Episode 4: Ongaishi – Covering With Obligation


With only a few exceptions, virtually every Japanese interaction of any kind begins with, and is based on, a personal obligation as opposed to what some would regards as higher principles.

The Japanese have traditionally been known for their generous hospitality that they typically bestow upon visitors and on people with whom they want to develop a professional or business relations.

The extraordinary gift giving that is so much a part of Japanese life is also one of the facets of creating and repeating obligation. I have also taken up their custom of extending small unique token gifts when traveling abroad for people I meet anew or for people I would like to develop some kind of relationship.

Practically all foreigners who have been involved with the Japanese to an extent have had experience with what is known as on, or the obligation aspect of Japanese culture.

Sometimes this can be so overwhelming that it is uncomfortable and one used to sometimes jokingly refer to this as “gift wars”.

On has traditionally been the glue that bonded the Japanese to the Japanese Way, controlling relationship between children and their parents, between students and their teachers, between workmen and their employers, and least we forget the unwavering loyalty between warriors and their clan lords.

Once on has been accepted, the powerful sense of debt compels people to repay the obligation with some kind of cooperation, favour, or assistance, and this is referred to giri, which translates as duty, justice, and obligation.

In traditional Japanese culture on and giri were the very foundation of the Japanese existence.

These social concepts control the lives of the Japanese much more definitively, even more so than the moral precepts of Christianity and the civil law of the western has an affect on the lives of Westerners, because, in Japan, failure to fulfill personal obligation could not be disguised, and the sanctions for not for fulfilling an obligation could have immediate effect on one’s livelihood.

On has a number of facets in degrees.

For the most part the Japanese will display great generosity and expect nothing in return.

There are, on the other hand, many who deliberately place on upon about a person in order to get something in return. This on an act that is referred on wo uru meaning to sell obligation.

And there are a large number of people who specialize on wo uru a key part of their work and existence.

As you become to understand on, this is something to be very aware of.

Forcing people to accept obligation and then manoeuvring to get them to repay, it is known as on ni kiseru or to cover someone with obligations.

Repaying on is known as on gaeshi or returning obligation. Refusing or neglecting to repay on is a serious transgression in the Japanese society, and earns one the disreputable reputation of on shirazu or not knowing obligation or not honouring obligation.

Today on is still very much one of the most important cultural factors in Japanese society, and it will obviously remain so until it is replaced by a more objective system of morality, which in my humble opinion is probably never.

Interestingly enough, most Japanese are in favour of improving upon the traditional of the on morality, because it carries with it an intense emotional burden, takes up a lot of time, and is expensive.

Trust me on this one.

If you find yourself interacting with the Japanese you should always be aware of incurring obligation that they cannot readily or willingly repay.

This means developing enough insight to know the difference between a gift or favour that is extended out of the sense of goodwill and friendship, and one that is designed to gain some favour in return.

It is also important to keep in mind that the difference between social obligation in a business obligation is often blurred.

So the take away from this, is to understand the profound importance of on in Japan as a major social convention that you should most certainly be aware of, and this will help smooth your journey along when you come to a deeper understanding of the enigmatic mind of the Japanese.