Emotional Expression and Death: The USA vs. Japan

Japan and Its Culture

Japan is one of the oldest nations in the world, with its specific, independent culture, and Shinto or Buddhism as the major religions. Despite its respect for history, the country continues developing socially and technologically. Therefore, tourists and business travelers have to recognize and follow its norms and traditions. Loyalty, punctuality, politeness, and responsibility are the main elements of Japanese cultural etiquette (“Japan,” 2016). It is normal to keep silent, and it is recommended to avoid prolonged eye contact and touching. Compared to the USA which is a “horizontal society,” Japan is a “vertical” nation, where differences between statuses matter (Matsumoto, 1990). In addition to hierarchy, Japanese people appreciate trust and conservatism in business relationships. They also underline the value of the gift that allows for giving and receiving presents.

Death Rites and Mourning Customs: Japan vs. the USA

The mourning period considerably depends on the country’s culture and religion. In Japan, citizens try to avoid the number “four” because it is related to “death” (“Japan,” 2016). Being mostly Christians, Americans follow a wake ritual with appropriate religious service in a church that usually takes one day. The Buddhist religion is used to guide the Japanese through suffering and loss associated with funerals and mourning practices. The main idea of Christian death rites is to promote the deceased’s entry into Heaven and the end of life. Buddhists believe that death is not an end but a transition to another form of living (“Buddhist funeral service rituals,” n.d.). The mourning period usually lasts about 90 days in Japan, and Americans rely on personal preferences and needs. Flowers and dress codes also differ in the cultures: Japanese have strict rules to wear dark or kimonos and bring white or yellow flowers only, American Christians do not have restrictions and rely on preferences.

Funerals and Emotional Experience: Japan vs. the USA

The American levels of expression are usually higher than those of Japanese people. The latter prefer to hide their emotions from others and underline conformity and humbleness, while the former enjoy equal opportunities and freedoms in their emotional development. Due to their “vertical” relationships, the Japanese prefer the expression of negative emotions and power distances, and Americans share their happiness frequently (Matsumoto, 1990). From a gender point, both American and Japanese men are more restricted in their emotional expression than women, but much depends on situational context (Hutchison et al., 2018). For example, American widows show their emotional breakdown, and Japanese widows never lose control of their emotions (Picken, 2016). In general, emotional display in Japan is more determined than in the USA.

Cultural Sensitivity Suggestions and Recommendations

When an American business traveler is going to visit Japan, the following rules should be followed to avoid misunderstanding and cultural conflicts:

  • Choose modern but conservative dresses
  • Prepare a solid gift to a business partner beforehand
  • Avoid using the “four” number
  • Learn the local hierarchy and respect vertical relationships
  • Never touch people but bow or shake hands (if a Japanese person allows this practice)
  • Hold back emotions
  • Never impose personal opinion but focus on the behaviors of other people around

Cross-Cultural Understanding of Emotional Expressions around Death

In Japan, Buddhist funerals have a number of hallmarks that have to be respected by travelers. Death is usually associated with peace and serenity, and no negative emotions are observed during a ceremony (“Buddhist funeral service rituals,” n.d.). Cultural differences matter for Americans and Japanese people, but the object of loss is usually personal. Emotional expressions around death in Japan are specific:

  • Wear dark and bring white flowers
  • Consider a monetary gift for a family
  • Do not cry in public but be restrained
  • Avoid unnecessary touching and prolonged eye contact
  • Be ready to witness the cremation of the deceased


Buddhist funeral service rituals. (n.d.). Funeralwise. Web.

Hutchison, A., Gerstein, L., & Kasai, M. (2018). A cross‐cultural comparison of US and Japanese trainees’ emotion‐recognition ability. Japanese Psychological Research, 60(2), 63-76. Web.

Japan. (2016). eDiplomat. Web.

Matsumoto, D. (1990). Cultural similarities and differences in display rules. Motivation and Emotion, 14(3), 195-214.

Picken, S. D. B. (2016). Cross-cultural comparison on mourning and object loss. Think.iafor. Web.

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