Article written by Olivier Van Beneden

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, a common friend. As I grabbed some Asahi beer, my friend was quick to remind me that Saito worked for the Kirin beer company. While somewhere else the choice of what to get would present no dilemma, we both knew that it would be inconsiderate to our friend not to get Kirin beer. We instinctively understood this because of 義理(giri).

義理 embodies a value akin to an obligation or duty strongly motivated by a perceived sense of loyalty to a person or organization. It is also often translated in western culture as a "burden of obligation". This accurate description refers to the prevalence of behavior guided by a collective understanding of doing what is best for the person or organization we are obliged to, above considerations based on individual preferences or opinions. This particular sense of obligation is also guided by the assumption that the other part (be it a person or organization) will take care of its subordinates. For business this has traditionally translated in the practice of life-long employment and in-house unions throughout Japanese corporations.

Another way to see "giri" in daily business life is through Japanese customer service. Regardless of their position in an organization it is common to find in employees a level of servitude and formality that for western values would border on excessive. An extreme example of this, would be the early morning greeting in shopping malls in Japan where the first customers of the day are saluted on both sides by rows of employees.

The sense of 'giri' very often continues after working hours as the company culture helps develop a strong sense of belonging and ownership among its employees. Going back to our initial example, showing our support to Saito's company by choosing Kirin beer was an easy way to demonstrate our consideration towards him.

Being aware of 'giri' is a good way to avoid misunderstandings and develop cordial ties with Japanese partners.