When North Americans and Europeans who have no experience with the Japanese culture think and speak of Japan, they often use the noun ‘honor’ or the adjective ‘honorable’ to describe their impression of it. This is a characteristic which is highly valued in Japanese society, along with others, and is trumpeted as a core principle in their tourism promotions. With a history of assigning the adjective to Samurai warriors, Sumo athletes, Geisha, and other cultural roles and positions unique to Japan, it’s people have long established the esteem they place upon someone who is seen as what they describe as honorable. The difficulty lies then in the distinctive way in which the word is inferred by the listener. It is inextricable from whatever form or concept of honor that individual has perceived through their own experience and decided what comprises their definition of the word.
Hon-or (on-er) – noun.
1. honesty, fairness, or integrity in one’s beliefs and actions: a person of honor.
2. a source of credit or distinction: to be an honor to one’s family.
3. high public esteem; fame; glory: they have earned their position of honor.
4. the privilege of being associated with or receiving a favor from a respected person, group, organization, etc.
Let us look at these four main definitions of honor. There are many more forms of usage, however these four are what we are principally concerned with. Having married a Japanese woman and discussed this point now with many Japanese friends, I have definitely gained a greater insight into the Japanese perception of honor than I had previously. I would submit that the Japanese concept of honor is most certainly inclusive of definitions two and three listed above. In regard to number four, the respected group that Japanese associate with it’s definition is being of Japanese race. Many Japanese believe that the Japanese race and nationality is inherently superior to any other and take pride in it. This is only different from the American view of patriotism in the fact that the USA was founded on far different principles of equality of people and as a cultural melting pot. This is not to assert that racism doesn’t exist in North America, but rather that patriotism is exclusive of race in North America whilst patriotism is inclusive of race in Japan, for many. Now notice the first definition of the word. While this is listed in most English dictionaries as the primary definition of the word, I assert that the Japanese definition of honor is not synonymous with ‘honesty, fairness or integrity’. These words can be defined easily to people who grow up using the Roman alphabet and those people can then see how they are used in the context of definition one above. It is more complicated when dealing with Japanese people referring to ‘honor’.
One recent and horrifying example of this difference of perception of ‘honor’ that westerners and Japanese have was brought to light by the Norway gunman. The man behind the deadly twin attacks in Norway wants a Japanese psychiatrist to carry out his psychological evaluation, his lawyer says. “My client has expressed a wish for a Japanese expert. This wish has to do with the concept of honor. He believes that a Japanese person will understand him better than someone from Europe,” defence lawyer Geir Lippestad told financial newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv.
1. probity, uprightness. Honor, honesty, integrity, sincerity; refer to the highest moral principles and the absence of deceit or fraud. Honor denotes a fine sense of, and a strict conformity to, what is considered morally right or due: a high sense of honor; on one’s honor. Honesty denotes the presence of probity and particularly the absence of deceit or fraud, uncompromising honesty and trustworthiness. Integrity indicates a soundness of moral principle that no power or influence can impair: a man of unquestioned integrity and dependability. Sincerity implies absence of dissimulation or deceit, and a strong adherence to truth: His sincerity was evident in every word.
Suffice to say that I believe the Japanese definition of honor to be a very narrow one, not inclusive of all aspects of the definition that the word depicts. It is evident in the ongoing and ever increasing number of parental child abductions to Japan. In what way can that action be described as honorable? It is often precipitated and motivated by superiority complex and overt racism. This is reflected in the way that these abductors are protected by their Japanese relatives and the government of Japan. To deny a child the basic human right of regular ongoing contact with a loving and capable parent simply because that is the way it has been done for the last 150 or so years is abhorrent and criminal behavior considering all we have learned about psychology in that same time. It is time for Japan to change the way it takes care of it’s most vulnerable and innocent citizens, the children. It is time for Japan to live up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1994), which Japan has ratified but continues to disregard. It is time, Japan, to sign the Hague Convention, return children who have been abducted to their habitual place of residence and enact laws to establish joint custody of children in Japan, post divorce.