I/ii. Social Connections, Harmony, Consensus: Confucian Beliefs and Business Culture in China, Japan and Korea

Fundamentally, Japanese culture is based on rice farming. Rice farming requires a lot of water, and water must be shared evenly by everyone. Planting rice also required teams of people walking from row to row, as the same speed. And all of this has meant that uniqueness had to be suppressed.” [1]


- Hideki Shirakawa -





As mentioned in the previous article, “face” - one’s public image and social status - is one of the main components of guānxi (someone’s social capital, a concept usually translated as “relationships”, “connections”, “network”) in Chinese culture, but not only: this week we are going to talk about guānxi, wa, and inhwa, and we’ll try to understand some cultural peculiarities of China, Japan and Korea respectively.


While in Chinese culture face is usually defined as either mianzi (social face) or lian (moral face), in Japanese culture the contrast happens between honne (the “true sound” in its literal translation, someone’s true feelings, opinions, thoughts, desires) and tatemae (someone’s public façade). In Korea, the public face is known as chemyeon.


What may appear as hypocrisy according to Western standards, in the Confucian-Asian cluster (where collectivism [2] and shame culture [3] prevail) is a matter of cultural - moral - relativity. While the West is generally task-oriented, values objectivity, and seeks the “truth”, the East is relationship oriented: Asian societies are highly “we” conscious, and since opinions are perceptions are pre-determined by in-group dynamics, the main priorities are to preserve social harmony and to avoid confrontation [4].

CHINA: Guānxi, the power of social connections


For more than 2000 years Confucian societies have stressed the importance of structure and social order. In relation to China, this is how Professors Yadong Luo and Min Chen described guānxi:

Traditional Chinese society is built around clan-like networks, with close family members constituting its core. Loyalty to the in-group is paralleled by a deep distrust of non-members. It must be understood that the concept of 'family' extends largely beyond its strictly biological meaning. It could be pictured as a set of concentric circles of contacts. Typically, it stretches from close family to slightly distant, to more distant, eventually embracing people who are not blood relatives but who are connected to someone in one's family, such as classmates, people from the same region, and friends. In the initial stages of any business undertaking, Chinese people will look first to these links as bases for guānxi. People who share a guānxi relationship are committed to one another by an unspoken code of reciprocity and equity. Disregarding this commitment link can seriously damage one’s social reputation, leading to a humiliating loss of prestige or face (mianzi). The person’s face is a key component in the dynamics of guānxi as one must have a certain amount of prestige to cultivate and develop a viable network of guānxi connections”.[5]


Guānxi is therefore a commitment that presupposes continuity and reciprocation over the years, a social investment based on personal favour-sharing practices that involves an extended personal network rather the Chinese version of corporate - usually short-lived - “wining-and-dining relationships”.


The main difference between business relationships in China and in most Western societies is that in China building guānxi is a prelude to doing business together, while in the West personal relationships often develop as a consequence of successful business dealings.




JAPAN: Wa, the value of harmony


Harmony should be valued and quarrels should be avoided. Everyone has his biases, and few man are far-sighted. Therefore some disobey their lords and fathers and keep up feuds with their neighbours. But when the superiors are in harmony with each other and the inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevail. Then there is nothing that cannot be accomplished!


- Excerpt from Prince Shōtoku’s Constitution -




Prince Shōtoku - regent of Japan between 594 and 622 CE - is credited with drawing up a seventeen article ethical code (Constitution) in 604 CE, a collection of moral norms based on both Buddhist and Confucian principles that emphasized the importance of harmony (wa). [6]


While some of the articles are of clear Buddhist inspiration (eg, “2. The three treasures, which are Buddha, the [Buddhist] Law and the [Buddhist] priesthood, should be given sincere reverence, for they are the final refuge of all living things. Few men are so bad that they cannot be taught their truth.”), some others recall the Confucian principles of diligence, propriety, social order (eg, “4. The Ministers and officials of the state should make proper behaviour their first principle, for if the superiors do not behave properly, the inferiors are disorderly; if inferiors behave improperly, offences will naturally result. Therefore when lord and vassal behave with propriety [Chinese/Confucian concept of Li], the distinctions of rank are not confused: when the people behave properly the government will be in good order.”)


Prince Shōtoku’s idea of wa revolved around the importance of benevolence and collaboration between heterogeneous groups, of unity within diversity (“The Master said, ’Noblemen harmonize without [requiring] sameness. Inferior persons require sameness and yet do not harmonize’.” [7]).


Even though feudalism in Japan was dismantled during the Meiji Era [8] - 1868-1912 -, this philosophy that emphasized the importance of belonging to a group (collectivism), hierarchy as an essential component of social order, the value of loyalty, cohesion, and reciprocity, is often regarded as one of the main reasons behind the Japanese economic miracle post WWII [9] and it’s still at the core of the Japanese identity: Shizuka Kamei, a former Japanese politician, stated that “Japanese companies negotiate slowly because everyone from junior managers to major shareholders must approve a deal, in keeping with the national tradition of consensus. Western culture pulls people apart, pits the strong against the weak. Japan’s draws people together. Wa prevails. That’s a Japanese national trait. At the core of the Japanese soul is the spirit of mutual aid, everyone helping each other as the way to happiness.[10], while Professor Masataka Kosaka is reported to have claimed that the first article in a truly Japanese constitution would be “Harmony must be respected.” [11]



KOREA: Kibun, the importance of good mood


Kibun is a Korean word that has no direct translation in English: it indicates a positive state of mind, serene mood, a feeling of good behaviour.

In both personal and business circumstances Koreans always strive to maintain their own and other people’s kibun in an attempt to preserve social harmony: people are extremely attuned to others’ opinions and emotions (there’s a specific term for this subtle ability to understand other people’s mood through non-verbal cues, nunchi, literally “eye-measure”) and tend to avoid situations that could cause conflict or hurt others.


A little while ago I’ve shared (on LinkedIn) a post concerned with a seemingly harmless business interaction gone wrong [12]: an American expat/blogger in Korea recalled the episode of a Korean worker who took his own life as a result of a negative feedback session delivered by a foreign manager, and concluded by saying that she didn’t blame the American boss, for “How could he have known that a relatively routine talking-to would result in the guy jumping off of a building?”. Personal considerations aside (there’s no “routine” when members of a different culture are involved), let’s try to understand what exactly went wrong: the foreign manager disturbed the worker’s kibun by hurting his pride and causing him to lose face (in a typical business scenario, a subordinate might disturb a manager’s kibun by acting disrespectfully, while a subordinate’s kibun might be violated by public criticism).

Since chemyeon - the public face, concerned with dignity, honour, reputation [13] - is evaluated in terms of both moral standards and ability (intended as the ability to fulfil expectations according to someone’s perceived social status), events that would likely leave most Westerners unfazed have different repercussions when Asian nationals are involved.


Korean culture, highly collectivist, hierarchical and defined by a Confucian sense of shame), revolves around polite interactions that take into great considerations other people’s feelings and - perhaps unsurprisingly - prioritizes the greater good, consensus and social harmony (inhwa) over personal matters.


Inhwa, a concept stemming from Confucian beliefs [14], presupposes that subordinates are loyal to their superiors (“Emperor to Subject”, see previous article for clarifications), while superiors are expected to protect their subordinates.


In the specific case narrated by the American blogger, the foreign manager - even though unwillingly - did not only hurt the employee’s kibun, but he also failed to reciprocate loyalty with a caring and supportive attitude.






In the next post, we’ll look at the practical implications of “harmony preservation” in the Confucian-Asian workplace and at the main differences between the Western and the Eastern approach to conflict management.






[1] The New York Times, Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/07/world/hypothesis-science-gap-cause-japan-s-ways.html

[2] Hofstede, G. H. (1997). “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind” (second ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

[3] Herbert R. (1946). “The chrysanthemum and the sword : patterns of Japanese culture”. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co.

[4] Hofstede, G. (2007). “Dimensionalizing Cultures: The Hofstede Model in Context”. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine - INT J BEHAVIORAL MEDICINE. 2. 10.9707/2307-0919.1014

[5] Luo, Y., & Chen, M. (1997). “Does Guanxi Influence Firm Performance?” Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 14, 1-16

[6] Blocker, H. Gene & Starling, Christopher L. (2001). “Japanese Philosophy”. State University of New York Press

[7] Guide to Analects as Philosophy, Part 11 - Online: https://sites.google.com/a/uah.edu/njones/marginal-reflections/guidetoanalectsasphilosophypart11

[8] Encyclopaedia Britannica - Online: https://www.britannica.com/event/Meiji-Restoration

[9] Mascarenhas, R. (2002). “A Comparative Political Economy of Industrial Capitalism”. 10.1057/9780230597808

[10] The Japan Times - Online: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/12/17/national/media-national/western-culture-end-japanese-harmony/#.Xg0jSUf7TIU

[11] The Japan Forum of International Relations - Online: https://www.jfir.or.jp/e/special_study/seminar1/conver_3.htm

[12] Mostly Margaret - Online Blog: https://mostlymargaret.wordpress.com/tag/saving-face-in-korea/

[13] Choi, Sang-Chin, Kim Uichol, & Kim Dae Ik (1997). "Multifaceted Analyses of Chemyeon (Social Face): An Indigenous Korean Perspective." Vol. 1 of Progress in Asian Social Psychology, 3-22. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons

[14] Choong Y. Lee (2012). “Korean Culture And Its Influence on Business Practice in South Korea”. Journal of International Management Studies (1993-1034);Oct. 2012, Vol. 7 Issue 2, p184





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