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The Japanese word shikata is often translated to mean “shape” or “form,” or in other translations, “way of doing things.” Familiar book titles such as The Way of Zen or The Way of the Samurai, touch on this. But in Japan, numerous kata – the word used for the many different forms of this devotion – are simply an element of life. There are kata for nearly everything the Japanese do.

The number of kata is almost limitless, and together, shikata provide much of the basis of Japanese culture. One kata or another teaches the Japanese the proper way to do nearly everything: There are kata of how to hold chopsticks or a paintbrush, of the way of addressing business clients, even of the proper way to use the telephone. Ancient and modern, kata have developed over centuries and are strictly adhered to by any proper Japanese person, which is to say, nearly all.

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To a foreigner, the use of kata can get to a point that any non-Japanese would likely consider more ridiculous than sublime, a total society controlled by the (only half-joking) notion that it is better to do the wrong thing the right way than the right thing the wrong way. And while that has bound the Japanese together in a nearly airtight certainty of the right and wrong ways to do things, it can seem absurd to outsiders – and oppressive to the Japanese themselves.

As a Japanese friend who has lived outside the country recently told me, she sometimes goes to Chinese restaurants in Japan simply to escape the constant self-consciousness and even social control represented by, and enforced by, kata. To visitors, kata are interesting; to the Japanese, they can be suffocating. On top of that, the utter ubiquity of kata can mean that the Japanese hardly even know what is suffocating them. They take shikata so for granted that it is nearly invisible to them, even as they do things in a strictly-proscribed manner. That’s just the way things are done, they say, if challenged.

For the visitor, knowing a bit about kata is helpful, because it can explain the ritualistic approach to even the most mundane activities. Everything from the ways Japanese bow, or drink tea, or greet friends, or write, or hand a customer a package…are dictated by kata. The extreme precision of Japanese behavior makes more sense if one knows a few kata. But shikata is one big reason that foreigners remain forever outside of Japanese society: We don’t know the proper way. And in a society that values form more highly than most, it can also be intimidating; the behavior of outsiders is so relentlessly (if silently) observed and judged that a non-Japanese can’t possibly perform up to the standards of even the most relaxed Japanese. The good news, of course, is that the Japanese generally know this, and don’t judge foreigners for their inevitable lapses.

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Shigto-no-shikata, the way of working, is a whole group of kata that oversee how Japanese interact at work, and is an area where many foreigners who come to Japan to work first encounter its myriad expressions, to much confusion and frustration. Shiji no dashi kata is the way of giving direction at work; meirei no shikata is the way of giving orders; hanashi kata covers the area of how one is to speak; and tanomi kata expresses an enormous area of business interactions far too complex to describe here. This is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Lastly – though there is no end to shikata – is wakata, which is the way of harmony, or wa. In the West, harmony is thought of as either musical, or, perhaps, a desirable state of any given relationship. In other words, harmony is nice. In Japan, wa is almost everything, and it is maintained at all costs. Wa is one of the highest ideas in Japanese culture, and much is sacrificed – happiness, money, individual desires, even lives – to maintain it. Wakata is very serious business.

But so are all kata. Because of that, the system of shikata cuts both, or perhaps many, ways: Various kata are oppressive, but they also give form to a culture and society that is devoted to, even obsessed with, form in the service of harmony. Kata also give Japan a great deal of its charm and beauty, for many of these kata have evolved over centuries, and give to a function as simple as arranging flowers a grace and beauty, not to mention efficiency and utility, that can be breathtaking. Shikata rules Japan, and the Japanese, but also gives them an ease and grace that can be a balm to visitors from countries where social graces are often tossed aside in pursuit of individuality and personal advantage.

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Most visitors would automatically rebel at being forced to observe many kata; but most also appreciate the form and grace and beauty that the shikata structure gives this most orderly of societies.

By David Watts Barton