Traditional Japanese woman

A Cultural Guide to the Japanese Way of Life

The philosophical discipline in Japan is well established in today’s time. While modernizing their day-to-day way of life, one can still see a flair of core cultural values and principles reflected in the way the Japanese live. They have long been recognized for their ancient philosophies and principles that showcase how to live a simple, meaningful life.

In 2021, as of today, Japan is placed second in one of the longest-living countries, with an average life expectancy of 85.03 years. According to the World Health Organization, Japanese people are able to live 75 of their years completely fit and without disabilities. Alongside maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Japanese culture heavily emphasizes mental balance. For the people of Japan, being mindful of the daily practice of homeland values is a matter of significance. Their ability to simplify complex thoughts, and correlate to nature in order to approach personal or professional issues are deeply rooted in their tradition and culture.

Japanese philosophical and aesthetic values are primarily formed by a fusion of Shinto and Buddhist ideals, seemingly interconnecting and complimenting each other. “Ikigai”, a Japanese concept which roughly translates to “a reason for being”, saw a huge buzz around the globe in the last two years. So here are 10 Japanese concepts that can serve as a guide to living a simpler and meaningful life.

Kaizen way of life
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1. Kaizen (改善): Change for the better

Kaizen is a beautiful amalgamation of two Japanese characters derived from Kanji — “kai”, meaning “change,” and “zen”, meaning “good”. Together they present a very simplistic, common end goal for many of us: to change for the better. The core principle of Kaizen explains that any task, no matter how tough or complicated, can be accomplished in small and continuous steps. In other words, it means that if you spend at least one minute every day working towards the thing you want to master, you will achieve success. The essence of this principle lies in its systematic nature of compound interest, which makes even one minute of daily activity worth several hours of practice once a week. An effective Kaizen approach is about making daily improvements that are connected to measurable results. One can start practicing Kaizen in many aspects of our lives. From our work culture to forming daily habits. Many times we put forth a lot of importance and convince ourselves that for massive success we require major action. Whether it is gaining muscles, building a car, or forming habits. But you don’t need earth-shattering improvement to achieve success. A disciplined and consistent small work done daily will compound and you will see that your skills improve with time.

2. Amae (甘え): Depending on others

The first reference to Amae was seen in Takeo Doi’s 1971 best-selling book, “The Anatomy of Dependence”. Amae (甘え) is a Japanese word that describes one’s desire to be loved or to take care of you with a certain meaning of submission to someone older than you. This sense of a close relationship between two individuals in which Amae is the secret ingredient is one that Doi holds up to be the most ideal. It is closely related to being dependent on someone, but not entirely. The key difference between those two relies on a willingness to want someone to perform a task for you or take care of you without an external factor forcing you to be dependent on someone. For example, a child who is 13 years old asking his father to tie his shoes for him, even though he knows how to do it himself, would be considered Amae. In the same scenario, if the said child had a broken hand and couldn’t perform the action of tying his own shoe, it would just be dependent on his father to do that for him. I know it sounds like a negative emotion, but all of us at one point need to stop and ask for a little help from our loved ones and allow us to be willingly dependent on someone. And there is no shame in asking your loved ones to indulge you in a desire to take care of you from time to time.

3. Mottainai (もったいない): Not being wasteful

Mottainai is an ancient Buddhist term that translates to feeling a sense of regret concerning waste. The nuance of Mottainai lies in not wasting any resources, using and reusing them for its entire effective life cycle with a sense of gratitude. This expression is used in a variety of contexts in Japanese but it always means one thing: “Such a pity it isn’t used to its full potential.” The belief doesn’t just restrict itself to human emotions but also holds value to objects for having a “soul” of their own (think Marie Kondo). One can practice this term by refurbishing one’s possessions into something more useful or finding a new home for things you no longer need.

4. Ichi-Go-Ichi-E (一期一会): Treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment

Originating from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, this four-character idiom tells us to treasure each and every meeting and formulate them as an occasion. Life doesn’t stop for anyone. In the course of taking care of your family, kids, jobs, and social life, the small fleeting moments can easily bypass us without us noticing them. These Japanese traditional tea ceremonies, where each and every action or ritual is performed in its due time, teach us to slow down, pay attention, indulge ourselves in each moment, because every encounter in life is unique and can’t be entirely the same.

Traditional Tea Ceremony in Japan
Traditional Tea Ceremony. Photo by Hoang Loc from Pexels

5. Zazen (ざぜん/ 座禅): Meditative discipline

In modern-day slang, Zen refers to the state of being relaxed and in the utmost peace; in Japan, the same is a culture. A part of the Japanese lifestyle since the 12th century, Zazen emphasizes the need to just sit in a meditative posture and free oneself from self-judgment with the idea of allowing unfiltered thoughts to pass by without getting involved in them. Seated with an erect but settled spine, your legs must be folded in a half or full lotus posture, and your hands folded resting over the belly. Zazen, however, does not allow your eyes to be fully shut, because it wants the practitioner to neither be distracted nor back down from the external noises. This practice originates from the teachings of Buddha and traces its roots in China in the 6th century, presently practiced by three Zen Buddhist sects across the world. Dōgen, the 13th-century Zen master and founder of the Sōtō sect in Japan, was the most outstanding advocate of Zazen. To attain non-discriminatory wisdom or enlightenment in common lingo is the most important virtue of this practice. Dōgen believed that with the proper experience of this meditative form, one could not only move towards enlightenment but also constitute enlightenment itself. Generally speaking, Zen cherishes simplicity and straightforwardness in grasping reality and acting on it “here and now.”

6. Datsuzoku (脱俗): Break from routine

Amid emerging terminologies like “hustle” culture, coined in disguise of the idea of embracing the mundane 9-5 work life, here’s Datsuzoku, closely related to sejaku, signifies the importance of unshackling yourself from the monotonous. Your lifestyle is shaped more or less around your everyday habits, and Datsuzoku [ 脱 俗 —  脱 roughly translates to “escape from”, 俗 meaning “mundane things”] simply stresses the idea of breaking away from your habit, once in a while. Often we find ourselves stuck in a block; but once you free yourself from the conventional, Japanese people believe, there will emerge creativity and resourcefulness. Freeing yourself from a daily routine can be daunting to envision, but a quick break-away or taking regular timeouts can re-energize your creativity.

7.  Oubaitori お奪い取り: Not comparing yourself with others

Even though social media and the whole wide internet is a boon for our ever-evolving modern world, it has opened up a lot of self-critical issues for many of us. Unseemingly, it pushed us into this intangible race with practically every human being out there. And the feeling of comparing one’s traits and success to someone else’s was not a surprising result of this. The term ‘Oubaitori’ includes the Kanji characters from the four iconic trees that all bloom during the spring season but in their own time – the Cherry tree, Plumtree, Peachtree, and Apricot tree.

This beautiful Japanese idiom is a helpful reminder for all of us to not compare our unique characters, traits, and story to anybody else. It teaches us to accept our own value and work towards building one’s growth and path while still understanding our connection to others. Just like the four trees that bloom in the same season but in their own time, there is no one straight path through life for all of us.

8.  ‘Eiyōshoku’: Nourish your body

The importance of taking control of your physical health has been preached ever since. ‘Eiyōshoku’, one among several Japanese ways of living, emphasizes the need to quickly nourish your body with the necessary. In the current times when fast food is shaping into a culture of its own, this Japanese principle emphasizes treating yourself with nutritious meals. Furthermore, it asks you to keep your body on a move, to meditate, and give yourself adequate rest. As the saying goes, a healthy body is a key to a healthy mind.

japanese cuisine sushi
Photo by Vinicius Benedit from Pexels

9.  Shikata Ga Nai (仕方がない): Accept what cannot be helped

It is normal to feel that we need to fix everything and every problem that comes our way. I, myself, am not a stranger to this feeling of constant worrying and torturing myself trying to find a solution to certain situations in which I have no control over. My mom would often tell me to not fuss over things that can’t be helped and move on. It took a good amount of time to do this but what a relief it has brought me. I first came across “Shikata Ga Nai” through my pen pal, born and raised in Japan. In the course of narrating a story of her day-to-day life, she mentioned this word in her letter. She explained to me that Shikata Ga Nai (or Shō Ga Nai) in its essence really meant letting go. Accepting what you cannot change, step back, and move on. It is always better to make peace with what is not in your control than to waste your energy on resisting what will be. By doing this, it opens up a passage of relief, you gain a new and different perspective to your problem which you weren’t able to see before. Unnecessary frustration and anger do affect our health adversely. Being mindful of both positive and negative feelings can help you maintain your balance and control. Life isn’t always pleasant and sometimes you have to remind yourself that those things happen. They’re part of life.

10. Boro (ぼろ):  Tattered or repaired

Boro is derived from the Japanese term “boroboro”, meaning something tattered or repaired. The Boro style took birth between 1850 and 1950 in rural Japan out of necessity by humble farmers to protect themselves from extreme temperatures. Along with that, during this time cotton was in high demand and expensive. As a result, nothing was wasted, everything salvaged. The rural women would patch their Kimonos or clothing with scrapes of fabric using sashiko stitching and fix any damage it might have due to extensive usage. Later in the 19th and early 20th centuries, some rural families would hand down their boro garments to the coming generation, hence making an expression of Mottainai. This expression represents both an exercise in resourcefulness and a show of respect for resources. In today’s time of fast Japanese trends and fashion, thrifting culture is seeing a rise again. It might not be the ideal and the perfect solution for living a sustainable life, but adapting to the thrifting culture, consuming exactly what you need, and fixing the pre-owned items is a drop in the ocean we all need.

Traditional boroboro
Traditional boro kimono | Image via Gerrie Congdon

While practicing these near-perfect principles/values is easier said than done, but not impossible. Rather than changing your lifestyle completely, start small. Start including one principle that speaks to you the most in your routine on a small scale and builds from there. For me, it was Ikigai and Kaizen – what about you?

5 thoughts on “A Cultural Guide to the Japanese Way of Life

  1. Definitely a good read. In such a fast running life, this was such a good read, will definitely try and inculcate few of these in my life ✨

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