Mount Fuji

The Japanese art of losing to win (1965/2005) 

The following article is excerpted from "JAPAN UNZIPPED — Faces of Japan, Then & Now" — a series of essays originally penned in 1965. Forty years on, the author returned to them and revisited each topic, bringing the material up-to-date under the second heading below of "FAST-FORWARD TO 2005."

One of the pillars of traditional Chinese philosophy is the principle that every act or event contains in equal proportion the essence of good (positive) and bad (negative). The principle is most apparent in the traditional Chinese concepts of politics and warfare.

Historically, to the Chinese leader/philosopher every victory harbors the seeds of defeat, and vice-versa, the skilled strategist can turn defeat into victory. The value of this philosophy to the common Chinese was that it provided them with an incentive to make the best of their lot, and an attitude that has allowed them to "bend with the wind."

Many Westerners who have butted their heads against the Orient have recognized this principle at play. The Japanese imported this principle from China early in their history and, following their usual custom, refined and homogenized it to their liking. In the hands of autocratic leaders it soon was developed into a powerful weapon to control society.

The Japanese people were literally brainwashed in the concept of perfect tractability; which was often expressed by the saying, "Give in to those above!" This conditioning to submit blindly to one's superiors was based on the systematic application of force and terror.

Prior to the present democratic period there were three primary sources of authority and punishment in Japan: government bureaucrats, the police, and the military. Nowhere was the ideal of total submission pursued more avidly than in the pre-1945 military services.

The technique for achieving this was simple and direct. Recruits were routinely beaten every time they displayed the slightest will toward anything except instant, unquestioning obedience to any command. After the Pacific War ended, many ex-soldiers and sailors testified they felt they had lost contact with the human race during their military service.

The police of authoritarian Japan were fearsome figures whose mere presence struck terror in the hearts of the ordinary Japanese. They operated on the premise that anyone who fell under suspicion was guilty until proven innocent, and their methods of maintaining order and administering justice were often cruel and dehumanizing.

Government bureaucrats in pre-democratic Japan had no direct means of inflicting punishment upon the population at large, but they were masters at keeping the lower classes in a subservient position by indirect methods. Since life in Japan was so hedged in by officialdom, however, it was necessary for the people to deal with government officials daily.

As a result, the Japanese long ago developed techniques for getting along with arrogant bureaucrats. These techniques are summed up in a recent popular book called How to Get Along with People. The author of this book formulates the various techniques as "The Eight Rules for Associating with (Government) Officials." The rules are:

(1) Always apologize abjectly regardless of the circumstances.
(2) Never try to make excuses or explanations.
(3) Act appreciative toward the bureaucrat concerned.
(4) Maintain an attitude of readiness to serve his interests.
(5) Try to influence him to like you.
(6) Never attempt to treat him like a friend on your own level.
(7) Never treat him as a public servant.
(8) Try to make him feel proud of his position.

In justifying this kind of advice at this late date, the author of How to Get Along with People points out that the docility and submissiveness the Japanese learned during the long feudal age has not disappeared from their character.

Says he: "We (still) allow arrogant bureaucrats to intimidate us and still feel a certain terror in any dealings with the police or official authority."

He also noted that the kind of submission that springs from self interest is superficial and results in the person having a derogatory opinion both of himself and those to him he must submit.

Adding, "When a person is constantly surrounded by an environment of submission he unconsciously becomes submissive."

Over the centuries the Japanese learned to use their habit of submissive docility as a weapon. They learned to seek their objectives by being passive, patient and obedient, and catering to the weaknesses of their superiors. Probably the best known use of this technique is found in the Japanese martial art of jujitsu, in which an opponent's own strength and efforts are used against him.

Westerners living and working in Japan today constantly run into this characteristic. It is most often manifested when the non-appreciative foreigner wants a Japanese to do something — usually in a hurry — which the Japanese does not approve of, cannot do, or does not want to do for any reason. He will usually make excuses or simply delay until the foreigner gives up in frustration.

During much of Japan's history the principle of "losing to win" applied more to women than to men. The women were taught to be passive and never oppose the will of their men folk, thereby winning satisfaction and honor as ideal women and wives. Today the situation has been somewhat reversed.

The average Japanese man is required by the nature of the country's business system to automatically give in to those above him in order to stay on good terms and win advancement. Whereas modern-day Japanese women are becoming more individualistic and less submissive with each passing year.

If the system of employment and management now prevailing in Japan continues in essentially the same form and character for several more decades, the women may very well fall heir to the family pants.

In any event, the traditional Japanese technique of remaining passive and obsequious in the face of demands or actions they consider unreasonable is nothing more than a method of self-defense and resistance.

In forcing abject tractability onto the Japanese, the feudal authorities unwittingly gave them a weapon, once again proving the ancient Chinese philosophy that all things are both positive and negative at the same time, and flow naturally from one to the other.

Fast Forward to 2005

The lose-to-win trait is still visible in the national character of the Japanese, and it is still part of the culture of some corporations which routinely take losses in an effort to win market-share and eventually recoup. However, it is far less of a distinguishing characteristic now than what it was nearly forty years ago.

On the business side, Japan's large corporations are gradually learning that bigness and market-share do not always take precedence over profit, and are weaning themselves off of this culture.

On the personal and private side, individual Japanese are little by little becoming more inclined to be relatively aggressive rather than passive in their relationships with others.

On a national, informal basis, Japan is advocating the development of individualism and entrepreneurship among its young people — both of which are the opposite of passivity and subterfuge.

This kind of fundamental change in Japan's culture will take time, however, because it impacts on everything that makes up the culture, the language, the etiquette, the values...the whole ball of wax. It will have to grow slowly and gradually from the bottom up, a process that will surely take at least one more generation.

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Editor's note: Boyé L. De Mente, who first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces, holds a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona. 

He is best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking. 

For a complete list of De Mente's books in print or online as digital editions, please go to Amazon.com. Learn more about the author's fascinating career at http://arts.searchbeat.com/boye.htm, and follow his personal news and reviews at http://boyedemente.blogspot.com.

I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for kindly allowing us to republish the above article here in Japan Perspectives.