Philosophical Religious and Social Influences

With a land mass of 145,000 square miles and a population of 126 million the phenomenal export output would suggest that the Japanese are probably overworked and under slept. Napping passengers on their daily commute provide ample evidence.  The saying among high school students – sleep four hours, pass; sleep five hours, fail – is not hyperbole.  The long hours spent in the classroom, followed by cram school (juku) and hours of homework is substantial evidence of the Japanese dedication to work.  Although roundly denounced by the Western media, the Japanese are proud of their work ethic.  In his address on the global economic crisis, former Prime Minister Taro Aso emphatically stated: Japan regards hard work as important…. To work is good …… We should share our philosophy with many other nations.

ig 1. Map of Japan

Current Japanese thought is the product of a distinctive culture. To understand the Japanese unflagging passion for industry is to understand their religious and philosophical indoctrination. The moral underpinnings of their disciplined attitude towards the institution of work is molded by millennia of powerful philosophical and religious precepts.  The values most strongly influencing Japanese business practices are based on Shinto, Confucian, and Buddhist Ethics.

The necessity to be loyal to one’s ancestors is seminal to the teachings of Shintoism.  Adherence to this philosophy interconnects all Japanese in a bond of loyal kinship to ancestral past.  It also advocates harmony between the individual and the environment. To attain this accord, one should act in a manner that brings honor to one’s family.  Caring for the less fortunate as well as the steadfast performance of humanitarian acts is vital to attracting honor to the family.

Confucianism has also shaped Japanese thought.  Whether by age or status, Confucianism advocates respect for seniority.  Juniors are expected to obey and respect the authority of the elders who are in turn obligated to care for their junior members. Confucian principles emphasize filial piety, fidelity, obedience and kindness. It also stresses loyalty to the state and adoption conscientious work principles. According to the Japanese interpretation of Confucian Philosophy, devotion to elders is paramount.  Hence, filial piety and humanity is the foundation of familial, social and national life.  The individual is expected to act in accordance with his social standing to create a cordially functioning society.  Efficient running of the society is a responsibility of the government which assumes morality and benevolence toward its citizens.  Neo-Confucianism is based on metaphysical principles influenced by Buddhist and Daoist ideas. It also preaches family stability and social responsibility.

The Buddhist philosophy is based on The Fourfold Noble Truths.  The first is that life is full of suffering.  The second is that suffering has a cause.  The third is that the cause of suffering can be ended.  The last noble truth indicates the path to end the cause of suffering.  Together the teachings encompass The Eightfold Noble Path. Essentially, all the paths are inter-related and consist of right conduct, right livelihood and right effort (dharma) among others.  Consistent with the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Eightfold Path asserts that attachment to objects of desire is the wellspring of misery.  Elimination of desire brings inner tranquility.  Hence adherence to the philosophical principles prescribed by the paths leads to liberation from misery, nirvana if you wish. Being predominantly Buddhists, the Japanese spiritual upbringing has provided fertile ground for cultivating a healthy work ethic.

Fig 1. Buddha
Fig. 2. Confucius

The Culture of Team Work

Fig. 3. Shinto

Reminiscent of Mother Teresa’s fourth vow, the fifth step of the Noble Path teaches that work should be performed cheerfully, regardless of its nature and irrespective of rewards.  All work should be done with unstinting devotion and scrupulous attention to detail.  Moreover, the worker should adopt a positive mental attitude in thought, speech and actions.  Echoing this concept, the Buddha himself famously said: Your work is to discover work, and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.  Addressing the question of a specific prayer time, Zen Master, Shosan Suzuki affirmed the views of other religious teachers, including Martin Luther and Saint Benedict, when he affirmed: You must work…. with all your heart and soul.  When you toil, your heart is at peace.  In this way you are engaged in Buddhist practice. Implicit in the statement is that work is prayer; there is no need set aside special times for prayer.  He pithily summarized the concept when he intoned:  Every kind of work is Buddhist practice. Through work we can attain Buddhahood. The Japanese unstinting dedication to work is but a stringent application of this dogma in their working lives.

Fig 4. Shosan Suzuki

Faithfully adhering to the philosophy of ancestral masters, Japanese workers execute their daily rounds cognizant of their vocational obligations.  In accordance with Shinto precepts, the employee views himself as an ambassador of the company and strives to bring honor to the employer and his family.  Deeply ingrained in the mind of the employee, is that the company is an integral part of the family and the needs of the company supersede personal needs.  As a result, the individual cheerfully submits to the overarching strictures of the organization as defined by its goals and values.  To the Japanese worker, the workplace is his community; home is where he sleeps.

In the workplace, the group functions as the community.  As a group-oriented society, the management style of the Japanese is based upon personal loyalties within a team environment with emphasis on the fluidity of group dynamics.  Workers stifle their individuality in the interest of group harmony.  Because of the high social value place on community life, nothing could be worse than being ostracized from this social setting.  Hence, the employee puts forth a stubborn effort to be a part of his workplace community while relishing a sense of belonging.  To foster harmony within the group, an employee would overextend to accommodate another colleague; for in the eyes of management, the group is all; no universal value…. can transcend it.

Steeped in Confucian precepts, the Japanese have been conditioned to follow orders from superiors implicitly – no questions.  So deeply enshrined is this philosophy that it becomes difficult for a Japanese to refuse a reasonable request in the course of normal working relationships.  Refusals are considered disruptive to cordial relationships in the commercial environment in which the individual functions.  Therefore, in a traditional organizational structure, it is a breach of routine courtesy for junior employees to disobey orders. Acts of disobedience among colleagues are intolerable therefore negative responses are avoided to promote fraternal camaraderie.  Hence for the sake of the collective good the worker learns to sacrifice personal preferences to ensure team spirit. Since feudal times this form of business practice has existed; the Japanese were taught to work in fraternal fellowship and respect authority in return for their livelihood and protection.  Challenging the authority of seniors is an affront to Confucian principles of filial piety.

Company-Employee Relationship

The organizational structure of Japanese Corporations reveals a Confucian influence such that all levels of employees overtly display the same symbolisms of equality. To erase class distinction, all workers wear the same uniform.  Nurturing this culture of fraternity is initiated at the very outset of employment. New recruits are given a five-month orientation course where they dine together and share sleeping accommodations. They are indoctrinated on everything from personal grooming to deference to coworkers and superiors. Overall, companies strive to ensure new recruits adapt to the prevailing corporate culture. In contrast, the working paradigm of Western industries is based on the construct of class distinction: white and blue collar indicate hierarchical differences.  This artificial class distinction, primarily based on remunerative consideration, diminishes the self-worth of workers in the lower rungs of an organizational ladder. It unwittingly promotes an adversarial us-versus-them environment that is inimical to collegial relationships.

From the three basic philosophies of Shintoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, a fourth was synthesized – the parent-child ethic.  In this relationship the company represents the affectionate surrogate parent with the child employee reciprocating by his willingness to appease. This reciprocal display of affection between senior and junior employees fosters harmony within the organization. 

As the surrogate parent, Japanese firms are demonstrably caring in several ways.  They offer generous benefit packages to their employees. The firm subsidizes housing, transportation, family allowances, child allowance, health services, educational opportunities, retirement funds, bonuses and access to recreational facilities.  Under this system, all permanent employees of larger corporations and government bureaus are hired for life.  Moreover, the company undertakes to care for its employees till death.  Managers are unable to hire, fire, or deny promotions.  The employee is hired by the company and managers and supervisors inspire through style, trust, goodwill and friendship.  Retired executives, rather than being unceremoniously jettisoned, are cared for through transfers to less demanding positions so that they can maintain their self-esteem through the dignity of work. The employee in turn energetically responds by putting out his best efforts while fostering smooth team dynamics.

The difference between Japanese and Western employment practices becomes conspicuously transparent during economic downturns. Should an industry collapse, affected companies endeavor to secure employment elsewhere for their employees through a system of kieretsu so that no one is fired or laid-off.  If the company realizes an employee’s performance is substandard, it may either retrain or shift the inept worker to a more supportive but less demanding working environment. Workers’ positions are never coldly deleted as is common practice in the Western world. Advancements are dependent on seniority, aptitude, accomplishment and the ability to sustain fraternity within the team.  Positioning of employees vary according to their abilities with the more capable bearing heavier workloads.  In this team of employees, the supernovas are irrelevant.  Everyone is an equal part of a team which works as an organic whole.  Management trainees are rotated every two to three years, giving them a universal perspective of the company.  Instead of pay incentives, the more competent are eventually elevated to positions of greater authority. The ability to motivate members and foster productive amity is the benchmark for assessing promotion eligibility.  Rather than being task-oriented, groups work on direction and goals with fraternal co-existence taking precedence over the ultimate goal.  Instead of directing, the manager attempts to cultivate an atmosphere of fellowship among the team members. An astute manager accepts responsibility for errors of his subordinates assuming such deed nurtures goodwill among team members.  Such gestures strengthen fraternal bonds in accordance with Shinto-Confucian precepts.

Viewed through the lens of the westerner, Japanese companies act as coddling parents.  Defending this paternal approach Sony’s Chairman, Akio Morita, who once described Western companies as profit mongers who view the employee as an insensate resource. By contrast, the Japanese see the workers as sentient beings with inalienable rights that include more than wages.  Further, he averred that it is a fundamental role of the employer to provide meaning to the worker’s life.  To this end, top executives work to improve the position of their company with most of their salaries, more than 78%, paid into taxes for the greater good: that of nation building.

Long Term Planning

In the Japanese view of business dynamics, long term planning is critical.  It ensures sustained vitality of the company and an essential component of the business model.  To achieve an acute global vision, Japanese executives place more emphasis on long-term success of their companies, their connected partners – who are seen as family – and their country.  Planning often takes place decades ahead.  To reduce greenhouse gas pollution Toyota was the forerunner in the commercialization of a full hybrid electric automobile. The success of the Toyota Prius and the unreserved tendency to apply robot technology to manufacturing, are salient demonstrations of this acuminous vision.  Going further, Toyota is a leader in the development of fuel cell technology. The Toyota Mirai is one of the first cars on the market to boast the use of this technology. Its development started in 1992 and was first showcased in 2014.


All graphic displays were sourced from online sources. The text of this piece was largely excerpted from The Eloquence of Effort: