The Concept of Kindness for Japanese

May 11, 2013 Juju Kurihara 7 Comments

I happened to be in the discussion of a Japanese couple. They were expecting a guest. The guest phoned the Japanese wife and asked her if she wanted to meet him in the centre. She said yes and as she was already on the street, headed to meet him. But the guest showed up at the door of the house and the husband received him. He was little surprised as he thought that the guest would come with his wife. 

The Japanese woman wasn´t so angry, she just laughed saying that the guest was "a little Latin". No offence to any Latin nation, I guess she meant that the guest was easy going. She thought probably the guest had changed his mind and decided to go to their house directly. I thought the same from my experiences during my staying in Spain. 


Then the Japanese husband asked the wife if she confirmed the guest how far he was from the centre and how long he would take to get there. The wife said no. She said that was because the guest phoned her to meet up at the central station and she wouldn´t imagine that the guest skipped the meeting and went directly to the house. 

The husband insisted that she should´ve asked the guest and addressed him to be at the meeting point without being driven by him. And that is "kindness", he said. 


Wait. Is it kindness that you control people so that you don´t waste time and energy? Am I away from Japan too long? His concept of "kindness" didn´t click to me. 

The husband´s explanation was that it was her responsibility to ask the guest how long he would take to get to the centre and where exactly he could see the wife. That way, this misunderstanding wouldn´t happen. Since she didn´t do this, she had a lack of kindness. Because those "easy going" people are confused and nothing is certain for them, we should deal with them with sympathy. And that is 優しさ (yasashisa / kindness). 


kindness kikiAt this point, I left the room. The curious thing is all of us are Japanese and yet we all have different concept over kindness. I was in Spain and it happened to me several times that we decided to meet up at certain time in certain place but the person didn´t show up or he or she was with other people and didn´t remember our meeting.  

I tried to think that maybe she´d forgotten, or found more interesting stuff or simply changed his mind. But for me, kindness is to give me a ring or a message that he won´t come. Or send me a sorry message later. But this Japanese guy´s theory, it was my lack of kindness for not sending my friend a confirmation phone call to make his sure to be there. 

Gee, does it have to be so much mind game just to meet up with a friend? Japanese people are known to be kind. But recently it was questioned that they are worried too much about bothering others and use the word "sorry" too much. "Sorry, I need to open the cupboard", "sorry, I need to get some water", "sorry I like to use the bathroom quickly before you have a shower"… There are so many examples I heard.

kindness gomenSome Western friends admitted that hearing so much sorry is annoying and can´t consider it as the fact of kindness. It even makes them feel bad about being in the middle, they say. I understand both side of story. They are not apologizing but it´s more like "excuse me" for interrupting other person´s action. But in Japanese, sorry and excuse me are the same, "ごめんなさい (iGomen-nasai)".

Japanese are taught to think about others since they are small and in general they live try not to bother others. If they think their action or movement may bother others, they say Gomen. Is it a feeling of guilt? I don´t think so. It´s just an etiquette. You may ask whether they actually feel sorry? As I said before, this isn´t an apology and I think Japanese people say it as a precaution. If they didn´t say anything for interrupting other person and it actually bothers that person, it may cause a trouble. In order to avoid this problem, they say sorry before hand. And this consideration for others is for Japanese people, a kindness.   

I personally think too much sorry is unnecessary. Since I discovered the way of saying like "can I get some water?", "one sec, I need to open it" or "watch your head, I´ll open the cupboard", I´ve stopped saying "sorry". Is my kindness fading? It´s true that too much humbleness can be a compulsion of kindness. What is Kindness to you?



More Japanese behaviour

Herbivorous Japanese Boys    

Service overtime work

How do you say my wife in Japanese?

Uso mo Houben

Japanese women are too nice?

Japanese girls look all the same


  1. vivian g 4 years Reply

    I am an african-american and I was taught to say “excuse me” “sorry” “I understand” “i’ll try”. I say it so much people think I am weak! But in my culture its a sign of parental guidance.

  2. Ellie 6 years Reply

    Sounds like the British! =D

  3. Tuesday 7 years Reply

    I like your blog.
    I think do you mean ‘courtesy’ here, instead of ‘kindness’?

  4. kimu 9 years Reply

    I totally agree with you that too much sorry is unnecesary. Having stayed in Japan for a year now, the usage of “Sumimasen” at the start of almost every conversation is getting lame. I think people should mean what they say and taking that contextually is not a reason good enough to make me adapt the habit. I like your suggestion of spelling out things directly instead of apologizing. At least the speaker knows what he/she is sorry for.

  5. teresa 9 years Reply

    Teresa de la Morena • Beautiful post, Iromegane.
    To me more tan kindness is the idea of OMOIYARI: think about the others. Is more tan kindness, language usages, or automatic-protocol. Omoiyari, in my opinión comes from a deeper and richer concept, which is put yourself into the others feelings, needs, situations and do your most to understand and make things for them. Unfortunately for too individualistic societies individual needs are the target an that in the end is a social mistake that pays back.
    There is much to learn from Japan.

  6. Justin 9 years Reply

    I wonder what other Japanese people think of the situation you were presented with, since I’m sure that their opinions would vary widely depending on what they thought was acceptable. Even though Australians are thought of as fairly casual and easygoing, we would probably be puzzled and frustrated if someone promised to meet at a certain place- but then appeared randomly in a different location! By the way, here it is acceptable to be a little late to social events, but unacceptable for most companies and employers.

    As for apologies, I personally think that if you take “sumimasen”, too literally as an outright apology, then you could find it repetitive and even annoying. However I think that it serves its intended contextual purposes.

  7. KIH 9 years Reply

    I, for one, prefer too many “sorry” culture to “no apology” culture. You know what I mean…
    One example was when it snowed in New York, the Central Park was covered with snow, and naturally the schools were closed and lots of kids with parents went to do some sleighing over a small hill. One sleigh slammed into a Japanese boy and it was really hard hit. The parent of the sleigh boys came running – what do you think the mother did next? She ignored the Japanese boy who was laying on the ground crying for pain, and hugged her kids who are completely with no damage whatsoever. And then, more surprisingly, she told the parent of Japanese boy that “this is nor my kids’ fault”, and just walked away. What? What? What? Nobody said anything to her and she just walked away with kids as if they were hit by a car or something. The parent of Japanese boy was like, jaw-dropping. I was jaw-dropping.
    As you may have already noticed that Japanese do not recognize apologies instantly as admitting committing crimes. Just make the atmosphere better, easier to breath. If you prefer, like Americans or your neighbor people who typically never apologize better, so be it. I, having spent 17 years in New York, still prefer Japanese way of “lots of apologies” – you have to understand a bit more.

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