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Culture of Japan

Table of contents
1 Japanese culture and language
2 Japanese popular culture
3 The culture of Japanese management
4 To be covered
5 See also
6 References

Japanese culture and language

Japan endured intermittent periods of relative isolation from external influences, ending at the arrival of the "Black Ships" and the Meiji era; and with economic, cultural and religious influences from neighboring Asian states, produced a unique culture of its own. Ruth Benedict asserted in her now-discredited study "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," that Japan has a shame culture (external reference standard) rather than the guilt culture (internal reference standard) that is more familiar in the West. Again in Japan, inter-relationships between people are heavily influenced by "obligation" and "duty" in a way that is no longer true in the more individualistic and free-wheeling West. Finally, generalised conceptions of morality and desirable behaviour are relatively under-developed in Japan, where particular obligations to family, school, friends tend to guide behaviour. (See Japanese customs.)

Because of strong correlation between Japanese culture and language, the Japanese language has always played a significant role in Japanese culture. Nemawashi, for example, indicates consensus achieved through careful preparation. It reflects the harmony that is desired and respected within Japanese culture.

Japanese popular culture

Japanese popular culture not only reflects the attitudes and concerns of the present but also provides a link to the past. Popular films, television programs, comicss, and music all developed from older artistic and literary traditions, and many of their themes and styles of presentation can be traced to traditional art forms. Contemporary forms of popular culture, like the traditional forms, provide not only entertainment but also an escape for the contemporary Japanese from the problems of an industrial world. When asked how they spent their leisure time, 80 percent of a sample of men and women surveyed by the government in 1986 said they averaged about two and one-half hours per weekday watching television, listening to the radio, and reading newspapers or magazines. Some 16 percent spent an average of two and one-quarter hours a day engaged in hobbies or amusements. Others spent leisure time participating in sports, socializing, and personal study. Teenagers and retired people reported more time spent on all of these activities than did other groups.

In the late 1980s, the family was the focus of leisure activities, such as excursions to parks or shopping districts. Although Japan is often thought of as a hard-working society with little time for pleasure, the Japanese seek entertainment wherever they can. It is common to see Japanese commuters riding the train to work, enjoying their favorite comic books or listening through earphones to the latest in popular music on portable music players.

Japan has about 100 million television sets in use, and television is the main source of home entertainment and information for most of the population. The Japanese have a wide variety of programs to choose from, including the various dramas (police, crime, home, and samurai), cartoons, news, and game, quiz, and sports shows provide by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (Nippon Hoso Kyokai--NHK) general station, the NHK educational station, and numerous commercial and independent stations. The violence of the samurai and police dramas and the scatological humor of the cartoons draw criticism from mothers and commentators. Characters in dramas and cartoons often reflect racial and gender stereotypes. Women news anchors are not given equal exposure in news broadcasts, and few women are portrayed on television in high career positions.

A wide variety of types of popular entertainment are available. There is a large selection of music, films, and the products of a huge comic book industry, among other forms of entertainment, from which to choose.

The culture of Japanese management

The culture of Japanese management, so famous in the West, is generally limited to Japan's large corporations. These flagships of the Japanese economy -- the business elite -- provide their workers with excellent salaries and working conditions and secure employment. A career with such a company is the dream of many young people in Japan, but only a select few attain these jobs. Qualification for employment is limited to the men and the few women who graduate from the top thirty colleges and universities in Japan.

Placement and advancement of Japanese workers is heavily based on educational background. Students who do not gain admission to the most highly rated colleges only rarely have the chance to work for a large company. Instead, they have to seek positions in small and medium-sized firms that can not offer comparable benefits and prestige. The quality of one's education and, more important, the college attended, play decisive roles in a person's career (see Education in Japan).

Few Japanese attend graduate school, and graduate training in business per se is rare. There are only a few business school programs in Japan. Companies provide their own training and show a strong preference for young men who can be trained in the company way. Interest in a person whose attitudes and work habits are shaped outside the company is low. When young men are preparing to graduate from college, they begin the search for a suitable employer. This process is very difficult: there are only a few positions in the best government ministries, and quite often entry into a good firm is determined by competitive examination. The situation is becoming somewhat less competitive, however, with a gradual decrease in the number of candidates. New workers enter their companies as a group on April 1 each year.

One of the prominent features of Japanese management is the practice of permanent employment (shushin koyo). Permanent employment covers the minority of the work force that work for the major companies. Management trainees, traditionally nearly all of whom were men, are recruited directly from colleges when they graduate in the late winter and, if they survive a six-month probationary period with the company, are expected to stay with the companies for their entire working careers. Employees are not dismissed thereafter on any grounds, except for serious breaches of ethics.

Permanent employees are hired as generalists, not as specialists for specific positions. A new worker is not hired because of any special skill or experience; rather, the individual's intelligence, educational background, and personal attitudes and attributes are closely examined. On entering a Japanese corporation, the new employee will train from six to twelve months in each of the firm's major offices or divisions. Thus, within a few years a young employee will know every facet of company operations, knowledge which allows companies to be more productive.

Another unique aspect of Japanese management is the system of promotion and reward. An important criterion is seniority. Seniority is determined by the year an employee's class enters the company. Career progression is highly predictable, regulated, and automatic. Compensation for young workers is quite low, but they accept low pay with the understanding that their pay will increase in regular increments and be quite high by retirement. Compensation consists of a wide range of tangible and intangible benefits, including housing assistance, inexpensive vacations, good recreational facilities, and the crucial availability of low-cost loans for such expenses as housing and a new automobile. Regular pay is often augmented by generous semiannual bonuses. Members of the same graduating class usually start with similar salaries, and raises and promotions each year are generally uniform. The purpose is to maintain harmony and avoid stress and jealousy within the group.

Individual evaluation, however, does occur. Early in workers' careers -- by age thirty -- distinctions are made in pay and job assignments. During the latter part of workers' careers, further weeding takes place, as only the best workers are selected for accelerated advancement into upper management. Those employees who fail to advance are forced to retire from the company in their mid-to-late fifties. Retirement does not necessarily mean a life of leisure. Poor pension benefits and modest social security mean that many people have to continue working after retiring from a career. Many management retirees work for the smaller subsidiaries of the large companies, with another company, or with the large company itself at substantially lower salaries.

A few major corporations in the late 1980s were experimenting with variations of permanent employment and automatic promotion. Some rewarded harder work and higher production with higher raises and more rapid promotions, but most retained the more traditional forms of hiring and advancement. A few companies that experienced serious reverses laid off workers, but such instances were rare.

Another aspect of Japanese management is the company union, which most regular company employees are obliged to join. The workers do not have a separate skill identification outside of the company. Despite federations of unions at the national level, the union does not exist as an entity separate from, or with an adversarial relationship to, the company. The linking of the company with the worker puts severe limits on independent union action, and the worker does not wish to harm the economic wellbeing of the company. Strikes are rare and usually brief.

Japanese managerial style and decision making in large companies emphasizes the flow of information and initiative from the bottom up, making top management a facilitator rather than the source of authority, while middle management is both the impetus for and the shaper of policy. Consensus is stressed as a way of arriving at decisions, and close attention is paid to workers' well-being. Rather than serve as an important decision maker, the ranking officer of a company has the responsibility of maintaining harmony so that employees can work together. A Japanese chief executive officer is a consensus builder.

To be covered

See also