Never Allowed to Fail? The Unspoken Culture of the Japanese


Regardless of whether they have visited Japan, everyone seems to have various opinions about the Japanese, such as being kind or caring. In truth, the Japanese national identity can be simply described as “trying to proceed as amicably as possible.” Conflicts both major and minor can arise when attempting to communicate with another person. To prevent this from happening, Japanese take advantage of “tatemae,” a word that means “behaving conveniently for others”, essentially “going along to get along”. In other words, the Japanese endeavor to speak and act to avoid trouble at all costs, even if it means telling a white lie once in a while, to preserve interpersonal relationships. This article will touch on “tatemae,” while attempting to explain and analyze the true state of Japanese society and the tacit, unspoken national identity of the Japanese, from the perspective of those born and raised in Japan.

A Collective Way of Thinking: If Most Other People Consider It “Correct”, Then It’s “Correct”

Two Japanese women on an outdoor street
Mac Odolinski /

In Japan, acting as a group is often prioritized over acting as an individual. For example, if a large number of people respond in a certain way to a given situation, then that response tends to be considered the correct response. This is mainly because Japanese education has long advocated for group behavior, meaning those who act differently than everyone else are often looked down upon.

This means that even behavior based on wrong information or information that lacks credibility can be considered correct if many people adopt such behavior. Though it may take some time, the truth will eventually become known and will usually override the wrong information. Still, many Japanese who are raised under the notion of group behavior being the correct behavior often believe that those in the majority are right and those in the minority are incorrect. Thanks to our ever-globalizing world, this train of thought has been gradually undergoing reconsideration in recent years, but the idea of everyone acting differently is not yet widespread in Japan.

In line for a train akasaka mitsuke
Michael von Aichberger /

On the other hand, the concept of “migi e narae,” roughly meaning “follow the person to your right,” also gives rise to an excellent habit: obeying the rules in public. For Japanese, it is natural to form a line while waiting on a train and allow the previous passengers to disembark before getting on the train. Even when riding escalators, one side will form a waiting lane while the other side will remain open for those who are in a hurry. Waiting to enter a packed restaurant or to pay at a convenience store? Most Japanese are sure to form a line and follow the rules in such situations as well, and most Japanese strive to create a space where both themselves and others can exist comfortably. As such, this group mentality that was previously discussed and requires some reconsideration has both good and bad qualities.

“Tatemae” Instead of Your Own Feelings: The Virtue of Disregarding Your Own Feelings for the Good of Others

Crowded street in Shibuya
Deman /

The Japanese are always mindful of the eyes of others around them, no matter where they are or what they’re doing. As such, they do all they can to not disturb others. However, the goal of not disturbing others may lead to some unusual or strange behaviors. This is the nature of “tatemae”. Regardless of what someone may think, priority is given to others, and that person may not share how they actually feel so as to look better in public.

For starters, the Japanese tend to be shy and find it difficult to speak with strangers. Caring about others and the way one may appear to others means that many people don’t like being open about their feelings.

Let’s say that such a person was at a drinking party with a large number of people. Someone sitting next to them, who they are meeting for the first time, might be enjoying the party and invite that person to go drinking again sometime. While the typical response might be “Sure, let me know!”, rarely does anyone actually mean this. If those two have really hit it off with each other, then they might actually go out again to bond with one another. More often than not, however, this response is the Japanese way of refusing someone politely, putting on a tatemae where they seem to accept despite not genuinely being interested. This should not be considered lying to someone with whom they’ve had fun. Since that person doesn’t actually want to go drinking, they are doing all they can to avoid conflict out of concern for both the other party and the way they may appear to others.

Are Japanese Always so Prudent? The Pitfalls of Communal Thinking: Failure Is Not an Option!

In Japan, it is common for people to over-prepare and think too much about those around them, to avoid making mistakes. This being the norm in Japanese society, this has also given rise to the custom of rarely forgiving or allowing mistakes. The cause of this can be found in the Japanese education system, which instills in students a fear of doing something differently from others and (as mentioned earlier) the importance of living among others. As a result, it is common for Japanese to find beauty in acting with prudence.

Waiting for a train in Tokyo
Fiers /

So, what exactly happens to someone who makes a mistake in Japan? Here is an everyday example.

Let’s talk about riding a train. If you bump into someone by accident because the train shook, the situation is resolved in most countries with a quick apology followed by an “It’s okay.” In Japan, however, an apology is usually met with no response at all or even a bit of contempt with a click of the tongue. In other words, while the surrounding people are existing in harmony without bumping into anyone, balance has been somewhat disrupted and that person is now admonished for having gone outside of the group. This may seem cold-hearted, but it is the truth of Japanese culture. Of course, there are those kind souls that will respond with a “Don’t worry about it” following an apology. However, the custom of declaring someone wrong or bad over such a trivial thing is a bit striking. Furthermore, while it would be rare for someone to click their tongue at you in disapproval, it is not rare for Japanese to not respond at all to a stranger’s apology.

Crosswalk in Japanese  city
VTT Studio /
crowd at Shinjuku
MrB11 /

Every kind of failure, large or small, is considered bad. Some even go so far as to call Japanese society one that lacks second chances, due to the widespread custom of not forgiving mistakes.

This is true at work as well. Regardless of the extent of one’s job, the Japanese desire a thorough investigation of mistakes and to seek responsibility. The Japanese way of thinking is not the future-oriented “What do we do now?”, but rather the past-oriented examination of “How did this mistake come about?”

For example, companies that try to develop an unprecedented business model are often rebuked, and even if they succeed with their model, it’s rare that they enjoy the public’s attention as much as if they had failed. Only after several years pass will a company with an avant-garde form of business enjoy success in Japan. The social structure of the country makes it difficult to accept new things.

Of course, making mistakes is a natural part of being a human being, and people go through making mistakes. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t really trying.” You’ll never grow if you don’t make mistakes; however, Japanese fear failure because so many Japanese are of the opinion that the majority is correct. People often think, “What would I do if I made a mistake?”, and as a result the people of Japan have adopted an attitude of adapting to a given situation rather than proactively trying to show off their own strong points, and of sticking to tried-and-true methods rather than anything new.

Exclusivity? Conservative Values Born From Japanese Education and Social Structure

In Japan, the people try to follow the majority, avoid making mistakes, and hide their true intentions so as to keep things running smoothly. Japanese people, then, tend to be “exclusive” and “conservative” concerning things from other countries. To explain it simply, while foreign things can be accepted, they tend to be set aside and treated differently.

The most obvious example of foreign “things” is food. Countries throughout the world borrow food from other countries and incorporate it into their dishes. Just as ramen and sushi are now available in other countries, international cooking such as Mexican, Italian, French, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Korean, and more can all be enjoyed in Japan. What sets Japan apart is arranging these foreign dishes in a more Japanese way. Tacos from Mexico can be enjoyed as taco rice; French omelettes are enjoyed as “omurice”; Italian pizza sees Japanese toppings such as corn and mayonnaise; there is “naporitan” pasta with onions, green peppers, ham, and more in tomato ketchup; there are dorias with gratin-like cream sauce and cheese atop pilaf, and other beloved dishes from around the world have been cooked with a Japanese twist. It’s extremely interesting to think about the acceptability and creativity of incorporating things from other countries into Japanese life. Also, foreign languages, mainly English, have made their way into Japanese, written in katakana letters, and Japanese people enjoy many opportunities to get a sense of other cultures in their everyday life.

Foreign-style Japanese food: naporitan, pizza, taco rice, omurice

However, this changes completely when targeted at foreign people, and attitudes are more exclusive. For a specific example that is easiest to understand, look no further than a foreigner who wants to move to Japan. Plainly speaking, the screening of foreigners is very strict and they tend to be rejected regardless of their personality, what kind of work they do, and who they are; rather, they are often rejected as a rule because they are foreign. Of course, since Japan has many peculiar rules compared to other countries, there were cases in the past of people who had trouble following these rules and were sent home. There continue to be many apartments that don’t allow foreign residents at all, so even if an applicant makes it to the decision phase of an apartment application, they are often denied permission on the grounds of being a foreigner.

Crowd outside Yodobashi camera
Cidale Federica /

Even in restaurants offering everyday Japanese cooking or Chinese cuisine, there are still a few restaurants that turn away customers on the basis of language, claiming the staff cannot speak the language of the guests. It goes without saying that the number of shops in Japan aimed at tourists continues to increase, but there are still a good number of old-fashioned stores that claim they can’t offer anything to foreigners or irregular customers, stating that Japanese customers, mostly the regulars, are enough to cover the store’s costs. Following the many rules found in Japan, such as how to use chopsticks or how to ride a train, is important to the Japanese, so seeing foreigners who have a tough time abiding by these rules can make many Japanese uncomfortable, even if those foreigners didn’t know Japanese customs or etiquette in the first place.

One might expect that an increase in foreign visitors and residents would apply a positive form of external pressure, and force a society’s fixed ideas and conformity to be destroyed. In Japan, however, people often feel threatened by foreigners and demand that they not change the Japanese way of life. Those who break rules that every Japanese can follow (i.e. those who can’t comply with local group behavior) are seen as incorrect, creating a stronger atmosphere of conformity.

In Conclusion…

Two Japanese women in a crowded outdoor space
Mahathir Mohd Yasin /

Tourist attractions, historical locations, and cutting-edge technology can be found all throughout Japan, giving rise to a new, modern Japan with a trendy and unique culture. Japan is, without a shadow of a doubt, a country filled with fantastic charm. However, in a modern society that calls for more globalism, Japan still lags behind in areas such as communication methods and how to handle foreign visitors. Japan is a country that blends both the old and the new, and if it can combine its top-class tourism resources and its adherence to preserving its ancient culture with accepting opinions that differ from those of the majority, adopting innovative ways of thinking, occasionally letting one’s true feelings be known, and allowing for more diversity in society, Japan could become the true meaning of a beautiful, safe, and peaceful country.

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.