The cardinal virtues in Japan

In my continuing chronicles of “Ways Japanese people are secretly Catholic,” today I want to share a few observations on the practice of the cardinal virtues in Japan.  For those who need a quick reminder, the four cardinal virtues are:

  1. Temperance (roughly, not over-indulging)
  2. Prudence (roughly, identifying and taking the appropriate course of action in a given situation)
  3. Fortitude (roughly, not giving up)
  4. Justice (roughly, giving each person their due)

Interestingly, the observations I am about to share are things I noticed about Japan before I knew anything about Catholicism; as happened rather often, it was the Church that later gave me the vocabulary to describe what I had experienced.

So without further ado, here are my thoughts:


In his book Return to Order, John Horvat II argues that what’s wrong with America today is “frenetic intemperence”–an obsession with amassing and consuming more and more, on the part of both individuals and businesses.

Interestingly, Japan doesn’t seem to suffer from this problem.  I think that, rather than the “more is better” attitude, the Japanese take satisfaction in having things “just right.”  When you go to a Japanese restaurant, for example, you are never served a portion larger than what you can eat.


One thing that always puzzled me when studying culture comparisons was Japan’s high score on “tolerance of uncertainty.”  As an American, I usually take “tolerance of uncertainty” to mean “comfort with taking risks” (as opposed to taking the less-flashy-but-responsible route).  But the Japanese are a cautious people, so why did they have a high score on tolerance of uncertainty?

Once I began working in a Japanese office, I realized what was going on.  The Japanese are tolerant of uncertainty in the sense that they will postpone making a decision until they have enough information to be sure they are making the right choice.  In other words, by not committing to a course of action right away, they are being super-cautious!


How often does anyone use the word “fortitude” anymore?  Well, in Japan, the word ganbaru–to persevere–is used on a daily basis!  It’s a major virtue, explicitly cultivated right from elementary school as an end in itself.  “Children who persevere” has found its way into many a mission statement in Japanese schools.

Many people have observed that this emphasis results in a mindset that success depends more on effort than on innate ability–something that those of us who got straight A’s in school without ever studying think should be emphasized a little more in America.


Okay, I’m not gonna lie, I don’t have anything for this one.  You can take that as a comment on racial discrimination in Japan, or you can comment with your ideas if you’re feeling more inspired than I am!


One comment on “The cardinal virtues in Japan

  1. […] to be comfortable with not knowing how something will turn out, and their culturally-reinforced fortitude encourages them to keep trying hard regardless.  Moreover, as the plague of cynicism appears to be […]


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