A few years back while visiting Japan, a former university classmate and I stopped by a convenience store to buy some drinks in order not to arrive empty-handed at the home of Saito-san, a common friend. As I grabbed some Asahi beer, my friend was quick to remind me that Saito-san’s father worked for the Kirin beer company. Whereas in other cultures the choice of beer brand would present no dilemma, we both knew that it would be inconsiderate to our friend not to buy Kirin beer. We instinctively understood this because of 義理 (giri).
‘Giri’ embodies a sense of obligation or duty based on a strong loyalty to a person or organization. It is also often translated in Western culture as the “burden of obligation”. This description refers to behaviour guided by a collective understanding of doing what is best for the person or organization that one has a connection to. This sense of obligation trumps individual preferences or opinions. Of course, it is also based on the assumption that the other party (be it a person or organization) will reciprocate this behavior.
Another way to observe ‘giri’ in daily business life is through Japanese customer service. Regardless of their position in an organization, it is common to find a level of servitude and formality in employees that for Western eyes often borders on the excessive. One example is the early morning greeting in shopping malls in Japan where the first customers of the day are saluted on both sides by rows of bowing employees.
Customer service is also key to avoid the reverse effect, in which disgruntled customers tell their family, friends and peers about their unpleasant experience. This often triggers a total rejection of the whole brand by many people that were not even personally impacted by the original negative event.
The sense of ‘giri’ very often continues after working hours as the traditional company culture helps foster a strong sense of belonging and ownership among its employees. Going back to our initial example, by buying Kirin we were showing our support to the company that Saito-san’s father worked for. This was an easy way to demonstrate our consideration of him.
Being aware of ‘giri’ is a good way to avoid misunderstandings and develop cordial ties with Japanese partners.