The Ritualization of Everyday Life in Japan

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Photo by Magdalena Roeseler

Typical of any city dweller, I find myself popping in and out of the convenience store an average of 1-2 times a day. These shops put their western counterparts to shame. Need a quick lunch? Go to the convenience store. Ran out of toilet paper? Convenience store. Need a bandaid and a banana and a big box of chocolate? Yep. The convenience store has you covered. A new 7-Eleven opened in my neighborhood. It saves me a whole 25 meter walk to the Lawson further down the block, which makes it my destination of choice for all things convenience-related.

The other day I walked down to the brand-spanking new 7-Eleven. As I traipse along the magazine aisle, past the toothbrushes and tissues and approach the beverage section, a steady mantra resonates behind the closed doors of the stock room, gradually growing with each of my steps. There must be six or seven people in there, each speaking loudly, confidently, together in unison. It sounds a little cultish. The religiosity of their repetition surprises me, and my mind races trying to sort out just what it is they’re doing in there. “Welcome to 7-Eleven.” Then, “Thank you.” Then, “Please come again.”

This is followed by a long recitation of some sort of corporate manifesto, something along the lines of “7-Eleven is dedicated to providing the highest degree of convenience and support to our loyal customers. As part of the 7-Eleven family, I am fully committed to the customer and to the 7-Eleven brand…” It goes on like this for a while, and I stand there baffled, trying to comprehend what exactly is occurring. Then I remember an event a few months ago, when I went to pick up a pizza from Domino’s. Three people were manning the shop that day. A woman at the register, a guy prepping the oven, and the last kid, who I remember the most vividly. He was standing in the corner, facing the wall, chanting loudly: “Welcome to Domino’s,” “Domino’s is committed to providing the best quality pizza at the most affordable price,” and so on…

What is this recitation all about?

The first time I went to a Buddhist temple was in northern India. I was struck by the ritualization of each action, which seemed to be packed with esoteric meaning. One monk rings a bell. Another monk starts chanting. Then everyone starts chanting. It’s quite a performance. And it’s in no way something exclusive to Asia. Actually, I did the same thing at church as a kid. Recite some random text. Sing a song. Close your eyes in silence for a while. Repeat.

Ritual gives us meaning. It bestows within us a sense of purpose and outlines our actions for the day. Moreover, through ritual, we surrender our agency to something greater. We become a subject to a morally superior power.

This is a country that is governed by rituals

My experience with these rituals is limited primarily to religious contexts — ritual as a means to find spiritual fulfillment. That’s what surprised me so much about what I witnessed at 7-Eleven and Domino’s. These are corporate rituals. Corporations are great for all sorts of reasons, but they are not what I would describe as spiritually fulfilling. I found it perplexing, but, when I chatted with my friends, they all recalled performing similar recitations at their various places of employment.

It is bizarre to imagine a workplace full of such a degree of order and dedication, in which ritual practices like recitation are common experiences. But, in fact, the mundane everydayness of these rituals and their use in a corporate setting is more a comment on the ubiquity of ritual practice in Japan than it is about worshipping capitalism. This is a country governed by ritual. There are clearly defined rituals like radio calisthenics, morning chorei work meetings, group gokon dates, and a plethora of school-related rituals and national celebrations. But then there are other actions, which I’ll refer to as mini-rituals: the constant reassertion of greetings like otsukare-sama, micromanaged social interactions between business partners, the differences in expected behavior at official work drinking parties and unofficial drink working parties, and so much more.

I can think of two factors at play contributing to such regimentation.

First is this society’s approach to organization. Whether examining artisanal crafts, traditional sports, modern corporate structures, or domestic living situations, a strict set of expectations and formalities govern each domain. Want to be a sushi chef? It’s going to take years of prep and adherence to a centuries-old set of rules. It’s the same with sumo wrestling. Want to work for a big corporation? Better go to the right university and learn how to interview in the right color suit. There’s a micromanaged approach to organizing aspects of life that some foreigners may’ve never even considered.

I was surprised when a friends’ mom showed me all the ways she (and presumably all the women in her generation) folds her kitchen towels, chuckling at my inability to grasp the subtle efficiency of her decades-long mastery of space-saving folding techniques. In another living situation, I incidentally initiated a fierce drama with my Japanese roommates when I casually washed my indoor slippers in the washing machine (don’t ever do that!). On the other hand, I’ve never had to wonder whether the shinkansen is going to be on time, or whether the quality of fish at my favorite sushi place is going to vary. And of course, I know exactly how the staff at 7-11 and Dominoes, and every other service-industry establishment are going to treat me when I walk in the store. Such a high degree of organization is supported in part through the ritualization of everyday life.

The other factor at play is debatable, but it’s an idea I’ve been recently entertaining. While Japan is not overtly religious in terms of specific, tangible spiritual beliefs, I think the ubiquity of long-established Buddhist practices and Shinto practices (in fact, the two are sort of intertwined) is also a contributor. Shintoism is the national religion — to be a Shintoist is to be Japanese. I doubt all Japanese people would identify themselves as such, but the ritual and power structures at play in the establishment of this national institution permeate spaces outside of the religious realm. It goes from spiritual belief to dogmatic practice, and from there undergoes a sort of osmosis in which these dogmatic practices intrude into non-religious everyday life. In post-war Japan, this dogmatism collides with modern capitalism.

And so, without batting an eye, the new employees at my neighborhood 7-11 partake in their corporate manifesto recitation, the security guard at the parking garage bows to every passerby for his entire 8 hour shift, the customer service representative for my internet company reads every word in the script word-for-word, the information desk girls practice their smile before work every morning, and before too long this all becomes very normal to me.

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Living creatively in Osaka, Japan.
  • Halcyon says:

    Just wanted to say very interesting article. I’ve been putting this topic around in my mind for a long time and finally found a good attempt at identifying why the Japanese seem to so often protect their method for doing things by simply saying “It’s how everyone does it.”

    Also, the comments by nelkins and maulinator are very insightful.

  • Ronald McCoy says:

    Absolutely fascinating and insightful. I’ve often thought this in Japan too, but never articulated it. Beautifully observed and respectful writing – I really enjoyed this. Thank you!

  • maulinator says:

    I think that the ritualization on a corporate level happens everywhere. Not just Japan. When I was working for a certain US investment bank as recent gradutes we were forced to learn the mantra of te five principles of the firm- Integirty. Customer Focus, Respect for the individual, Teamwork, Responsible Citizenship. If you know your investment banks you should know which one I started my career at now, and I still remember those principles. The ritualization practices are used to indoctrinate employees into the corporate culture and to bring you into the fold of the corporate brand. For many comapnies, the employees are as much part fo the brand of the corporation as whatever they do to make money. Ritualization is the best way to make sure that your employees fit the brand image of the firm. Therefore unlike what the author says, I don’t think it is bizarre. Every company does it. Google, Apple, Mcdonalds and Walmart (like seriously they have paid greeters and stuff)
    The pros of this in Japan are that the ritualization makes for employees who are trained to do specific tasks, like greeting customers and the proper way to hand change over. And that is great for training. However, the problem is that most people are dumb. So they rely on the ritual to do their jobs and do not think for themselves. THerefore they cannot think out of the box so they do not know how to deal with problems not covered in the “manual”. Have you ever tried to ask for something special order at restaurants. Like no tomatoes in a sandwich or something? The employee is in full teeth sucking mode. As the ritual is to put tomaotes in all the sanwiches. The ritualization allows people to not think and just follow the manual.
    Some of the examples the author provides I do not think are ritualistic though. The proper way to fold towels developed from the need to conserve space and is an evolution of that. And washing your indoor slippers in the washing machine is just gross.
    I do agree with the author’s assertion that the Japanese people are more easily indoctrinated due to the heavy ritualization of their non-religions.I however do not know if this dogmatism collides with modern day capitalism. Capitalism for me is an evolutionary force. It is the economic version of the survival of the fittest. As it is an evolutionary force it will always find a way.

  • Mikey says:

    great post dude! I like how when you start a job in Japan – they actually tell you how to do it … in Australia if you want a crappy job at a bar or cafe they ask “do you have experience?” so they dont have to train you. Dumbest way to get crappy employees!!

  • Kaley says:

    Yes! This is so perfect. Living in Japan for four years has definitely opened my eyes to this mini-rituals that so many people follow in this country. The religious feel I get from witnessing them (stock room chants, repetitive morning greetings, etc.) is definitely a Western interpretation of what Japanese (and most Asians) feel as just the way you do things.

    I’ve asked many Japanese friends after visiting shrines if they feel they are religious, and they always say “no”. When I ask why they participate in the rituals of praying at a shrine and visiting on New Years they always just respond with some like, “it’s what we do”. It’s very interesting.

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