“Confucius Lives Next Door” by Tom R. Reid

A differential peculiarity of the Japanese is their ability to absorb and transform cultural and spiritual assets that originated in neighboring East Asian states, primarily in China. Confucianism is one of the Chinese philosophical and ethical teachings that played an exceptionally important role both in the history of Japanese culture and the socio-political formation of the country. Confucianism-oriented viewpoints underwent a certain transformation, being superimposed on primordial Japanese traditions. However, to a large extent, Confucian morality and ethical values predetermine contemporary socioeconomic trends in Japan. Influences exerted by Confucianism on today’s Japanese society are elucidated and evaluated by Thomas R. Reid in his 2000 book Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in The East Teaches Us about Living in the West.

Thomas R. Reid, the author of Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in The East Teaches Us about Living in the West, is a correspondent of The Washington Post. During his tenure as The Washington Post’s Tokyo bureau chief, Reid had an ample opportunity to immerse himself in Japanese Confucianism-associated phenomena. Interrelations between Japan’s socioeconomic progress and Confucian values inspired him to reflect on this Asian miracle in his ten-chapter work. Referring to his interactions with the Japanese, Reid claims that they have achieved their social miracle by holding to a set of Confucian ethical values (228). Throughout the book, Reid supports his assertions by statistical data, historical facts, examples of successful business performance of Japanese companies, anecdotal evidence, and personal experiences.

Reid’s metaphoric statement on Confucius living nearby is not occasionally included in the book title. Indeed, Confucian spiritual heritage penetrates all spheres of life in Japan. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) was an eminent Chinese philosopher and a religious figure whose teachings significantly influenced the social, political, religious, and ethical standards of East Asian countries. His other names were Kung Chiu, Kung Fu-Tzu, or the Master Kung (Reid 253). Although Reid is neither theologian nor religious studies scholar, he provides meaningful insight into the nature and origin of Confucianism in Japan. Specifically, in Chapter 4 titled “Master Kung”, the author traces the history of the formation and spread of Confucianism in Japan, reviews the biography of Confucius, explores the basic teachings, and illuminates the major Confucian principles by illustrating his assertions with real-life examples so that a reader can grasp Confucianism-grounded determinants of Japan’s steady progress.

Politeness, respect for others, and loyalty to the community comprise one of the cornerstones of Confucian teachings (Reid 76). These virtues are dominant within Japanese society and permeate diverse social groups and subgroups, including “neighborhood, school, job, union, Sumo wrestler’s fan club, karaoke singing circle, ikebana society, and so on” (Reid 74). Reid interprets these requirements for social interactions through the introduction of the “meiwaku” concept that implies actions that can cause inconvenience, shame, trouble, or shame to members of a group a person belongs to (78). Politeness is inherent in all Japanese, irrespective of their rank or social status. Reid evidences their compliance with this ethical norm by delineating the foreign minister’s apology to the United States for the attack on Pearl Harbor that had occurred many decades ago (80). Although Japanese politeness, respect, and loyalty might appear excessive, by instilling these characteristics in citizens, any society will function better.

Harmony, which is one of the fundamental principles of the Japanese worldview, is also a universal societal goal. In Japan, harmony implies the maintenance of integrity and balance in everything and the constant search for the golden mean and compromises. Preserving “wa” or “chowa” is another precondition for social harmony in Japanese society (Reid 81). This virtue involves mutual understanding, consensus, and the absence of confrontation. Disagreements or contradictions are impossible. The author explains the concept of “wa” by referring to the TV sitcom that depicts how the absence of complete unanimity in voting appears to be a life-changing event (Reid 82). Although politeness specific to the Japanese may seem to be exaggerated, it does not entail any negative consequence. Instead, universal respect and politeness encourage people to be hardworking, fair, honest, and tolerant of others. The avoidance of “meiwaku” and preservation of “wa” improve group interactions and boost team spirit.

The principle of “wa” extends to all spheres of Japanese social life, including the business environment. It is apparent from the book that Confucianism-based respect and politeness of the Japanese are reflected in the political culture of Japan, conflict-free management, mutual trust between employers and employees, respect for the elderly, paternalism, and unconditional devotion to the superiors. The Japanese focus more on collective interests than on individual goals. They try to take into account the opinions of all team members and avoid any conflicts. These attitudes to collaboration with others and interpersonal relations can serve as an example for the business environment regardless of a country or continent.

Exploring Japan’s business environment, Reid states that the sense of family and group commitment are integral components of organizational culture (189). As a rule, Japanese employers pay attention to diverse aspects of their personnel’s life, assist in obtaining decent housing and accumulating fortunes, guarantee pension payments,

provide benefits for banking services, give opportunities to issue interest-free loans, and so forth (158). In Japan, it is not customary to quit in search of more favorable employment terms. Lifetime employment as an HR practice is often identified as the main factor contributing to the Japanese miracle (Reid 189).

Impacts made by Confucianism on Japanese society are manifested in its stability and safety. Japan is rightly considered to be the safest country whose overall crime rate is the lowest in the world (Reid 16). In Japan, basic quantitative and qualitative parameters of crime favorably differ from indicators characterizing crime in other countries. Citing police officers, government officials, Asian experts, and ordinary citizens, Reid states that neither decline nor increase in crime rates is associated with economic fluctuations due to Japanese orientation towards Confucian ethical norms and values (18). Definitely, such an approach is worth adopting.

Nevertheless, despite in-depth explanations and demonstrative examples, there are some inconsistencies in Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in The East Teaches Us about Living in the West. Jen, yi, li, chih, and hsin are the five Confucian Virtues that a nobleman should possess. The concept of jen is comprehensively explained though there is no exact translation of this word in the English language (Reid 114). Jen constitutes the grounds of a noble man’s life. A person’s nobility, according to Confucius, does not depend on heredity or status. It is rooted in a human’s moral consciousness and sincere desire to become noble. The concept of jen involves almost all human virtues, such as goodness, compassion, benevolence, and love for humanity, and the principles of the very existence of a person as a member of society. Social and ethical aspects of jen include faithful attitudes of a person to other people, as well as to society as a whole.

Although Reid accentuates the role of rituals and ceremonies in conveying Confucian teachings and morality (162), the explanation of li remains unheeded in the book. The concept of li implies a specific virtue of a nobleman; it encompasses decency, rules, rituals, ceremonies, and so forth. In a broad sense, it is a code of conduct that does not allow violating established norms and traditions.

In his book, Reid frequently represents observance of rituals and conformism inherent in the Japanese by referring to the Nippon Electric Company (NEC). For instance, he describes the Nyu-Sha-Shiki or Entering-the-Company Ceremony that is celebrated all over Japan on April 1 (Reid 155). Some of its components, such as an assigned color of clothing, time to applaud, choral singing, or the recitation of the New Company Members’ Pledge, can be perceived as odd or even ridiculous. However, employers and employees in the NEC consider the observance of established rituals to be of paramount importance for harmonious relations and successful business performance.

Another lesson that can and should be drawn from Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in The East Teaches Us about Living in the West is the commitment of the Japanese to education. Education-related Confucian tenets are topical in contemporary Japan (Reid 18). According to Confucius’s teaching, a nobleman should “study history, and the ancient rites, and the art of government, and then make practical use of the things he has learned” (Reid 107). Being highly appreciated by Confucian ethics, the orientation towards knowledge and education attainment has played a significant role in Japan’s economic development. However, Reid claims that corporal punishment is still applied in Japanese schools despite official prohibition (133). The given fact raises doubts if Japanese children are willing to acquire knowledge.

Summing up, every society develops its own system of ideas, values, and priorities. Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in The East Teaches Us about Living in the West testifies to the fact that ethical postulates of Confucian teachings beneficially penetrate all spheres of life in Japan, contributing to the Asian miracle phenomenon. In today’s globalized world, nations learn from each other in their search for prosperity. Therefore, the strides and progress of Confucianism-driven Japanese society depicted by Thomas Reid inspire other nations to adopt its set of values.

Work Cited

Reid, Tom R. Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us about Living in the West. Vintage, 2000.

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