Episode 8: Byōdō – Equality
The concept of byodo, or equality, among people is a western invention that apparently evolved from the Christian theological beliefs that all human beings are created equal in god’s eyes.
Of course, and as we know, there has never been a time in history of any society when all people were treated as equals, however, Americans as well as others have passed laws over the centuries that tries to force the foreign concept upon not only the Japanese, but are readily spreading their version of freedom and democracy and equality all over the world now.
This is such an alien concept to the Japanese, they have no such historically based concept for them to conceptualize what the Occidental paints as equality.
Neither of Japan’s two main religions, Buddhism and Confucianism, have ever recognize or taught the principles of byodo or equality.
In fact these two belief system are based on exactly the opposite premises.
Over the centuries the primary structure of Japanese society was based upon inequality, that is, on the categorization of people in carefully delineated classes and ranks, with individual behaviour determined and control by institutionalized and ritualized inequalities.
This exceptionally foreign ideas to the Occidental mindset is exceptional in that it has created the unparalleled and orderly society of Japan, a society that I have chosen to live my entire adult life based upon the societal harmony and the conventions which are fundamentally adhered to in Japan.
Although, as I say this, it obviously also comes with a price and what those in the Occidental mindset perceived as inequality is indeed that price.
The American military forces have some success in introducing the idea of equality during their occupation of Japan which was from September 1945 to May 1952.
The feudalistic structure of the family was outlawed giving wives and children rights they have never had before.
And yes, political reform gave people more rights as voters, and workers got the right to bargain collectively.
However, these booming decrees coming from up above alone will never be enough to make the Japanese change their entire culture in a short period of time, or, from where I sit, ever.
And undoubtedly the concept of inequality continues to prevail in virtually every nook and cranny of this society, even until this very day.
Right around the 60s as Japan accelerated its rise to become an economic superpower the first postwar generation of young Japanese began to demonstrate many characteristics of equality in their relationships among themselves, and the pace of the trend, was to speed up from that time on.
But make no mistake about it, these demonstrations of equality among the young did not extend outside their own personal spheres.
Inequality to the very day remains the prevailing principle in schools and in all economic and political organizations.
No matter how strongly individuals in the younger generation may have embraced the concept of equality in their private affairs, even to this very day, they were forced to conform to the prevailing concept of inequality the moment they begin their education and join the workforce.
In today’s Japan, people generally claim they are inherently equal to everyone else, but this is only “in principle“, and what we refer to as tatemae, or “the constructed reality to which everyone pays lip service.”
Despite the general acceptance of the principle of all people being created equal, the lives of the Japanese continue to be based upon the concept of fubyodo or in other words inequality.
In practice, the Japanese continue to recognize that sex, age, education level, school attend, and family background determines a persons rank in the overall hierarchy of it every group or organization, and that rank establishes both guidelines and limits to what and how an individual can do things.
It is therefore very important for foreigners dealing with Japanese and professional organizations, companies and government agencies to be aware of the general lack of equality in Japan, and how this affects the individuals with whom they have direct contact.
The main factor where foreigners are concerned is that the behaviour of the individual Japanese who they deal with is controlled by the reality of their hierarchical rank within their organizations, and the behaviour that is approved for that rank. With the rare exception, even executives of the highest rank cannot act on their own initiative.
All Japanese are also extremely sensitive about the extent of the responsibilities and privileges that come with their place in the hierarchy, and they are very protective of their own turf.
If a person does not follow a precise protocol in dealing with people higher and lower in rank, considerable trouble can result for all people involved.
I have seen this played out time and time again. It is very interesting to compare the concepts of the Japanese and those of a Occidental mindset.
So, for example in English it is said “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” where as here in in Japan they say, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
If somebody puts their hand up in Japan, and it’s out of place, they just get hammered down.
Where in Western setting, perhaps the person putting up their hand would get a promotion for being proactive.
Also, keep in mind that even though the image of the Japanese is one of groupism there is still plenty of self-interest here as there is every where one may go.
For instance, some managers in Japanese company will sometimes keep things to themselves, either because they think an outsider proposition has no merit or would not be benefit the said manager, or because they think it is a winner and they want to get as much credit as possible by keeping it to themselves for long as they can.
Indeed Westerners, and the Americans in particular, often have much difficulty understanding and accepting the limitations ranking puts on the Japanese behaviour, and they often expect, and sometimes even demand responses from the Japanese that would seriously endanger their image.
This is a grave flaw in the thought process of Western mindset and they would be best to obtain a deep understanding of this Way of Japan, equality or, should I say truthfully, fubuodo, inequality.
For the Japanese do not understand, nor really, to any extent have an inkling of how they would go about to change this system to where all became equal, and for which the Japanese already know and understand here in the Land Of The Rising Son, that equality is a myth and is only to remain a “constructed reality to which every one pays lip service.”