Hinkaku 品格 ~Grace or Dignity

Hinkaku, a Japanese concept that can be loosely translated as “dignity,” holds a significant place in Japanese society and martial culture. It encompasses a range of virtues and qualities that elevate an individual above the ordinary, emphasizing character, spirit, and cultural propriety.

In a Japanese context, hinkaku is directly associated with virtue and morality. A person with great dignity, or “hinkaku ga takai hito,” is humble, honest, trustworthy, and consistently does what is considered the right thing according to Japanese standards of right and wrong. These individuals are held in high regard and are expected to exemplify hinkaku, especially if they hold positions of responsibility and importance.

The Japanese have been conditioned over centuries to be sensitive to hinkaku and to expect it from those in influential positions. The higher the position, the greater the expectations for the person to demonstrate hinkaku. This cultural value reflects the belief that individuals in positions of power should embody moral integrity and act in a way that benefits society as a whole.

Comparatively, the Western concept of dignity is broader and encompasses a wider range of acceptable behavior. In North American society, for example, dignified behavior allows for a certain level of individual interpretation and does not necessarily carry the same cultural weight as hinkaku does in Japanese society.

The importance of hinkaku is also reflected in the perception of foreigners in Japan. Historically, the Japanese have tended to look down on Westerners, particularly prominent businessmen and political leaders, because they did not exhibit the qualities of hinkaku that the Japanese expected. This has reinforced the belief among the Japanese that their cultural values and way of life are superior.

Even today, foreign businessmen or politicians who fail to comport themselves with an acceptable level of hinkaku may experience a loss of respect and credibility in Japanese society. However, it is worth noting that certain settings, such as drinking parties at geisha houses, Yatai beer and snack places, or nightclubs, may have different expectations regarding hinkaku.

For foreigners who wish to be accepted sincerely by the Japanese as friends, students, allies, or partners, it is important to convey a healthy degree of hinkaku. This entails demonstrating sincerity, virtue, dependability, and a genuine respect for Japanese cultural norms.

An illustrative example of the significance of hinkaku can be seen in the story of Chad Rowan, an American sumo wrestler known as Akebono. When Akebono won his second tournament and achieved the rank of Oozeki, or champion, in Japan’s traditional sport of sumo, discussions about his elevation to the prestigious title of yokozuna, or grand champion, began. However, some key members of the Sumo Association opposed his promotion, arguing that he did not exhibit a satisfactory level of hinkaku. It was only after Akebono impressed the judges with his behavior and demonstrated hinkaku that he was unanimously confirmed as Japan’s first foreign sumo grand champion. RIP Chad.

In the context of the Japanese Imperial Family, hinkaku has also played a significant role. Empress Michiko, who married Emperor Akihito in 1959, has been praised for her embodiment of hinkaku throughout her time as empress. In fact she was seen as the guardian of national grace and dignity. Her conduct within the cloistered and insular halls of the Imperial Household Agency has been exemplary and deeply respected by the Japanese people, even  as she prepares to celebrate her 90th birthday.

In summary, hinkaku is a concept deeply ingrained in Japanese society, representing a set of virtues and qualities that elevate individuals above the ordinary. It signifies moral integrity, cultural propriety, and a commitment to doing what is right. Understanding and embodying hinkaku is essential for foreigners seeking acceptance and respect within Japanese society.