Caring, consideration, and empathy underpin many aspects of daily life in Japan and are essential to preserving the social spirit. From omotenashi, Japanese hospitality, to their famous kirei, cleanliness and organization, the Japanese have many ways to highlight the importance of community and helping others.
A Japanese woman tells that once, when she visited a coffee shop in Naha, she saw a plant with beautiful flowers. She stopped for a while to get some flowers and, when she entered the coffee shop, the owner asked her if she liked the flower. When she finished drinking her coffee and reading a book, she went to the cashier to pay, the lady gave her a cutting of the plant. It’s a precious detail, especially considering the trouble she went to to make a stranger happy. That gesture is a sample of a concept deeply rooted in Japanese culture: omoiyari.
What is Omoiyari?
The word omoiyari (思いやり) is often translated as empathy, but it actually has a much broader meaning. In fact, in our language there is no equivalent word, so to understand it in its entirety you have to resort to the two concepts that make it up.
On the one hand, we find Omoi (思い), which means thought or concern for others, and Yari, which derives from yaru (やる) and means to give or send something to others. So, the meaning of omoiyari would be “to send your altruistic feelings to others”. However, it can also be understood as a person’s sensitivity to experience the feelings of another and personal issues, including circumstances.
Omoiyari is sympathy, empathy and compassion, which leads to thoughtful action. It is about being able to put yourself in another’s place to anticipate their needs and try to satisfy them. Obviously, to practice omoiyari you have to think and feel like the other. You have to experience a deep connection. But unlike empathy, omoiyari is not limited to affective experience, but rather leads to action. It is an intuitive understanding that includes behaving in that way.
A look at Japanese culture
In Japan, when you go shopping, at the end of the day, if a store staff notices that you’re carrying multiple bags, they offer you a larger bag where you can put all the smaller bags. So you can be more comfortable. It is an example of omoiyari.
However, omoiyari does not always involve doing something. Sometimes doing nothing or keeping silent is also omoiyari.
In Japan it is also very important to live in harmony in society. As the Japanese are aware that loud noises can disturb others, they speak quietly in public places and even put their phones on silent mode and do not answer calls when they are on the train or bus so as not to disturb the passengers next to them. That concern because the other feels good is another example of omoiyari.
In fact, the concept of omoiyari is also linked to kuuki wo yomu (空気を読む), which literally means “reading the situation”. When we are sensitive enough, we not only put ourselves in the other’s place, but we also contextualize ourselves to adapt to the situation and provide the necessary help. This sensitive and altruistic help generates happiness both in the one who offers it and in the one who receives it.
In Japan, the concept of omoiyari is addressed very early in school and is used as a guiding principle for communicating and relating to others. In fact, a nationwide survey revealed that 86.7% of parents expect their children to develop omoiyari.
Communication specialist Kazuya Hara of Meikai University, for example, believes that the violent crimes, mistreatment or indiscriminate killings that plague many modern societies are largely caused by a lack of omoiyari.
The psychological components that distinguish Omoiyari
Empathy without thoughtful action is of little use. Action without empathy can cause more problems than it solves. Omoiyari is a complex psychological concept that includes altruism, sympathy, empathy, and lastly, prosocial behavior.
Undoubtedly, at its base is altruism, an act or desire to offer something for free to others when they need it. Omoiyari involves helping another without expecting a reward, simply out of the desire to do so. It is disinterested help because the reward comes from the satisfaction experienced by making life easier for the other. The satisfaction of the person who helps comes from the satisfaction of the person who receives the help. They are the same thing.
It is important to clarify that omoiyari is not based on pity that comes from superiority or on the mechanism of giving and receiving in return. The omoiyari is voluntary and does not even expect gratitude from others. Furthermore, if a person expects to receive something in return when he helps others, that is not omoiyari and in Japanese culture, that expectation of reward will not only be disrespected but even despised as it goes against the intrinsic virtue of omoiyari.
At the same time, omoiyari includes sympathy and empathy. Sympathy implies a concern for the other because we identify with their situation, while empathy goes a step further to experience firsthand how they feel. In fact, it is interesting that this concept does not imply otherness. That is, omoiyari means understanding the feelings of others, without taking into account one’s own self-concept. There is no separation between the “self” and the “other”.
These feelings lead to prosocial behavior, which can be active, such as offering help, or more passive, such as remaining silent if that is what the other needs. In fact, although the omoiyari is accompanied by an action useful to others, that does not necessarily mean that the prosocial behavior will be willingly accepted by others. People are free to reject it.
The “dark side” of Omoiyari
Omoiyari demands great sensitivity, so there is always the risk that it will not work as expected. Sometimes the recipients of that kindness may not appreciate it. In fact, some people may view it as a nuisance or intrusion (osekkai) into their life, which is precisely the antithesis of empathic understanding.
In Japan there is the word sakaurami to refer to the act of thinking badly of a person who only pretended to be kind. This means that to practice omoiyari it is necessary to develop a special sensitivity that allows us to really understand what the other needs, completely abandoning our perspective. This way we will avoid doing unnecessary things that could even be perceived as an unpleasant intrusion.
Obviously, the risk always exists. But when the help comes from kindness and is done in a selfless and humble way, the chances that this gesture will be accepted and generate joy increase considerably.
Hara, K. (2006) The Concept of Omoiyari (Altruistic Sensitivity) in Japanese Relational Communication. Intercultural Communication Studies; XV(1): 24-32.