Empathy, Omoiyari and Social Intelligence

At the university today we spent quite some time talking and thinking about multiple intelligences, and in particular social intelligence, feelings and emotions, and PSHE.

These are some interesting paragraphs from a book on Japanese culture and character written by Rex Shelley:

Feelings are more important than reason to the Japanese. In accord with their emphasis on harmony, the ability to empathise with others, to have omoiyari, empathy, is valued more than the ability to be rational and practical.

When a Japanese person encounters differences of opinion between himself and another, he will first try to put himself in the shoes of the person disagreeing with him and see how the other person would feel. He will try to empathise with that person. The Japanese reaction to conflict is to seek the feelings which block concord.

This compassion for others in the group comes to the forefront when a member of the group makes a mistake . . . The group leader will immediately get tuned in to the subordinate’s feelings of shame or guilt and empathise with him or her. He will try to show how he understands the depression and distress the other feels. Criticising him and making an issue of the mistake would be the last thing to cross his mind.

If there is a need for corrective action immediately then the mistake will be referred to as a mistake of the team, including the boss. It is this attitude of omoiyari that allows them to hold their teams together. There is no need to chastise the man because he in turn empathises with the group which he has inconvenienced or let down. And somewhere within him a motivation to do better next time is stirred. Omoiyari is a key approach for teamwork and living together . . .


Wa, Harmony

This is a cardinal value of Japanese social or interpersonal relationships . . . an essential for living together. Harmony is regarded as a major attribute of being Japanese. Throughout their early life the Japanese are trained [i.e. educated!] to act harmoniously and in a cooperative manner with others in their group. The emphasis is on orientation of yourself to others around you, and not on asserting yourself.

Conflict is never good. Conflicts of individual opinions must be subdued and resolved for the good of all the members of the group . . . Japanese education stresses the interdependence of all human beings on one another.

A person who cannot sacrifice his or her own interests to accommodate others is considered immature. Wanting to have your own way, or to thrust your opinions on others, no matter how sure you are of being right, will cause too much friction and conflict to make it worthwhile. Personal success is lost if the harmony is disrupted.

Working together in harmony is the key to productivity in Japanese eyes. And drinking together after work – allowing any ill-feeling that may have occurred and remained unvoiced to be dissipated – is part of the system.

In Japan it is a virtue to play down one’s abilities and assets. Anyone who speaks highly of her or his own talents or skills is considered childish and terribly conceited. Modesty [kenson] is an essential virtue for social contact.

from Culture Shock Japan by Rex Shelley, Kuperard Books


Anyone who’s visited Japan and met Japanese people would probably agree with these statements – that Japanese people (and Japanese culture) are highly civilised, thanks in large measure to their high levels of personal, social and emotional intelligence. Everyone we’ve met in Japan has been incredibly kind and helpful, and very patient and empathetic with our inability to speak Japanese. Arigato gozaimasu!

We’d like to invite our Japanese friends and readers to comment with their views on the opinions of Rex Shelley (above), and to add any statements of their own on omoiyari , wa and kenson – and social intelligence in general. For example – to what extent do schools and teachers help to develop these essential intelligences, or does their development happen mainly in the home?

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at https://3diassociates.wordpress.com/ or see our website at www.3diassociates.com.
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