Although many Japanese nowadays disclaim the significance of these three traditional values by calling them "feudalistic" - their own behavior patterns still betray social relations which can be described in terms of these concepts.
1. On is a concept for indebtedness. Repayment of on is never complete. Harumi Befu in Japan (p.167-8) states that the"genesis of the on relationship is found in the parent-child relationship, where parents give life to the child, provide nurturance, and socialize him. The child is then forever indebted to the parents...Insofar as parents expect the child to repay the debt in socially accepted forms, the child must behave accordingly if he is not to hurt the parents' feelings and consequently alienate himself from them. This pattern of relationships is then transferred later in life to other persons than parents. And to the extent that a similar psychological bond and mutual dependence develop between the two individuals, one feels compelled to repay the debt."
2. Giri may be translated as "social obligation". It implies an ethical imperative to behave as expected by the society.
3. Ninjo (psychological) refers to a person's natural feelings and inclinations, which may or may not be in accord with giri. If conflict arises "there are three alternatives: one, to suppress one's private feelings and honor moral principles; two, to close one's eyes from moral obligations and follow the dictates of one's feeling; and three, to annihilate oneself through committing suicide, being able neither to ignore the society's moral obligations nor suppress one's moral desires." (Befu, p. 170)
"At the core of Japanese behavior patterns is the notion of reciprocity - the idea that people are not good or bad in any absolute sense but good or bad in light of their relationships with others. For Japanese, the supreme source of guilt is the sense that they have hurt someone else by failing to behave as that person expected." (Christopher, The Japanese Mind, p. 71).
The importance of reciprocity in Japanese culture is also quoted by anthropologist Joy Hendry: "It is not unusual for people in Japan to keep a record of the value of goods which have been received, so that the apporopriate amount may be spent when the time comes to make a return." (Hendry, Understanding Japanese Society, p. 204).
Another example: Yasushi Inoue's old senile mother kept a ledger of funeral gifts. "When she heard that so-and-so was ill she automatically assumed that the person would die, and she went for the funeral gift ledger to check the amount of cash she would have to give, which corresponded to the amount her family had received from that family in the past on a similar occasion." ((Inoue, Chronicles of My Mother, p. 72)
are other dominant Japanese values. In modern Japanese society one is loyal to one's immediate group, the "company", the family, etc., just as previously the emperor, the shogun, or other lords commanded total obedience. For example, in a classical Bunraku (Puppet theatre) performance, Mitsuhide, the main character, after repeated subjection to his lord's cruelty, seeks revenge and kills him. His mother, Satsuki, is very angry with her son for his rebellion. She condemns him so fiercely, that he contemplates suicide.
Japan is one of the world's most homogeneous modern nations. Marriage to foreigners or minority groups is discouraged. The Ainu, Koreans, or children of mixed blood, are "treated as social inferiors by many ordinary Japanese" (Hendry, 75-76).
Women in Japan, historically, hold a subordinant position. One can gain a sense of the extent of male privileges already existing in the 13th century by reading Monogatari's The Captain of Naruto. In this story Captain Naruto's beautiful wife catches the attention of the emperor, who summons her to appear at the court. Greatly upset, she reveals the emporor's advances to her husband. "If you fail to go, out of pride, it is sure to look very bad, and who can say what will become of me?" Weepingly, she submits to the emperor, resulting in the promotion of the captain. Monogarari concludes: "Emperor Gosaga's gracious feelings and the captains's generous sacrifice in the present story deserve to be remembered as examples of truly noble conduct". (Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature, p. 224-228). The most revealing aspect of this tale is that the wife's immolation isn't even considered.
During the feudal Tokugawa period discrimination against women was institutionalized. "The male vassal was a jusristic person with rights and privileges, while the female vassal had only duties and obligations. Women could not conduct ancestral rites nor were they permitted to play a public role in society. The headship, therefore, almost invariably suceeded to a male, usually the eldest son. If there were only daughters, a son was frequently adopted and married to the oldest daughter. The family head was the ultimate authority in all family decisions." (Lebra, et al., Women in Changing Japan, p. 13).
Takeo Kuwahara revealed that the Japanese were not faced with the necessity of developing a Western type logic or rhetoric. In an extremely endogamous society, understanding did not depend on talking, instead communication was possible through the shared Japanese understanding, without words. (Ellchiro Ishida, Japanese Culture, p. 117).
Speaking too much is associated in Japan with immaturity or a kind of empty-headedness. - It is also associated with women: three kanji characters for "woman" actually means "noise".-
Silences, on the other hand, have many meanings in a Japanese setting. It can be a medium that the parties share, a means of unifying, in contrast to words which separate. "Silence in conversations is often compared to the with space in brush paintings or calligraphy scrolls. A picture is not richer, more accurate, or more complete if such spaces are filled in. To do so would be to confuse and detract from what is presented." (John Condon, With Respect to the Japanese, p. 40-1).