Class, status, and social conflicts

Japan is seen as a society with a strong sense of homogeneity, with a common language, shared history and a sense of “we-ness”. Many have argued that Japan is not a hierarchical society as it was before, thus having an ordered and harmonious social system currently. However, we will examine the general preconception of a homogenous and harmonious Japan by first looking back into the history of social conflicts in Japan. We will then define and sort out the types of social conflict that exists in Japan. Thirdly, focusing on class and status-based conflicts, we will look into detailed specifics of these social conflicts in contemporary Japan. Lastly, our paper will touch on conflict management that exists in Japan.


The history of a society reflects on how values and ideologies exist in the contemporary world. Dominant values of the Tokugawa period taught Japanese that obedience and respect to superiors in their hierarchical system are virtues to uphold. Inferiors were to be dutiful and submissive when in terms with authority figures; while superiors had the responsibility to take care of inferiors and preserve their interests for the sake of social harmony. This mindset originated from the past feudal system, in which the lords were to treat their subjects like their own children, and Neo-Confucianism, which emphasizes on social harmony and offers little support for protest. These two ideologies provided dominant values that “conflict had no place in society”.

Following that is the Meiji period when certain changes had challenged the concept of social harmony as the state abolished the caste system and economic forces challenged the relationship between the inferiors and the superiors. The abolition of the caste system played a major role in changing the social ordering of the hierarchical society. Alongside, there were changes in the economy as forces, like the Early Market Liberalism, allowed for democratic consciousness based on the notion of “equal and free parties in terms of stated rights and duties” which played as the opposition to the feudal ideology. However, the Meiji state stepped in to reinforce Confucian principles of social harmony by actively promoting the traditional ideology of social relations. For example, even with a modern market economy starting in Japan, local businesses, such as traditional small shops and family-run businesses provided an environment based on hierarchy. Confucian values were used to monitor and guide behavior in a workplace; and the emperor-centered ideology gave people a system to relate to the past to help them cope with the transition from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji period.

The Taisho period after that, which lasted from a short time of 14 years, had a higher level of social conflict ever since the Tokugawa period, as the Taisho democracy allowed for proletarian parties to compete in elections. Unions and other movements, such as the early women’s rights and the buraku liberation movement, were also allowed to be organized. Despite the increase in social conflict in Japan during that time, state authorities made it clear that many forms of social protest were illegal. Traditional values that govern the superior-inferior relationship in Japan were strongly emphasized and gained even more moral support by the people.

After the World War 2, democracy and egalitarianism became the new ideologies to govern social relations in Japan. These concepts took over the traditional framework of hierarchically ordered social relations with factors, such as internationalization, increased economic prosperity, higher levels of education and urbanization, to validate equality and human rights, eliminate the concept of superior-inferior relationships, and relieve individuals from strong community pressures found in the Japanese rural life. Despite these changes, the traditional ideology based on hierarchy and status continued to have a strong foundation in Japan. Communitarianism, which focuses on the interests of community and society away from individuals, helped preserved the notion of hierarchy even with the abolition, as it continued to be the basis for cooperation across status lines within groups.

With the history of Japan laid out from the Tokugawa period to after the World War 2, we can see that the Japan state had attempted to maintain the old feudal system and integrate its neo-Confucian ideology into their society to maintain the peace and harmony. Thus the notion of Japan being homogenous and harmonious will be questioned in our following sections.



To understand what “classes” are, we must know that “classes” are not communities but are merely a representation of possible and frequent bases for social action. We may speak of a “class” when (1) a number of people have, in common, a specific casual component of their life chances (Lebenschancen); insofar as (2) this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income, and (3) is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labor markets. This is “class situation”.

The two basic categories of class situation are “property” and “lack of property”, which are then further differentiated according to kind of property that is usable for returns and according to the kind of services that can be offered in the market. If an individual has no property but offers services, he or she would be differentiated just as much according to his or her kind of service as according to the way in which he makes use of the service, in a continuous or discontinuous relation to a recipient. The kind of chance in the market is the decisive moment that presents a common condition for the individual’s fate. Class situation is, in this sense, “market situation”.

Economic interest is the factor that creates “class”, and indeed, only those interests involved in the existence of the market. The “class order” or instead, the “economic order” defines the way in which economic goods and services are distributed and used.

Classes are characterized by qualitative differences. The two fundamentally qualitative dimensions are pivotal in determining classes: control over the means of production and control over labor. Control over the means of production implies the capacity to dispose of the means of production. What is produced, how much is being produced, when it is produced, and how it is produced, is determined by the class that has this control.

Control over labor implies the capacity to supervise and organize the labor process. Under this, there is authority and autonomy, which is control over other people’s labor and control over one’s own labor. Since workers have no control neither over means of production nor over labor, they are further differentiated by the nature of their work and the extent of the marketable skills they possess.

The types of classes are the employer class, petty bourgeois class, managerial class, professional class, non-manual class, skilled working class and non-skilled working class. Firstly, the employer class is composed of owners and small employers (jieigyosha) who employ others and members of the boards of directors (juyaku) in corporations which employ workers. Following is the petty bourgeois class consists of two groups: (1) the urban petty bourgeoisie and (2) independent farmers and other self-employed and family workers in primary production. Thirdly, the managerial and supervisory class is made up of supervisors and individuals who occupy managerial positions either of the top, middle or lower management. Fourthly, the professional class consists of professional and technical employees. Finally, the working class is composed of three groups: non-manual, skilled and semi- or non-skilled workers.


“Status order” is the way that social honor is distributed in a community between status groups (Stände) that are participating in this distribution. Status can be differentiated according to age (intergeneration), gender (male and female), background (family or ancestral) and other factors. “Status situation” is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of honor. This honor may be connected with any quality shared by a plurality, and can be knitted to a class situation. However, status honor need not necessarily be linked with a class situation. On the contrary, it normally stands in sharp opposition to the pretensions of sheer property.


Class and status are two very different terms and are often confused when associating to society. Thus, Kim defined these two terms as “classes are stratified according to their relations to the production and acquisition of goods; whereas status groups are stratified according to the principles of their consumption of goods as represented by special styles of life”.



Conflicts usually arise due to dissatisfaction and disputes. As aforementioned, economic interest is the factor that creates “class”, and issues in relation to economic interest could spark off disputes between classes. This exemplifies the case of strikes being carried out by the peasantry class against their Daimyos, which belong to the Samurai class, during the Tokugawa Period. These kind of class-based conflicts occurred frequently in the period when society was made up of four main classes, the Samurais, Peasants, Artisans and Merchants.

The Daimyos would burden the peasants with the heavy rice taxes, leaving many peasants discontented with the authorities. The emergence of Labor Unions in Japan was an evolution of the strikes that had taken place similar to those in the Tokugawa era. Labor Unions started out before prewar periods, in the 1920s, where the first May day demonstration occurred on 2nd May 1920.

Before 1955, Japan’s labor relations are characterized to be under-institutionalized, thus accounting for the nature of disputes to be determined by political crisis and relative deprivation. However, after the postwar period, the labor relations became well-institutionalized with a large and stable union membership, and the determinants resulting for the disputes are economic variants.

Consequently, the main aim for the establishment of Labor Unions evolved to be these five main points, 1) to prevent unemployment during times of economic crisis, 2) to enact a minimum wage law that would guarantee a minimum standard of living, 3) to recognize the right of collective bargaining, 4) enforcement of an eight-hour day and lastly, 5) the right to control industry.

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After 1955, due to the breakdown of the patriarchal management system of especially large-scale enterprises, Labor Union or Trade Union movements became more proactive. Employer-provided welfare, as a means of “buying” off loyalty, was not as efficient in manipulating the employees. Development of a vivid class-consciousness between the management and the workers evoked the emergence and growing strength of Unions. Joint Union-Management committees came into existence, providing the “middleman” to liaise and negotiate between unions and management when economic issues arise, such as low pay, long hours, and even unfair treatment

As a rule, such joint Union-Management organizations are assembled on an enterprise-wide basis and incorporate only those groups that are considered to be permanently attached to the enterprise. Since such unions usually comprised a wide variety of worker groups, the success of the leadership of the union depends on how equal and well each diverse group is served, gaining benefits to maintain the relative status of each of the subgroups.

Such Labor Unions, Trade Unions and other Enterprise-based unions utilizes movements such as the Spring Labor Offensive strikes, as well as Industrial and Labor Round-table Conferences to negotiate with the different managements. Strikes are called upon even before collective bargaining has taken place, to warn employers in addition to exhibit the Union’s seriousness about its demands and the vast extent of its membership and support.

However, in order to deal adequately with changes in social and economic conditions, it is necessary for both labor and management to first recognize their social responsibilities, and try to reach a peaceful settlement of problems through voluntary dialogue between them, based on a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation. Convened once a month, Industry and Labor Round-table Conference provide a forum for talks among top leaders of the government, labor and management, as well as other knowledgeable and experienced people. Opinions concerning industry and labor policies would be obtained and cooperation enlisted, to gain better mutual understanding among the parties concerned. In addition, assistance is provided to facilitate labor-management consultations and other forms of communication at the level of each prefecture, industry and individual enterprises.

However, there is little mutual assistance between Labor Unions in Japan as compared to other Western Countries. As a result, Labor Unions in Japan are still not as successful as foreign Labor Unions. The task of settling many labor-management disputes lies solely in the hands of industrial relations specialists, which may prove to be not as efficient. Some of the issues that had undergone intense bargaining are those that threaten the status and existing relationships within the workforce, like the number of regular employees, work assignments, the wage systems, job classifications, bonuses, welfare benefits, and the eligibility for union membership. The problem of labor unions in post-war Japan is to look into the ways of breaking labor-management relations based on the idea of seniority and to set up autonomous labor union organizations independent of the companies.


Status conflicts arise due to many factors, one of which is due to intergenerational dissonance. Japan is one country that places a lot of emphasis on the teachings of the traditional ideology, especially for juniors or younger people to abide by the rules of social behavior, especially in the treatment of seniors or older generations. It is said that if children are taught from young to allow specific rules of social behavior to guide their relations with superiors, they can expect to receive certain rewards that are both affective and instrumental.

With reference to psychologist Doi Takeo, he explained that Japanese experience major emotional satisfaction from relationships in which their dependency needs are met, as illustrated that inferiors might experience a warm good feeling that results from being protected and cared for by a superior or elder, is a major reward of a relationship. Likewise, evaluation from a superior who has expectations of the junior brings about another kind of emotional reward.

In such a superior and inferior relationship, especially when there is a difference in generation between the two, the inferior would display loyalty that is heartfelt, going far beyond the call of duty in performing whatever work is required of him, hence gaining a sense of meaning and purpose that fills his life. In return, he receives the love, protection, and care of the superior who has his interest at heart. However, regardless of how close the relationship of the two might be, strains would inevitably be present as it always occurs in all social relations. Conflict would arise when an intergenerational inferior-superior relationship do not yield the hoped-for rewards, or when the costs of deference is too high.

Looking into how intergenerational conflicts arise, an example would be one between an Oyabun and his Kobun. Their relationship could be illustrated as a young person (Kobun) becomes attached in any occupation to a senior (Oyabun), who would help in the early stage of his career. Gradually a debt is built up to this senior, which is like the indebtedness of a child towards his parents, and the Kobun has to repay his Oyabun’s kindness with long lasting loyalty and support. Quoting R. P. Dore, which gives a detailed picture about a Oyabun/Kobun relationship, where the Oyabun and Kobun are projected as B and A respectively:
A, who gets his job in the United Glass and Steel Corporation through the influence of B who was, perhaps, at the same High School with A’s uncle, is thereafter marked as B’s man.

This not only means that B is the obvious man to ask to be his marriage go-between, the obvious man to go to for advice when he is in trouble over a girl, or the obvious man to ask for a loan, nor only that he takes it as a matter of course that he is expected to run personal errands for B, or even for B’s wife. It means also that he will join the rank and file of the B group in its cold war against X group and the Y group within the firm, and that his own chances of success will depend on the B group’s maintaining its power.

Such hierarchy in many Japanese organizations is established based on biological age and length of time in service. Status and promotion are often in relation whereby the oldest persons with the most experience occupy the top positions, and the bottom vacancies are for those low in age and graded as juniors. The longer the length of time spent in service in the company, the more one could maintain the working cohesion of the group, which is considered vital in Japanese Organizations.

Such progression in promotion normally proceeds accordingly by the hiring of people with similar age and educational background, allowing them to ascend the organizational ladder from a common base point. It is slightly different for the case of political parties whereby political age is taken into consideration prior to biological age, which means that there is a higher possibility to have one who is more senior biologically, but regarded as junior in terms of experience.

In these hierarchical structures, be it organizations or political parties where distribution of authority is due to seniority based on age, it is intricate to officially move ahead of one’s Oyabun regardless of how talented one may be. This spurs protests and dissatisfactions, particularly for juniors who are more ambitious and would want to maximize their rewards from a superior-inferior relationship immediately.

To excel in this system, it would depend on how well one accepts this system of senior-junior relations and the capabilities of the person. Conflicts evolving from such intergenerational structure would more often than not be suppressed or kept under covers as many Japanese were taught the traditional ideology since young, that it is justifiable having such hierarchies, and brings about meaning to having perseverance and self-sacrifices by abiding by the rules of the “correct” social behavior, even when emotional rewards were not generated visibly.


Another status-based conflict is of between men and women in working office conditions, and outside, mostly concentrating on social status conditions. Firstly, the revolt of the tea pourers have been an issue that has been around for many years, and it has yet to be resolved, due to the taboo of traditional social roles of women in Japan. The anti-tea pouring struggle (ochakumi hantai toso) is one of the platforms where working women in offices gather to have their voices heard.

Despite this outrage, the tea-serving rituals are put back into place after a few years, having the key participants leaving the company, or even transferred to other divisions. The earliest anti-tea pouring duties can be dated back to 1957, in order to change working conditions to make it more suitable for women, and to make them aware of the problems that females face as an employee in a male dominant society.

The tradition of tea pouring is highly developed in the city of Kyoto; in fact, tea-pouring rituals had been practiced in Kyoto offices throughout the postwar period. It has been a long established tradition in Japanese offices that employees, no matter how low the wages are, or the how unsatisfactory work is, they are supplied with as much tea as they wish to drink. However, the central reality of this ritual is that all the activities relating to it except drinking – heating the water, assembling the employees’ personal cups, pouring and serving the tea, afterward gathering, washing and rearranging cups and cleaning the counter where the tea was made, buying the tea or making sure that enough was bought – are the assigned domain of women employees.

On an average, one can serve over a thousand cups of tea per month; this tea pouring duty is expected of an office lady, in addition to her normal workload compared to her male counterparts. Each cup of tea has to be served starting from the person of the highest rank, to the lowest rank. Each woman would take turns to take up the duty as being a tea pourer, and often they would have to report to work early on her own time. This means that they are to perform this duty without expecting any compensation from the company.

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Most of the time, the tea pourer would report to work twenty minutes earlier to prepare the morning tea. During winter, the person on duty would need an even earlier reporting time, as the time taken to bring the large container of water to boil is longer. This does not imply that in summer, they can come later. Instead, they would still have to report early to allow the tea to cool before serving their male colleagues.

After the morning round has been served, the tea pourer would resume her regular office duties until lunchtime, when she would repeat the routine of tea serving. The last round of tea would be served at tea time, after which, she would need to collect the cups and clean up the counter to facilitate tea pouring for the next day.

Tea-pouring duties are a metaphor or “condensation symbol” for traditional expectations regarding women that run counter to the official ideology. The serving of tea to men is an act that symbolizes women expressing their deference and inferiority to men. This act is also expected of women, as it is linked to being the role as a nurturer, a gender-based function that appears in most of women’s social roles.

The underlying meaning is that this ritual accentuates the differences in behavioral expectations for the two sexes while ceremonially acknowledging and approving their traditional functional justification. From this expectation of women, it gives the objective basis for the gender conflict in offices. Women will have to take up the duties of tea pouring despite the clashes with the official ideology of public bureaucracy in Japan, which holds aloft the principle of achievement over that attribution and explicitly forbids sex discrimination.

The need for a female changing room is a second conflict that women have brought up to make the work place more suitable. In many Japanese offices, women need to wear uniform, as do men. They need a place to change into and out of their uniforms, comb their hair, touch up their make up, eat lunch or lie down on an off day, especially during their menstrual period or pregnancy. There is no place for any of these activities because the restrooms in the city office are meant for both men and women.

Women can be seen scampering past the line of men lined up at the urinals to get to the cubicles. They felt that they had no privacy to groom themselves. This may all seem liberal that both men and women share the same changing rooms; however the negative connotation is that women are not given the advantage to have their own changing rooms, as they are sharing a male’s territory.

Other issues lie in women having to deal with the unpleasant job of cleaning up the tops of men’s desks and emptying ashtrays brimming with stale cigarette butts. Women were also eligible to take two days of ‘menstruation leave’ each month. However, they found it hard to apply for leave as it is embarrassing to announce the reason for doing so on a display board visible for her colleagues.

These are some other examples of conflicts in a work place. New laws are drawn to make situations more suitable for women. For example, with effect from 1st April 1986, the menstruation leave was abolished; rejecting the assumption that work is harmful to women during their periods. Now women may request and be granted sick leave instead of menstruation leave.

The tension between official and informal ideology is the main problem that women face in the workplace. The former forbids discrimination on the basis of sec and enhances the principle of equal opportunity; the latter originates from traditional social norms, implies that women’s job scopes and opportunities are largely affected by their status as women.

Steps have been taken to minimize the tension and conflicts for this anti-tea pouring revolt. Some of the suggested measures such as warmly rewarding the person when tea is being served by showing reciprocal conduct, making the person on duty feeling more deserved by engaging in kind gestures like bowing for acknowledgements, and so on.

Some male employees of a younger age even helped themselves to the large container of tea, saving the hassle of the tea pourer of the day to serve another colleague. Although changes and improvements can be seen subtly from day to day, this gender based conflict is more or less stubborn and here to stay in the long run, as many Japanese are still stuck with the traditional mental mindsets of the social roles women are ‘assigned’ to the moment they are born.

However, it should be taken note that not all offices have such heavy gender based conflicts. There are also companies that offer employment totally on merits basis, and democracy is the motto that they observe. The anti-tea pouring revolt is an example that is taken from a typical Kyoto city office.

Outside working conditions, there are many other aspects of lives that men have an edge over the women in terms of status, due to their gender differences. In the area of women rights, few would offer Japan as a model. Despite much gain in women’s rights after World War II, many women still face many problems in economic, political, education and mass media influences.

When it comes to employment chances, many women are seen as secondary compared to men. By law and custom, women are considered dependents of male family heads that represented the family’s interests to the outside world. In a survey, 65% of respondents agreed that “it is more important for women to back up their husbands than to have work of their own”. Over 80% of respondents have also agreed that discrimination against working women exists in employment, as well as promotion practices, job assignments, and wages.

It is also stated that women who are better educated have more difficulty finding suitable jobs, and chance of promotion compared to men. A survey of companies in 1981 revealed that only 27% were prepared to hire women that needs a degree, and 45% indicated that they did not promote women to supervisory (kakaricho) positions. This fact can be further proven by the fact that in 1960’s, only 0.8% of women were in managerial positions. Although figures have more than doubled, there is only 1.7% of the work force that is taken up by women.

This could be largely due to the fact that a woman role in Japan is to mainly take care and nurture a family. Therefore, they are only more suitable for part-time jobs. Making grounds that they will soon leave the working force after marriage, hence a very low level of commitment to the company in return, they are usually the ones who get retrenched, while the main workforce which consists of mainly men remains intact. Companies also see this as a chance to save human labor costs, as when the slightly more experienced female working force leaves, they are able to hire fresh female employees at a lower wage rate.

In terms of wages, women earned only 52.3% of those for men. It is also brought to attention that Japan is the only industrial country in which the differential between men’s and women’s wages has actually been increasing in recent years. One can argue that most of the women only take up most of the part-time jobs in the total workforce, therefore the difference in wages.

However, it also only reflects on the conservative mindset of society that women should back up their husbands than to have careers of their own. This paradox shows discrimination in either way. Women were also put at an obvious disadvantage that firstly, lesser a chance to get a permanent job, secondly, inferior working benefits and incentives to their male counterparts.

Politically, even when a man and a woman have the same managerial post, the woman is always seem to be less decisive, a reluctant leader and fearful of criticism. The power of mass media and advertising cannot be understated. Due to the way women are portrayed in these areas, they are seen as sex objects. This is attitude is well understood within the Japanese society, though it is not brought to discussion by mouth.


Under this section of class based conflicts, it will look into the discriminations that the Burakumins face to the rest of the society.

Ancient Japan was once a society of caste system; this caste system is largely similar to the one of ancient India. The burakumins of India, also known as the Untouchables, or literally, people of the hamlet, were originally assigned as outcaste status due to their occupations. Being butchers, tanners and leatherworkers are jobs that are regarded as impure and despicable under the teachings of Buddhism. Bringing the teachings of Buddhism into Japan, and integrating it with the concepts of Shinto, the people come up with their own population of burakumins.

Killing animals and eating meat are considered evil doings (Buddhism), incorporating with kegare and imi, which means impurity, defilement and avoidance connected with blood, dirt and death respectively (Shinto), are the lines drawn to identify a burakumin. In short, burakumins are “specialists in impurity”, seen as people who have living hoods that protected the rest of society to come in contact with impurity. These people are considered ‘polluted’ because of their association with dirt, and are never given privileged position in society.

According to some statistics, there is an estimated 1.2 to 3 million of Japanese population that are, or have the buraku background. However, it should be noted that even determining or estimating the number of burakumin in Japan is a challenging task. There are efforts to join together all the burakumins in Japan; for example the burakumin liberation movement to merge the burakumins with the majority population, therefore it is considered sensitive and inappropriate to ask people to reveal their identifications.

The history of discrimination for burakumins has been present for a very long time, tracing all the way back to the Tokugawa period. It was then when burakumins were seen as polluted, and they are forced to live in areas segregated from the rest of the society. This caused the upheaval of extreme deference in behavior between the burakumins and the rest of the people in other classes. There are rules and curfews that the burakumins have to strictly abide to.

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For example, when a burakumin comes across a Japanese majority, they are expected to move away or to prostrate themselves until the other had passed. No burakumin is allowed to walk on the streets and to enter certain places, like the city, after 8pm. Whenever a burakumin went to a Japanese majority home, they had to take off their foot and head wear. They are not allowed into house, and were expected to squat in the dirt area. Other forms of discriminations include forbidding the burakumins to wear silk, and excluding them from shrines and temples, as these places are supposed to be clean, and free from pollution.

There are no legal barriers to restrict burakumins today. However, discrimination still exists in employment and other spheres. This causes the chain reaction of lower economic status and educational levels, and higher crime rates among burakumins compared to the Japanese majority. The more serious concern is that these and other handicaps in turn leads to a further discrimination in a vicious cycle.

The two prevalent types of discrimination can be seen under the spheres of marriage and employment. Whenever a marriage is contemplated with someone whose family is not known to the prospective bride or groom’s parents, they will hire a “marriage detective” to do a background check. If the prospective bride or groom is traced to a burakumin village, chances are that the marriage would be called off. The same goes for employment, when a candidate is traced back to the place of birth connected to the origins of a burakumin village, the person can be refused of employment.

With this practice around, the “buraku name-place registers” (buraku chimei soran) is available on shelves for companies and marriage detectives. Although there are laws to ban these publications, these publishers reproduce these registers faster than the laws can control them; thus are evident that the discrimination of burakumins is very stubbornly enduring.


As Japan is a country that places high values in social harmony, the methods and strategies used to manage and resolve conflicts are most often than not non-confrontational. As defined by Lebra, conflict management refers to a reaction to a conflict situation without necessarily entailing a resolution. The following non-confrontational strategies to resolve conflicts may be applied to both class-based and status-based conflicts mentioned earlier in the hope to eliminate emotions accompanying conflict experiences such as anger, embarrassment, hatred, anxiety or guilt.

Firstly, Anticipatory Management means that a conflict upon being anticipated is hence prevented before it is being generated. For example, in any instances of gift exchanges, one is highly likely to refuse a gift if one could anticipate that he or she would be unable to make a return gift. However, to avoid causing embarrassment to the gift-giver, one may reject the gift by saying “I will accept your goodwill, but please take the gift back”. This on the other hand, will also not conflict with the obligatory reciprocity nature of the Japanese gift exchange culture.

Negative communication is another method of conveying one’s displeasure, frustration or anger upon a conflict experience. Instead of talking terms out between two parties in conflict, two parties may maintain silence, avoid contact with each other or simply feign deafness. However, the problem may arise when silence may be misinterpreted as a form of consent, compliance, sincerity or enryo (social reserve) in the instance of a male salaryman experiencing conflicts with an office lady in the Japanese society.

In situational code switching, “two parties in conflict may avoid each other but assume friendliness when certain situations call for it”. This switching of behavior from avoidance to friendliness between two parties in conflict may be seen in situations such as emergencies, funerals, deaths or even during official meetings when third parties are involved. Assuming friendliness may be for two reasons. One, to avoid causing embarrassment or awkwardness for the outsider or third party and two, to allow the event or situation to move on smoothly without hindrance due to two persons in conflict.

Interestingly, a party which wishes to resolve the conflict may thus try to create or organize events or activities such as home parties that involves guests or outsiders in order to be able to “thrash” things out behind formal masks.

Fourthly, triadic management is yet another way in which Japanese try to manage or resolve conflicts whereby A or B or both pulls in a third party, X to mediate the conflict situation. X in this case assumes the responsibilities of conveying messages between A and B in the hope to reach a “consensus” by either offering apologies on behalf of A and B or persuading either or both parties to “let the matter rest” in order to “save his face”.

Displacement is a variant of triadic management. Their difference lies in the power and status of X within a situation. In triadic management, X often is a neutral or a more powerful party whereas X in displacement may be one who tends to be in a more vulnerable position. X in this case becomes the victim between two parties in conflict.

To further illustrate this method to manage one’s conflict, consider X as a passive listener or confidant of a female friend who experiences conflicts with her husband, mother-in-law or children. The female friend displaces her complaints or guchi (personal laments) on X instead of directly to the party she is frustrated with. Displacement in this circumstance does not require the husband, mother-in-law or children to realize the frustration of the woman. Rather, displacement acts as a channel to exhaust negative emotions.

Self-aggression and its extreme self-destruction is another non-confrontational method to manage or resolve conflicts in the Japanese society. This method is often “practiced” by those who are inferior, ranked lower in power-relations and females in Japan. One example of self-aggression may be demonstrated through “remonstrative compliance”. This means upon a conflict situation, one tends to agree (rather than to object directly) through exaggerated compliance to object or retaliate against the source of his or her frustration.

Sarcastic utterances such as “Yes, indeed I am a stupid!” or “You are absolutely right!” seeks to redress the statement communicated by the oppressor in an indirect manner. At times, self-aggression is also a method used to arouse the conflict emotion, guilt in the source of conflict. An example of such may be to apologize when one is clearly not in the wrong. There is thus this dual purpose to self-aggression; firstly to avoid causing embarrassment to the other party and secondly, to arouse guilt and oppose silently. Suicides are in fact forms of extreme self-aggression known as self-destruction to clear one’s name and “eternally” object to false accusations by one who holds little authority or power in the conflict situation.

A last form of non-confrontational strategy to conflict management in Japan is acceptance. This is largely evident in the workplace between the superior and the inferior, household between the females and males, and generational differences between a parent and child. By conforming to what the more superior prefers would naturally help to prevent unwanted confrontation. This form of conflict management, however, is short-termed and will only lead to an avoidance of the conflict. In time, acceptance may in fact further aggravate deeper grudges and grievances between two persons in conflict.


As Japan is a country widely-known for its manageable levels of social conflict, especially with the costs of conflicts so high in a society that strongly emphasizes social harmony, we would like to question again whether or not Japan is a homogenous and harmonious country as perceived by many. With the younger people in Japan operating in a dual ideological system as they learn democratic principles in school but are socialized into traditional patterns of deference behavior, it creates an increase in social conflicts as younger people treat the new principles as the “real” principles. 75 This, thus, brings upon an ongoing social conflict within the Japanese society, making Japan not the harmonious and homogenous society as many perceive it to be.



Bowen, Roger, 1981, Rebellion and Democracy in Meiji Japan, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Cook, Alice H, and Hiroko Hayashi, 1980, Working Women in Japan: Discrimination, Resistance, and Reform. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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