Living in Japan

Understanding the giri that drives politeness in Japanese society

Have you ever wondered what drives the infamous politeness of Japanese society? Look no further than 義理 giri. Here, you’ll get a full rundown of what 義理 giri is, and how it’ll surely influence your life when you move to Japan.

In the intricate tapestry of Japanese culture, the concept of 義理 (ぎり) weaves a thread that holds together the social fabric in a unique and profound way. Often translated as “duty,” “obligation,” or “sense of social responsibility,” giri encompasses a complex set of values that guide interpersonal relationships, decision-making, and societal norms in Japan.

Stemming from the rich traditions of honor, respect, and reciprocity, giri transcends mere surface politeness and delves deep into the core of Japanese interactions. Let’s unravel the multifaceted layers of 義理 (ぎり) and shed light on how it continues to shape and influence various aspects of Japanese society, from family dynamics to business relationships and beyond.

What Exactly Is It?

At its heart, giri is more than just a word; it encapsulates a philosophy that underscores the intricate web of human connections in Japan. If you asked what it is to be Japanese, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to include a sense of giri in your description. It embodies the unwritten rules and expectations that guide individuals in their interactions, emphasizing the importance of fulfilling obligations, showing loyalty, and maintaining harmony within social circles.

While giri often involves adhering to societal norms and obligations, it goes beyond mere conformity, highlighting the significance of heartfelt gestures that express genuine care and concern for others. This concept is deeply rooted in historical traditions like the samurai code of honour, where loyalty and duty were paramount. As a result, giri isn’t confined to mere performative gestures; rather, it involves a nuanced dance between authentic sentiment and societal harmony. Understanding giri is key to comprehending the intricate dynamics that shape Japanese relationships and behaviours, illuminating the delicate balance between personal desires and collective well-being.

How Does It Slot Into Everyday Life?

Embedded intricately within the framework of daily life in Japan, giri finds its expression across a spectrum of commonplace situations, exerting its influence with both subtlety and significance. You can readily observe giri within the realm of work, where the practice of 残業 (ざんぎょう) (overtime) is often regarded as an unwritten commitment to the team, reflecting dedication. Occasions like Valentine’s Day introduce the concept of 義理 (ぎり) チョコ, where individuals offer obligatory chocolates not only to romantic partners but also to colleagues and acquaintances, reinforcing bonds and social harmony.

Reciprocal gift-giving, known as (おかえし) , echoes the essence of giri, where the act of reciprocating a favour or gesture ensures equilibrium in relationships. The etiquette of expressing gratitude through 手土産 (てみやげ) or bringing a small gift when visiting someone’s home, further underscores the importance of maintaining social ties. Additionally, the delicate art of refusing offers with phrases like “遠慮 (えんりょ) させていただきます” exhibits a form of giri, as it reflects humility and consideration for others’ feelings. These instances, along with numerous others, unveil the multifaceted role of giri in intricately weaving connections and harmony into the very fabric of Japanese work and social life.

Viewing giri as a westerner

Experiencing giri as a Westerner navigating Japanese culture can evoke a nuanced perspective shaped by the contrasting ideals of authenticity and social cohesion. On one hand, some may perceive the prevalence of giri as potentially rendering gestures and interactions somewhat artificial. The notion that social obligations are driven by duty rather than genuine sentiment might lead to scepticism about the sincerity of these exchanges. For example, the practice of giving 義理チョコ on Valentine’s Day can be misconstrued as a mere formality, diluting the emotional connection. I feel like most foreigners I interact with find these kinds of gestures overwhelmingly cute at first, before they realise that it’s probably just giri that drove it. I can’t deny that the first time I found out that a lot of the lovely gifts I received at work from coworkers and letters from students were likely part of the delicate dance that is giri.

However, there’s another lens through which to view giri, one that recognizes its role in fostering a sense of interconnectedness and maintaining harmony. Many Westerners appreciate the emphasis on community and consideration for others’ feelings that giri encourages. The reciprocal nature of gift-giving and the avoidance of causing discomfort by refusing directly align with notions of politeness and empathy. This balanced perspective acknowledges that while giri may sometimes challenge the authenticity of gestures, it simultaneously nurtures an environment of mutual respect and societal equilibrium, reflecting an alternate cultural perspective worthy of appreciation. My personal view is that while giri might be the reason why some gestures are performed here, it doesn’t mean people don’t put their heart into them.

Easy ways to engage with giri

Cultivating a genuine enthusiasm for engaging in giri can create a lasting positive impression among Japanese colleagues. An effortless way to showcase your willingness is by embracing the tradition of presenting お土産 (みやげ) , the customary practice of offering gifts upon returning from a trip. Thoughtfully selecting souvenirs that reflect local culture or personal interests not only conveys your consideration but also underscores your respect for reciprocity in Japanese social interactions.

Another impactful approach is actively participating in group activities, like contributing to office celebrations or team outings, which demonstrates your commitment to nurturing a harmonious and collaborative atmosphere. Additionally, attending 結婚式 (けっこんしき) (weddings) of colleagues, and giving the appropriate monetary gift, showcases your recognition of the significance of life events in their world. By consistently engaging in such practices and respecting cultural norms, you can genuinely bridge cultural gaps, fostering mutual understanding and respect while leaving a memorable mark of your dedication to harmonious relations within the workplace.

Absorbing giri

Reflecting on my journey through Japanese culture, I’ve gradually embraced the essence of 義理 (ぎり) in unexpected yet meaningful ways. I was raised in England, where I felt it’s quite a fend-for-yourself world. When I first came, I didn’t want to work overtime for no extra pay, I didn’t want to pick up rubbish on the street if it clearly wasn’t mine, I didn’t want to return rental products in a better condition than when I received them. But, over time I’ve come to do all of them. When you live in a country where it’s cooler to be considerate than self-centred, it’s hard to not alter your actions accordingly. I genuinely think I’ve become more caring, understanding, and attentive as a result of gaining a sense of 義理. That said, it can still be annoying to have to buy お土産 every time I go on a trip.

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