Business Ethics: A Japanese View

  • Iwao Taka
Part of the Issues in Business Ethics book series (IBET, volume 5)


The normative environment for Japanese business may be viewed in both religious and social terms. In the religious dimension, the influence of Confucianism, Buddhism and traditional Japanese religions combine to emphasize that every person has their own soul or spirit (numen) which is connected to the ultimate reality. Everyone is equal in terms of having an equal numen. Work is understood as a means by which individuals connect to the ultimate reality, and therefore, has value in and of itself. Groups are also seen as having their own numen, which may be seen as superior to the individual members. The following of group norms is emphasized through tatemae or formal rules. When members refuse tatemae, they do so through assertions and gestures called honne or real motive.

In the social dimension, the normative environment may be envisioned as a set of our concentric circles representing family, fellows or close associates, the nation of Japan and the world. Different ethical rules govern in the respective circles: filial piety, long-term give-and-take relations, a combination of competition and long-term give-and-take and open competition. Corporations fit into the same framework with vertical keiretsu fitting into the family circle, and horizontal keiretsu typically into the fellows circle. Understanding and adopting the ethical rules of “long-term give-and-take” is critical to be accepted into the fellows circle of corporations. Corporations tend to view the inner circles as an operation base while the outer circles are an area of battleground, although the specifics shift with the context of the particular relationships. The status of the firms within the overall normative environment also has an impact on how relations among firms are defined.

The logic of the religious dimension causes Japanese managers to be critical of the strict division of labor that occurs in some U.S. firms, and of the attitudes of some managers that some jobs (e.g. housekeeping) are beneath them. Similarly, the logic of the social dimension is one reason why the Japanese have been critical of executive compensation policies, hostile takeovers and the use of mass layoffs as corporate strategy in the U.S.

Japanese firms have short-comings when viewed in terms of Japanese ethical standards. The limits on female workers violates the principle that everyone has an equal numen. Further, the emphasis on work as a means of connection to the universe has resulted in heavy pressures on employees to work long hours and go along with social conventions, with the possibility of severe criticism for those who do not comply. In extreme cases this may lead to karoshi (death by work). Further, individual employees are unlikely to question on ethical grounds the decisions of the group.

The ethics of the social dimension is a contributing factor to the difficulty that foreign firms have entering the Japanese market. To respond to this, Japanese firms should help foreign firms understand how to operate under the concept of long-term give-and-take, and they should provide all firms with an equal opportunity to join fellow circles.


Business Ethic Concentric Circle Filial Piety Japanese People Normative Environment 
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1993

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  • Iwao Taka

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