Max Weber long ago aimed to peg modern social and economic behavior on the influence of traditional religious patterns — a way to back up and look at a people’s ultimate relation to society through their orientation towards the metaphysical. Scholars always tend to categorize Japan and the West through the tired “group-orientation vs. individual-orientation,” but this is a nearly worthless distinction without thousands of conditionals, footnotes, and exceptions. (For example, Americans form more spontaneous social groups than the Japanese and belong to more fraternal organizations; whereas the Japanese form a deeper commitment to a single group, often the corporation rather than the family.)
Although I am not a scholar of religion, I find that it is helpful to look at differences in both cultural traditions through the dichotomy of orthodoxy (“correct belief”) vs. orthopraxy (“correct practice”). Christianity, especially Protestantism, is a primarily orthodoxical religion in which believers adhere to their religion through strict belief and faith. In contrast, Confucianism — the moral and ethical backbone of East Asian civilization — is classically orthopraxical in that Confucius preached proper social behavior and adherence to ritual as the key to aligning society with the cosmos. We should add that all religions have both orthopraxical and orthodoxical elements, but in most cases, one side is stressed more than the other.
While most Japanese do not have a firm “belief” in religion or God, they certainly take much of their ethical corpus from a long tradition of Confucian humanistic morality. One needs not to attend Church or pray to make peace with the cosmic order; adherence to daily rituals and respect for hierarchical social relations is enough. Even strict atheism does not necessarily cancel out participation in this mode of moral behavior.
As Confucius argued, perfect performance of ritual requires strict attention to detail. The idea of performing the ritual is not enough — the performance should carried out exactly as intended. Thus, Confucian orthopraxy leads to a strong detail-orientation, whereas the idea of “faith” in Protestant Christianity suggests a broader goal-orientation. To a Christian, the small details of everyday behavior are irrelevant as long as they are done in regards to the deeper purpose of God’s wishes.
Westerners often unfairly see the Japanese as being “illogical,” but clearly they are just embracing a different orthopraxical logic based on adherence to rules and details rather than abandoning protocol to work towards the bigger picture. Why do Japanese wait for the light to change before crossing the street, even when there are no cars approaching? Because the idea is not the safety itself (big picture, the goal) but the adherence to the proper ritual of waiting.
Subsequently this natural inclination to following rules creates a well-ordered society. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, leads to factional arguments between true believers and the subsequent justification of one’s own actions through a specific belief system. With morality living and breathing within the public domain, Japan becomes a pleasant place — as long as the authoritarians who ultimately control the rules work for the benefit of the populace. The West may not have order, but Weber saw the East lacking the very concept of “liberty.” In other words, Confucian orthopraxy reliance on stability means that the benevolent top is responsible for positive social change. In an orthodoxical world, the people can easily overthrow the everday praxis and systems in order to attain a better society.
Both societies have their pluses and minuses, and clearly each civilization has a lot to learn from the other. Within this new age of globalization, however, nations’ outputs are increasingly measured on the same universal scale. Japan’s detail-orientation worked perfectly for its burgeoning quality-controlled manufacturing sector and other Fordist enterprises.
The criteria for many new industrial fields, however, are so marked by the dogma of Western orthodoxical tradition that Japan has great difficulty in competing. The idea of the artist as self-centered creator may be completely foreign to Japan, and while the Japanese have adopted the praxis of 20th century artistic or intellectual endeavor, the fundamental assumptions are not well-understood. Japanese firms tend to run in hierarchical arrangements where leaders micromanage the behavior of their charges. In recent years, this kind of management style — once prevalent around the globe — has fallen out of favor in other countries.
Likewise Japan rarely recognizes the social status of subcultures who drop out of society voluntarily as an orthodoxical protest. Being “punk” in the West is a question of spirit; in Japan, it is a set of social codes in rituals which must be fully embraced to show solidarity. And therefore, when students reach the shakaijin age and enter society, they must don the new uniforms and ritual behavior of their new firms. Few are punk “at heart” and salarymen “by day.” The faith in that belief system is worthless if not expressed through daily affirmation of rituals. In other words, you can’t be punk in Japan unless you dress punk daily.
If the Western critical eye is so deeply shaped by orthodoxical ideas of content primacy or larger notions of innovating upon form (instead of adhering to pre-established models), we are going to hold deep biases when judging Japanese art or music. We hardly celebrate the rock band who can imitate another band perfectly, even though this may be a result of strict orthopraxical orientation. Japanese hip hop will most likely never be able to fully comprehend the “spirit” behind Western hip hop, but Japanese fans are could care less — they want adherence to specific ritual behaviors encoded within the imported meaning of “hip hop.”
Obviously, there are exceptions to the orthopraxical tradition in Japan, but hopefully this dichotomy can become a useful tool in discussing the artistic intentions of Japanese creators in particular.