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The duality of shame & anxiety in modern Japan

To understand Japan, you need to understand the shame culture and how modern Japan is moving away from it.

Japan is often characterized as a “shame culture” in contrast to a “guilt culture” like the West.

That’s why there are a lot of things we don’t understand about Japan.

Yes, the West also has shame but isn’t the primary emotion of our societies.

Origin of guilt culture

The concept of a “guilt culture” in the West has its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, which emphasizes individual responsibility and the idea of sin.

This is evident in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, where individual actions lead to punishment and guilt.

People are expected to internalize a moral code and feel guilt when they violate it, even if no one else knows about their transgression.

This is reflected in the Japanese concept of "wa" (和), which refers to the importance of maintaining group harmony and avoiding conflict.

Origin of shame culture

In contrast, the “shame culture” in Japan has its origins in the country's long history of collectivism and the importance placed on group harmony.

This can be traced back to the influence of Confucianism, which stresses the importance of fulfilling one's roles and obligations within a hierarchical society.

In traditional Japanese society, an individual's worth was largely determined by their ability to fulfill their roles and obligations within the group.

Shame culture in practice

The shame culture in Japan manifests in a strong emphasis on maintaining face, both for oneself and for one's group.

The Japanese term "mentsu" (面子) refers to the concept of face, which is similar to but distinct from the Western concept of reputation.

People are highly attuned to how their actions might be perceived by others and strive to avoid doing anything that could bring shame or embarrassment.

This can lead to a reluctance to stand out, express dissenting opinions, or admit mistakes.

Bringing shame upon oneself is seen as a failure to uphold one's duties and a betrayal of the group, leading to loss of face and social ostracism.

How shame culture is perpetuated

Japanese children are socialized from a young age to be sensitive to shame and to consider the feelings and perspectives of others.

In Japanese corporate culture, employees are expected to prioritize the needs of the company over their own individual desires.

Loyalty, hard work, and conformity to group norms are highly valued, and deviating from these expectations can bring shame both on the individual and on their company.

This reinforces the shame culture and makes it difficult for individuals to break free from these norms.

Why the primary emotion of modernity is anxiety

While shame remains an important part of Japanese culture, there have been some shifts, especially among younger generations, towards more individualism and less emphasis on the collective "we-self".

This shift towards individualism, however, has led to a rise in anxiety.

As people feel less connected to and supported by the group, they may experience more uncertainty and insecurity.

The shame culture that once provided a clear framework for behavior is weakening, but the new emphasis on individual responsibility can be daunting in a society that is still highly conformist.

This leaves many people feeling anxious as they navigate conflicting expectations and try to find their place in a changing society.

Note that it’s exactly what happens in the West too. The loss of the traditional moral codes of the guilt culture has led us to an anxiety-driven society.

The challenges of modern Japan

While on one side, overwork and the pressure of the shame culture to have a family are still present, a lot of new problems arise with individualism and anxiety:

  • Some people are withdrawing from society and isolating themselves at home due to fear of failure and societal expectations (Hikikomori / ひきこもり). This is a real phenomenon in Japan, with an estimated 1 million or more people living as hikikomori.

  • NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) are leaning towards individualism by disengaging from work and education. In 2021, there were approximately 1.7 million NEETs in Japan, representing around 2% of the population aged 15-64.

  • Women are increasingly prioritizing careers over marriage and childbirth. Japan's fertility rate has been below the replacement level of 2.1 since the 1970s and was 1.3 in 2020, one of the lowest in the world.

  • "Herbivore men" (草食男子 / Sōshoku danshi) are disinterested in women, often because of the perceived burden of relationships and societal expectations.

Going further

Visually Pleasing

Tokyo Tower is one of my favorite spots in Tokyo. Maybe it’s because I’m French — yet I don’t really like the Eiffel Tower.

The contrast of the colors with the surrounding area is spectacular.

The “Momiji Waterfall” is a spot next to the tower that is splendid in November, I always go there when I’m in Tokyo at that time of the year.

Weekly digest

Tsukiji's vacant 19-hectare site will be redeveloped with a 50,000-seat domed stadium, a culinary center, a transportation hub, and various facilities.

The project, costing around ¥900 billion, will be completed in phases starting from fiscal 2029, with most of the redevelopment expected to be finished by 2032.

Mai Watanabe, aka "Sugar Baby Riri," received a 9-year prison term and an ¥8 million fine for swindling three men out of ¥156 million through a romance scam and selling a manual on committing similar fraud.

If you don’t know anything about her, I highly recommend this video from Japanalysis.

Harajuku Station's iconic 1924 wooden building, dismantled in 2020, will be reconstructed using original materials as the centerpiece of a new commercial facility.

The complex, set to open in winter 2026, aims to honor Harajuku's past and present heritage.

A survey asking 2,008 people in Japan about the worst-mannered city ranked Osaka first, followed by Tokyo and Aomori.

Osaka residents were cited for not thanking bus drivers, not picking up dog poop, and being rude to citizens and store staff, among other manner violations.

I lived in Osaka for a few years and I’m not surprised by the survey but the city is pretty clean and people are very friendly.