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Omoiyari: The Reason Why Japanese are Empathetic and Considerate


Empathy is taught in many places, but Japanese people have a deeper implementation. Not only do they empathize with you, but they also help you before you realize you need it. The concept of empathy and consideration in Japanese culture is called omoiyari.

What is Omoiyari 思いやり?

The phrase omoiyari is commonly translated to empathy, but it actually has a deeper meaning. There is no equivalent word in English for omoiyari so it's usually explained using a couple of words.

Omoi (思い) is thought. Yari is derived from yaru (やる), which means give or send.

So, it literally means to give your thoughts to others.

Omoiyari is the sympathy and empathy for others that leads to thoughtful action. The key points are anticipating someone’s needs and providing for them in advance. To practice omoiyari, you have to think in the other’s shoes and give them what they need without verbally expressing it to you.

Omoiyari is not always about doing something. Sometimes, not doing or saying something is also omoiyari. That is why this concept is related to kuuki wo yomu (空気を読む) or reading the room. If you can read the situation, you must understand what to do and what not to do to accommodate someone’s needs.

The practice of omoiyari can be found in daily occurrences in Japanese society. It's not about superiors helping people beneath them, but voluntary help to anyone in need. Omoiyari, along with other characters, is taught to children from an early age.

Omoiyari and Altruism

Altruism is an act or desire to provide for people in need without hoping for a reward. It is known as selflessness, the opposite of selfishness. The concept of omoiyari and altruism are often connected. Omoiyari is not only sharing feelings with others but also making actions out of it. These acts are other-oriented and self-sacrificial. That is why omoiyari is unique to Japanese collectivist society.

Omoiyari in Daily Life

Acts of omoiyari can be found easily in daily occurrences. The examples of omoiyari include speaking quietly in public, using foreign language to international customers, cleaning public spaces after using them, and toilet sounds blocker.

  • Speaking quietly in public

Japanese people are very concerned about living harmoniously as a group. It is common sense that loud noise can disturb others, so they talk quietly in shared places. People also put their phones in silent mode and don’t answer calls on the train or bus. It’s not uncommon for them to warn others if they talk too loud.

  • Using foreign language with international customers

Service workers usually switch to English when serving or communicating with foreign customers. Even though their English may not be fluent, they will try to accommodate your needs. Some restaurants even have an English menu if you have difficulty when ordering.

When the Covid-19 vaccine started, the Japanese government also did omoiyari by providing 16 language translations of the vaccine form. They did that to accommodate many foreign nationals living in Japan, so they fully understand and get vaccines comfortably like the locals.

  • Cleaning the public place after using it

Do you know that Japanese students clean their own classrooms? Since they were first graders, Japanese people were taught to clean after themselves. In restaurants, people usually stack their used utensils and wipe the table before leaving. They do that out of consideration for the cleaning workers and people that will use the place after them.

This behavior of Japanese people is well known to the world. One viral example is when Japanese soccer fans cleaned their seats in the stadium during the World Cup 2018, no matter if they won or lost the game.

(Photo: Reuters)

  • Paper or plastic bag after shopping

The cashiers in retail or any shops in Japan are good examples of omoiyari. If they see you already brought a couple of bags from another shop, they will give you a big one even if you only buy small things in their shop. It will help you because you can put all of them together.

The cashiers will also tape a soft foam wrap if the bag is heavy, so your hand won’t hurt when carrying it. If it’s raining and the shop only provides paper bags, they will give a plastic cover, so the paper bag and the contents don’t get soaked.

  • Toilet sound blocker

Japanese toilets are on another level. Most public restrooms have various features, such as heated seats during winter, built-in bidet, and water pressure controls. On top of that, they have a music button to mask your activity in the public toilet.

The toilet sound blocker was introduced around four decades ago in Japan. It’s called otohime (sound princess) because it was initially built for women who were embarrassed by their activity in the public toilet. However, the reason is not just because they were shy but also didn’t want to cause inconvenience to other people. They thought hearing the strangers’ noises must be uncomfortable.

(Photo: mikieliza on reddit)

When Omoiyari Turns Bad

There are cases when omoiyari toward others might not be appreciated by the recipients. People might think that others are meddling in their business or doing unnecessary things. If this happens, the action won’t be considered as omoiyari anymore.

Omoiyari may not be accepted because it relies on a person’s assumption about what the others would appreciate. Sometimes these predictions don’t work well with foreigners due to cultural and customs differences. For example, if you are an expecting mother, your company may change your work schedule without consulting you. Even if their intention is good and they’re willing to give what you don't ask, it can be upsetting.

It takes time to understand Japanese social gestures if you come from a distinct culture. However, omoiyari can be practiced anywhere and by anyone. You can start with your closest family and friends because you are already familiar with them. A simple act like giving them their favorite foods when they are feeling down will be very appreciated.


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