On, A Sense of Indebtedness
This post is typed verbatim from Keys to the Japanese Heart + Soul, an excerpt from Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia with authors' notes at the bottom.
On: favour, indebtedness
The social and psychological debt one incurs upon receiving a favour or gift of major proportions. On occupies a central place among the values that maintain the Japanese social order, in which human relations are bound in a network of reciprocal obligations.
In feudal Japan, on referred to the debt a warrior incurred in receiving land and protection from his lord and carried the obligation to serve in battle. Similarly, one receives on from one's parents and ancestors; this is repaid with filial piety (kou). Others who may be onjin (a person to whom one owes on) include a teacher, an employer, or someone who has saved one's life. On is immediately linked to giri*1, the Japanese concept that one is required to return a favour, and a person who fails to repay on is called on shirazu (one who does not know on), one of the worst insults a Japanese can receive. At the same time, on is so profound that one can never fully repay it, which puts the on-receiver in a relationship of permanent subordination to the on-giver.
*1, giri (pg. 89, "")
Previously: Higengo Komyunikeishon (Nonverbal Communication)
Next: Giri, The Societal Obligation to Act