese society.

    Stay tuned and maybe I’ll be able to elaborate in coming posts!

    Comment | September 27, 2007
  • […] written before about this phenomenon, and had naively thought it to be a trend throughout Japan. But after the […]

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