The Japanese Belief in Man’s Innate Goodness


The Japanese are exceptional among the peoples of the world in believing in the ethical doctrine that man is born good. Even when settling major business negotiations worth hundreds of millions of yen, the people at the top works towards an amicable settlement based upon a relationship of trust, allowing them to take on board the requests of the other side in as simple an exchange as “I ask you to do this.” “All right. No problem.” Yukichi Fukuzawa (leading proponent of Westernization in Japan during the Meiji era) wrote that “between samurai families, there is nothing that could be considered deposit money and an exchange of certificates. It is merely a matter of making a promise, saying “I shall sell it” and “In that case, I shall buy it”, (The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi) This mentality still thrives uninterrupted today. In Japan, if one were to try to deliberate over detailed clauses in a contract, one would be accused of not trusting the other party, and even negotiations that had been progressing well might be called off.

In contrast to this, Europe and North America have contract societies, based on the premise that human nature is fundamentally bad, and thick contracts, which make provision for any risk that may occur, are exchanged via lawyers and barristers. The author Yukio Mishima made an interesting comment regarding this. “Promises that with my Japanese publishers would take the form of oral contracts, in the U.S., take the form of a hyper-detailed contract filled with pages of minuscule type that looks like an ant’s footprints, which is intended to cover every possible danger, every possible breach of faith, every possible act of disloyalty. A society where contracts are not needed at all is paradise. Contracts are born when one doubts another and suppose that people are bad.” (Yukio Mishima, Wakaki samurai no tame ni, Bunshun bunko) In Europe and North America, however, the tradition of respecting laws and contracts is established and in that sense, it is a trusting society. As a result, the market economy functions properly.

China and Russia, on the other hand, have low-trust societies, where there is not even a tradition of taking contracts and laws seriously. These countries have societies even more firmly grounded in the belief that people are fundamentally untrustworthy than Europe and North America, and if one behaved in a Japanese fashion, i.e. believing in man’s innate goodness, in such a society, one would immediately be spotted as a fall-guy or an airhead and be thoroughly ripped off. Although there is no other way to protect oneself without fail in China and Russia than to rely on unofficial connections and personal relationships, at the same time, even if the legal and accounting systems are not perfect, in order to avoid risk, it is necessary to equip oneself thoroughly in legal terms as well. This is the reason why, when US companies expand into Russia or China, they employ the best legal or accounting experts from that country at a high wage, and arm themselves thoroughly against any possible risk.

The reason why so many Japanese companies fail in China and Russia is that their preparations are insufficient. In other words, Japanese people are easy targets, a soft touch. T. Balanski, an American lawyer working in Beijing, has said that “Compared with those from Europe or North America, Japanese companies are negative about preventing problems using lawyers. Then they become flustered when they suffer major damages.” (Asahi Shimbun, 3rd September 2001) Many of the joint Japanese-Russian businesses that have been set up in the Russian Far East have been hijacked and failed, so it may be necessary for Japan to become more hard-nosed in international society.

[Translated by ERINA]