Even in today's democratic Japanese society, hierarchical roles and values still exist. There are specific roles for each person, weighed according to things such as age, gender, nation of origin, job, job rank, the school one graduated from, and so on and so on. Across the entirety of Japanese history, language, motions, and other symbols such as the clothing one wore or the furniture in one's own home was structured around one's rank in life. It was difficult, if not impossible, to move up in rank; however, one could find it remarkably easy to move down. This was to preserve the social structure and to give vanity to one's superiors.
This idea may be very foreign to Western thought. We are taught to think as individuals, that all aspects are just as important as others (for example, the manager is no more important than the work of ten people under him- without those workers, there is no reason to have a manager). In America, we choose our presidents, and always have. The point of choosing our leaders was rooted in the power struggles of the masses in the countries we came from: countries who had one ruler, a dictator or monarch, and whose word was law. We wanted to avoid that, so we made a ruling that we had to choose people to represent us, who could be recalled, and who would be unable to take over the country without consent (created the very monarch we desperately wanted to get away from).
In Japan, society developed very differently. The first Japanese rulers were both leadership figures and religious figures; they played the role of both politician and priest. According to Shinto mythology, the gods Izanagi and Izanami created Japan out of the swirling waters, and fell in love with their creation so much that they descended onto the island and made a life for themselves. When Izanami died, Izanagi descended into the Underworld to bring her back. Failing to do so, Izanagi created the lesser gods from his body. Those offspring created humans. The Emperor is/was thought to be a divine ruler, descended from Amaterasu-sama herself! The Japanese people, of course, all being further descendents of the gods. According to Shinto practices, everything has a spirit, and everything should be treated with appropriate respect. In order to do so, proper ceremony must be observed at all times.
This became even more of an extreme idea (compared to our standards) during the 1100s-1800s, with the rise of the shogunate and the samurai police. They ascribed to Zen Buddhism, in itself a peaceful religion, but one which required profound self-discipline and mental fortitude to adhere to. This, paired with the rigors of training, and the ideals surrounding bushido (the way of the warrior), proper hierarchical protocol became more greatly in demand than ever before. New rules were set down to prevent any 'class mixing', or to prevent a 'lower' class from overtaking a 'higher' class. Laws detailing even the types of fabric each caste could wear, including the patterns that were allowed, became prominent. The culture as a whole became hyperaware of the social demands of etiquette. To do anything else could easily mean losing your life.
This heightened awareness of protocol became so extreme by outsider standards that to miss any part of that protocol is a grievous error by their standards. This, of course, is becoming relaxed today. Knowing how to greet a teacher vs. how to greet a close friend of ten years is still observed, but obviously, no one today will be beheaded because they used the wrong term for 'Hello' when regarding one's superiors, as was once done. Even more allowance is made for foreigners on brief trips; the assumption is that you are an inconvenience now, but you are also a guest; proper allowances must be made. However, do not rely on this attitude all the time, especially if staying more than a few days. Make effort to learn some basics. People will certainly notice!
Previously: Introduction to Mannered Mondays
Next: Nihonjinron (Discussions of the Japanese)