The Ritualization of Everyday Life in Japan
By Erik Lebs
On August 3, 2015
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.