What is good, in Japan?

An Australian raised here tells a story about goodness in Japan. A student's sneaker laces are fashionably undone, causing an old woman to warn him he might trip. He thanks her, ties them up, and as soon as she leaves, unties them again. Where's the good, you ask, since the boy seems to discount his elder's advice the minute she's out of sight? The point is that he obeys while she's present. "The main [idea] is respecting the group you're in," the Australian says. Therein lies the heart of Japanese moral behavior. Goodness here involves meeting obligations to different groups, including parents, ancestors, spouses, and co-workers. Virtue lies in knowing and meeting those obligations. "Japanese tend to see morality in terms of their interdependence on each other," says Satsuki Kawano, a senior fellow at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who is writing a book on Japanese morals. Morality isn't seen as an absolute here, as it is the West, but depends on context and the relationship of the people involved. These codes of behavior are vague and instinctive - there are no clearly stated commandments. "In the US, you have different people of different backgrounds, you need clear rules," says Prof. Sumiko Iwao of Tokyo's Keio University. "In Japan, we can depend on context because we have one culture." The difficulty comes when one circle of obligation conflicts with another or with the protagonist's wishes. This dynamic provides grist for much Japanese drama. The most famous example is the tale of the 47 samurai who avenge the death of their lord. To do so, these men must violate obligations to their families and the Shogun. The only way to reconcile these conflicts with honor is to commit suicide - thus wiping their debts clean. Their determination to meet their obligations, despite the cost, makes them stars in the national folklore.

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