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The Japanese Art of Sunao




It was hailed as a miracle when on January 2 all 379 people on board a burning plane in Japan were able to escape without harm. This miracle is attributed to thorough planning and perfect execution by a well-trained crew. It was also aided by well-prepared and well-behaved passengers.

I think that the behavior of both the staff and the passengers are intimately related to sunao. This cultural concept describes the way that despite the seemingly dire conditions on the plane as smoke filled the cabin there was relative calm as people sat and waited patiently. They listened to the clear directions of the cabin attendants and did what they were told. No one put themselves above others by rushing to the exit or grabbing their luggage. People were sunao in being accepting, harmonious, kind, and helpful to each other.


This behavior might be seen by some as showing the excessive obedience that characterizes Japanese society and there is truth in this view. The English translations are obedient, meek, and docile and authorities in Japan emphasize this aspect to maintain control. Sunao has been twisted to refer to the "good," passive behavior of children or subordinates, but in its true form it is actually different.


I see sunao as similar to assertiveness as both are characterized by the ability to respect and express your own and others' views and interests. Some Japanese leaders, most notably Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic, believe that success depends on seeing things clearly with a sunao, or open mind. I'm fortunate to work with Hideo Tanimoto, president of Kyocera, who sees this kind of mindset as foundational for today's leadership that requires vulnerability, humility, and authenticity.


I believe that in Japan the development of the whole person from childhood through adulthood needs more focus on the aspect of sunao that values honest expression of ideas and feelings. In the US I think more attention needs to be given to developing empathy and listening. And though we never attain it, sunao is a value worth striving for each day as a beautiful way of being natural, kind, and harmonious in any society.  


Image by dlsd cgl from Pixabay

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