Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Japanese Culture is Collectivist, American Culture is Individualist... or is it?

            “Japan has a crappy culture,” my college roommate once said. The statement never sat well with me. The man watched animé and listened to J-pop, as did I. Such a sweeping criticism seemed disrespectful of the people who created the shows and music we enjoyed. All cultures have their downsides, in any case. Certainly the culture had some kind of appeal if we enjoyed their entertainment.

            Still, it is easy for Americans to see Japan in a tinted light. We hear so much about a conformist culture with an emphasis on honor and knowing one’s place. Japan is the land where “the loose nail is hammered down,” and the strain of keeping up with one’s station claims thousands of lives through suicide.

During the early days of the Iraq War, I read an article about a group of Japanese hostages returning home after their rescue by the JASDF. Against the advice of their government, these people braved the war zone for the sake of journalism and to render humanitarian aid. Instead of receiving a hero’s welcome, protesters greeted them upon their arrival. They carried signs reading, amongst other screeds, “You are Japan's shame!” Government officers denounced them, blaming them for making Japanese military officers go without food or sleep for a day or more. One wonders what the Japanese government thought the military was for, if not risking life, limb and comfort for the sake of the Japanese people.

            However, to blackball Japanese culture based on its worst face does nobody justice. It has its advantages, and sometimes ones we would not expect from a collectivist society. Furthermore, to dismiss any people based upon their worst customs amounts to hubris. Our arrogance can only hurt us: our culture is also imperfect, and we could do well to learn from others, such as Japan’s.

            Robert Levine’s A Geography of Time is mostly about how different cultures regard, measure, value, and live in time. However, the subject leads the author to contrast the conversational styles in Japanese versus American culture. A friend of the author describes the difference thusly: “For Westerners, the opposite of talking isn’t listening. It’s waiting.”1

            I can attest to the truth of this statement. Conversation in America can be very cutthroat. Especially in matters of importance, hardly a moment passes without someone talking. When one person finishes, another immediately speaks up. We hold each individual for making one’s self heard, but the task is difficult when you can’t squeeze a word in edgewise.

            Levine describes a different situation in Japan. According to A Geography of Time, a moment of silence is no taboo for the Japanese. They consider periodic silence necessary for people to process what has been said. Furthermore, in groups, one person typically keeps an eye on the discussion and ensures that everyone has a say.2

            In America, we pride ourselves on our self-reliance, our personal uniqueness, and our individual liberties. Indeed, the individual is king in the United States. I suspect that my roommate’s antipathy towards Japanese culture, as the son of wealthy, white Americans, was the result of its cultural lack of emphasis on individuality.

But Levine’s comparison of conversations reveals something remarkable: in this circumstance, Japanese culture’s emphasis on the group actually helps individuals. Because of their habit of listening instead of waiting, allowing time for contemplation between speakers, and having one member of the group moderate, any given person is more likely to successfully express their opinion. In contrast, the scramble for attention that is an American conversation consistently omits the thoughts of the timid. Vocal majorities can crowd out minority opinions Stateside, just by not allowing them to speak. Although other factors may lead a group to unfairly disregard a member’s thoughts, in Japan that factor would be something other than the group talking over them.

This contradiction is not just an artifact of differences in how people talk. We can see the same disparity in education. In America, we brag about how we develop each and every child’s special talents. And yet the United States trails far behind Japan in mathematics. Obviously math is subject for the few with a special talent, and Asian genetics convey that talent with alarming frequency.

Except that is completely false. Japanese schoolchildren’s lead on American schoolchildren in mathematics has nothing to do with genetics or talent. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson recount a 1970’s study on the subject by psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler. According to Travis and Aronson:

Their epiphany occurred as they watched a Japanese boy struggle with the assignment of drawing cubes in three dimensions on the blackboard. The boy kept at it for forty-five minutes, making repeated mistakes, as Stevenson and Stigler became increasingly anxious and embarrassed for him. Yet the boy himself was utterly unselfconscious, and the American observers wondered why they felt worse than he did. “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake,” Stigler recalled, “whereas in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.”3

If this boy had lived in the United States, his teachers would ignore him in favor of quicker students. His peers might mock him for his ‘stupidity,’ and his performance in school would drop. But, thankfully for him, he was born in Japan, where his peers and his teachers would give him the time and space for him to grow.

Given this fact, do Americans truly value the individual? Absolutely not. “The individual” refers to not just one or a few people, but every and any person. We cannot conscionably say we value the individual when our customs help some people at the expense of others. We don’t value the individual. We value competition. We value being the best.

Case in point: on my 7th grade class trip to Space Academy, I worked with a group of exchange students from our sister school in Japan. Our task was to take measurements of the environment using a tricorder. (I am not kidding you.) I had managed to figure out how to use the device, and while we pursued our objective we came across an all-American group. They hassled us—I forget exactly what they said or why. I only remember them singling me out, and, to my surprise, one of my Japanese teammates came to my defense. They had no reason to insult me, he said. I knew how to work the tricorder, and he thought that should earn me their respect.

Did the other team accost me out of respect for my individuality? Did my Japanese teammates care more about defending the group than defending me? I don’t think so. I think the other American students cared more about their standing in the pecking order. Their behavior was a display of dominance. They were winners while we weren’t. Never mind that nobody was competing.

Our national politics make more sense if competition is America’s core value, and not individuality. Why else would gay marriage render straight marriage meaningless? Why would Mitt Romney have ever accused 47% of the country of freeloading? Why would the wealthy and conservative argue that taxing the rich amounts to “punishing success?” Why are we so averse to “paying for someone else’s healthcare?” Because we want to win, and we can’t let someone else pull ahead in the race.

Cultivating individuality is a noble cause. However, the task proves impossible if we force people to compete in a war of everyone against everyone. The only winners of such a war are a lucky few, who aim to rationalize and consolidate their privilege. As social creatures, we thrive when we have a community to support us. After all, a community is only a group of individuals united in mutual concern. A community crumbles without the support of its members, and a community has no purpose if it does not serve the interests of every and any member. This fact may explain why Japan’s conformist, communitarian culture sometimes favors the individual. There is a lesson in this contradiction, and we Americans should heed it.


1. Robert V. Levine, A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, And the Pace of Life (Basic Books, 1997), 43. (Kindle Edition)

2. Robert V. Levine, A Geography of Time: On Tempo, Culture, And the Pace of Life (Basic Books, 1997), 43. (Kindle Edition)

3. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Harmful Acts (Harcourt, 2007), 196. (Nook Edition)


  1. your room mate is very disrespectful.. but sorta right.. i do agree that there kinda weird &.. unexpected at times, but i have Japanese relatives, & they have very tame behavior...

    1. son of wealthily white American;s eh? let' see if he get's picked on because of his rich white back ground.

    2. i'm really happy that Japanese teacher's unlike are American one's are giving kids time & space to learn, there's no rush right?... well idk... but give them home work & let them take there time to figure it out & maybe even talk about it in front of the class.