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Essay Contest

"Omoiyari - A Japanese Lesson"   
Tshering Cigay Dorji (Bhutan)

It has been over four years since I came to Tokushima. During all this time, I have been a beneficiary of the hospitality and kindness of the people of Japan. The people of Japan in general and the people of Tokushima in particular have taught me many things. And in the process, I think, they have made me a better human being. Today, I would like to tell you about one of those things I have learnt from the people of Japan. It is called Omoiyari.

I had my first experience of Omoiyari soon after my arrival in Tokushima in 2005. One fine day, I was riding my bicycle along a narrow street. An old lady was approaching from the opposite side on her bicycle too. When I tried to give her way, I lost balance and blocked her way instead, causing her to apply her brakes suddenly that made her almost fall down in the process. It was clearly my fault. I was not good at riding bicycle then. I was getting ready to receive some rude comments, but before I could apologize, she immediately said, “Sumimasen” with a kind smile and rode on.

This lady demonstrated Omoiyari. Omoiyari has a very deep and profound meaning. But in simple terms, Omoiyari means “having a thoughtful and sympathetic regard for others”. In other words, Omoiyari is having that quality which leads to “understanding, respecting and accepting others.”

In this example, the lady did not get angry at me because she probably understood, respected and accepted the fact that I was only struggling to keep my balance on the bicycle, on top of being a lonely newcomer in Japan. Omoiyari comes from looking at the situation from the position of the other person, rather than only thinking of the self.

The above incident was just an example I chose to narrate. We experience Omoiyari on a daily basis in Japan. Omoiyari is natural to many Japanese. In fact, Japanese sociologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra writes in her book “Japanese Patterns of Behavior” that she is tempted to call the Japanese culture itself an “Omoiyari culture”.

Sugiyama Lebra defines Omoiyari as “the ability and willingness to feel what others are feeling, to vicariously experience the pleasure or pain that they are undergoing, and to help them satisfy their wishes…without being told verbally”.

Sociologists like Kikuchi Akio have pointed out that although Omoiyari-based behavior and activity are seen across cultures, Japanese people are the ones who put the highest value on Omoiyari all over the world.

In his 2006 paper titled “The Concept of Omoiyari (Altruistic Sensitivity) in Japanese Relational Communication”, Kazuya Hara of Meikan University, Japan writes, “To have a sense of omoiyari and to behave with omoiyari are regarded as ideal communication in Japanese society”. He quotes a survey by the Ministry of Education in Japan cited in the Yomiuri-shimbun in 1994, according to which elementary and junior high school teachers in Japan answered that they put the highest value on Omoiyari in moral education. Additionally, he quotes that in a survey on child-birth in Japan by the Yomiuri-shimbun in 2005, 86.7% of the parents expected their children to be a child with Omoiyari.

According to Sugiyama Lebra, firstly, Omoiyari people seek to maintain consensus or agreement by deferring to the fulfillment of each other's needs and desires. And secondly, Omoiyari people seek to optimize each other’s comfort by seeking to provide pleasure or prevent displeasure by anticipating the other’s needs and desires.

Anticipating the other’s needs and desires without being explicitly told is referred to as “kuuki o yomu” in Japanese. It means ‘reading the atmosphere’. Reading the atmosphere is considered very important in a Japanese social setting. A person who cannot read the atmosphere in a given situation is called “KY” derived from the phrase “kuuki yomenai” meaning ‘unable to read the atmosphere’. The term “KY” is said to have been first used by high school girls in their cell phone mails and has recently come into popular usage.

Generally, Japanese are very sensitive people. I think this is because they read the atmosphere. For instance, if they visit your house and they sense that you are kind of busy, they very gracefully take their leave of you before it becomes uncomfortable for both the host and visitor.

I sometimes go to an English Conversation Café where I get a chance to meet and talk with a lot of people - both Japanese and foreigners. There, I have come across many foreigners who often go into a monologue without giving chance to the others to express their views. They bombard you with all the information they know. While this is perfectly fine for me because I like listening, other people usually do not like a one-way conversation. It is a pity that they do not realize their mistake. They do not read the atmosphere in the room turning from pleasure to boredom. On the other hand, I hardly come across Japanese people who go into a monologue like that. I think the Japanese have grasped the fundamental principle of good conversation through their habit of reading the atmosphere.

After living alone in Japan for almost three years, I brought my wife and son to live with me in Tokushima last year. It was then that I began to invite my Japanese friends to my house to taste the Bhutanese cuisine. But what caught my wife by surprise was that our guests often always arrived even before she had finished cooking and cleaning the place. I told her that Japanese usually arrive ten minutes before appointed time. I explained to her that it is part of Japanese culture to be very punctual.

My Indian friend’s wife had had a similar experience. She said that she had invited some Japanese friends for dinner and fifteen minutes before the appointed time, she got a call saying that they were downstairs and asked her if it was okay for them to come in. She said, “I was still busy cooking, but how could I say “please don’t come in now”?”

This is not grumbling against Japanese punctuality, but just an example of how important punctuality is for Japanese people. In our part of the world, it is quite common for people to turn up thirty minutes late for an appointment.

Although my wife and my friend’s wife were both surprised by the punctuality of Japanese at first, in hindsight we all agreed that being punctual was in the best interest of everyone involved. “Who likes to be kept waiting?” we asked ourselves. And so being punctual for Japanese is part of Omoiyari. Because they have consideration and regard for the other person or persons, they turn up in time for an appointment.

Japanese like to give presents. When you give presents, it actually shows your consideration (Omoiyari) for the recipient. However, I had read that the receiver is sometimes obliged to give a return present. But whenever some Japanese friends gave me a present, they had often been doubly considerate by making it clear that I should not worry about the return present. “Ki ni shinaide kudasai”, they say.

I have a Japanese friend who owns an electrical company. I have seen him at work installing air-conditioners for his customers. The work that he does is very impressive. He makes sure that the work done is of the highest quality aesthetically as well as technically. If he finds a small mistake, he dismantles everything and starts the work all over. He is only satisfied when he has done everything well and has given a good finishing. I think such attitude towards one’s work also comes from Omoiyari – consideration and regard for one’s client or customer. And it must be this attitude that has made “Made in Japan” the sought after brand all over the world.

One everyday experience in Japan that I like is to see how the Japanese nod whenever they meet or pass by an acquaintance. The acquaintance responds in the same manner. If we come face to face with strangers, such as while riding elevator, even strangers nod at us.

Some foreigners find it funny. But I think this nodding is an aspect of a very refined culture. When you nod at someone, you acknowledge the other person’s presence. When you nod towards an acquaintance, you are actually saying, “Yes, I know you are there and I remember you”. When you nod towards a stranger, you are saying, “Yes, I know that you are there and I respect you. Just like me, you are a human being who wants to be happy and avoid unhappiness, though I don’t know you”.

This is a part of understanding, respecting and accepting the other person.

Recently, I was returning from London after attending a conference. At London Gatwick Airport, I asked the lady at the check-in counter to check-in my baggage via my transits in Dubai and Bangkok till Kansai Airport. She seemed to be a novice at her work and it took her a long time to do it referring to her hand-written notes in a small notebook.

By the time I was done, all my co-passengers had finished checking in, except for a lady who just rushed in to the counter almost breathlessly.  We happened to line up next to each other for the security check which was literally moving at a snail’s pace. We both knew that we were going by the same flight and that we were the last of the passengers. There was not much time left. We were both tense. So when our eyes met, I politely asked her, “Shall we request the official on duty to let us go ahead of others?” I meant no harm, but she replied in a rude tone, “You do whatever you like. I will wait and see.”

Now this lady did not show Omoiyari while I had unwittingly showed my Omoiyrari to her. I was bit taken aback at first. But coming to terms with it, I found nothing wrong with her answer. While such a reply is generally not expected in a cultural setting such as that of my country or Japan, in a Western society that emphasizes individualism, this is probably a deserved response for my unsolicited consultation however well-intended it was.

Therefore, the point I am trying to make is that while Omoiyari is a quality that we should emulate, there are chances of it being misunderstood in a different cultural setting. Therefore it might have to be carefully applied in such situations. However, I think such technicalities should not be a discouraging factor for Omoiyari people because even if a well-meant action such as Omoiyari is misunderstood in the short term, like all good things, it will always bring about good results in the long term.

Today, we the humans have made tremendous progress scientifically and technologically. Japan itself is a testimony to that. But at our most basic level, human nature has not changed at all. The same desires, the same fears and insecurities that writers like Shakespeare elaborated on, still continue to haunt us. Today we are worried about the economic and financial uncertainty; tomorrow it may be terrorism or natural disasters such as earthquakes.

Many people have become cynical and skeptic. It is a time of disbelief and individual disconnectedness. In such a time, I think only values such as Omoiyari offers us hope.

When there is Omoiyari, I think people will feel more secure, connected and cared for. When there is Omoiyari, I think people will be happier. When there is Omoiyari, I think there will be less suicides and murders. When there is Omoiyari, I think people will care more for our planet as it is going to be the home of our children and children’s children.

When there is Omoiyari among the people, there will be Omoiyari in the country because it is the people that make up a country. When there is Omoiyari in the country, I think that country would be peaceful, happy and prosperous. If there is Omoiyari in every country, the whole world would be more peaceful and secure, and happier.

So, how can those of us who do not naturally have Omoiyari learn to cultivate it genuinely in our hearts? Let me share my two cents. I think one of the easiest ways to cultivate it is to put ourselves in the position of other people and think. In addition, approaching others with the understanding that every one of us, including you and me, are the same at the most basic level helps. We all want to be happy and avoid unhappiness. We are all struggling for that goal.

I think the second way to cultivate Omoiyari in our heart is to bear in mind the limitations of our own life and the ultimate purpose of doing what we are doing. I would like to call this “seeing the bigger picture”. For instance, although I meet many students in my university now, I may never have an opportunity to meet most of them again in the rest of my life after my graduation. So why not live harmoniously during this short encounter? When we approach any issues with an open heart and a broad mind with the understanding of the limitations that surround us, we are less likely to be petty and Omoiyari shall blossom.

I came to Japan to do my post-graduate studies in engineering. Thanks to my professor and colleagues at the university, I am satisfied with my academic achievements so far. However, far greater than the academic achievements are the lessons such as Omoiyari that I have learnt from my day to day interactions with the people of Japan.

I have realized that acting with Omoiyari is not doing any favor to anybody. To act with Omoiyari is in the best interest of everyone involved, especially the person showing Omoiyari. That is because a person with genuine Omoiyari would become happier and more successful in his or her personal life as well as professional life. I do not think a person who achieves wealth and power through dishonest and corrupt means would truly be happy and satisfied deep inside. Therefore, it is my belief that Omoiyari holds the key to making our lives happier and more meaningful, and our world more peaceful. Thank you, Japan, for teaching me this beautiful lesson!

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