Sincerity: A Core Japanese Virtue, On TV Anyway

Image: Ferns. In flower language, the fern signifies “sincerity.”

As I try to scour the Internet for good comments on Japanese culture, I found one that seemed slightly random at first. This comment was that sincerity is considered an important virtue in Japanese culture.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized: wow, it’s totally true! More than I would have suspected, even.

Sincerity: What The Crowd Roots For

Let’s take anime (Japanese animation, i.e. Japanese cartoons).

In character design, the leading/ main character (shujinkou, 主人公) is supposed to be the best at something. He (or she) should be #1 of the entire cast of characters in some way. Failure to do this makes grabbing the attention of viewers difficult. This is something that can be learned in art and design schools all over the world.

What I didn’t realize is that, in anime, the characters who start out as the leading/ main characters, but who are not #1 by any tangible measure, are usually head and shoulders above the rest of the cast in one area: their sincerity.

Put simply, main characters are more honest in their beliefs, more honest to themselves about them, more sincere about their desire to get better/ stronger, to protect/ aid others, to contribute to the world around them, and in general, to do good, as they define good to be.

Conversely, many major characters that are not the main character are often superior in some aspect: skill, strength, toughness, and so forth. However, these characters have a flaw in that their sincerity is not at the same level of strength.

Whether realistic or not, your typical shonen (“youthful male”) anime is oriented around being able to cheer for the more sincere character. This means, we, the audience, are expected to cheer for the person whose sincerity we can identify with.

After all, sincerity doesn’t require strength, intelligence, physical coordination, toughness, Buddhist enlightenment, or charismatic leadership. (So, none of the Dungeons and Dragons attributes apply…) Sincerity is something that everyone can appreciate, and everyone can partake in. It is not limited by what we can do; it is limited only by the choice to be sincere and to try hard.

It’s How You Play The Game

According to Japanese culture, it really is how you play the game. It’s OK to lose if you put your heart into it and leave it all on the field. It’s OK to lose if you have sincerely tried your best. It’s all the better to win, but winning right is more important than winning per se.

Put another way, sincere effort is seen as the root of future success.

Years ago, Michael Jordan (the famous basketball player) had a commercial where he says, “I have failed many times. That is why I succeed.” This invokes the Japanese/ Asian expression, failure holds the seeds of success (paraphrased roughly).

In other words, if we learn from our failures, they are stepping stones on the way to success later in life. This is a lesson that everyone can appreciate, and that everyone can benefit from.

Of course, that does not mean we will all become Michael Jordan. That is not, however, the point.

The point is, no matter how high you climb, no matter how much money you make, no matter how many people you have to step over to succeed, that is not what the culture truly admires. The culture admires people who are sincere in their beliefs. This does not mean telling the truth to all comers; it is telling the truth to yourself, and genuinely trying to help your own side succeed without doing things that bring dishonor to the group. It means striving for success but having a moral ethic that people can admire in good conscience.

Even if you occupy a low position in life, sincerity is something that others around you can and will admire.

In Japanese animation and video games alike, it is the groups formed of people with sincere, genuine emotions who are always the ones we are expected to root for. Villains/ bad guys who are sincere are considered a finer breed than ones who are after some sort of high score in life rather than some sort of higher value. Villains who have sincerity are worthy of respect, and often are respected, even if for various reasons the heroes have to beat them into the pavement (usually because the world will end if they don’t, or such). Sincerity is still routinely honored after an opponent has been defeated.

Bushido: Keeping It Real

The values of Bushido are, indeed, all about sincerity in one’s relationships to others. Let the record show that this was considered a great thing for retainers; certain things were more… negotiable… for the lords that commanded them, but Bushido’s values allowed lords to look after the group (in addition to themselves) while keeping the group together. If every lowly soldier behaved with the same insincerity, armies would collapse.

This is a deeper thought than you might realize at first glance. Anyway, here’s Bushido’s seven values:

  • Rectitude (i.e. propriety)
  • Courage (i.e. bravery)
  • Benevolence (i.e. courtesy)
  • Respect (i.e. consideration)
  • Honesty (i.e. truthfulness)
  • Honor (i.e. self-respect)
  • Loyalty (i.e. gratitude)

These all have a great deal to do with sincerity. This is worth reflecting on.

I’m going to refer back to this post in the future. After all, it doesn’t take much effort for me to see that sincerity is a virtue treasured and honored by a great deal of the anime I have watched, whether it is positive (lauding sincerity) or negative (condemning lack of it).

Specific examples aside, I wanted to write about how this is a core cultural issue for the Japanese people. As a nation, they haven’t always won, but they distinguish between losing with self-respect, and losing after having tossed away all dignity. This, too, is worthy of reflection.

Thank you for reading.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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One Response to Sincerity: A Core Japanese Virtue, On TV Anyway

  1. TinyRedLeaf says:

    Interesting post. I broadly agree with your points. 🙂