COLLECTIVISM IN JAPAN: HOW IT IS IMPEDING JAPAN’S GROWTH AND FUTURE / Renka Taguchi

Will adopting Individualism be a solution?

Introduction

The topic of individualism and collectivism has been often studied and evaluated to explain why various cultures differ from each other. Generally speaking, western cultures such as the United States are associated with individualism, while East Asian countries like China are associated with collectivism. In the case of Japan, it may be inaccurate to label the country as accompanying collectivistic culture, as there are many aspects of individualism observed within the society and in the way that Japanese people behave and think. However, it is appropriate to state that Japan is a relatively collectivistic culture based on Western standards: According to Hofstede’s individualism dimension, Japan scores 46 on individualism whereas the United States scores a 91 (Hofstede). The Japanese culture has many attributes that reflect collectivism, such as the general trend where people prioritize conformity, social harmony, and value group goals over individual goals. Embracing harmony within groups may have advantages where it allows people to develop stronger interpersonal relationships and encourage cooperation. On the other hand, embracing the spirit of collectivism and placing a strong emphasis on social harmony and conformity may suggest a potential threat to Japan’s future and development. For instance, in schools and workplaces, people tend to be very conscious about how their in-group members perceive themselves; they may be more hesitant to speak their true thoughts or express uniqueness for fear that they might disturb the harmony. In business situations, embracing social harmony can lead to conflicts such as the phenomenon of ‘groupthink.’ This paper will take a closer look into examples of collectivism seen in Japan, problems in Japan caused by embracing collectivistic culture, and evaluate whether pursuing individualism may be the right solution for such issues in Japan. The paper will also discuss the validity of the common perception that “Japan is an extreme collectivistic culture, and America is an individualistic culture” to measure to what extent Japan can be considered a collectivistic society.

Section 1: What are some signs and examples of collectivism in Japan? 

            Various studies regarding collectivism in Japan all seem to support the popular view that “Japanese are more conforming and less deviant than Americans” (Fukushima). An example that describes less deviance within the behavior of Japanese people is the low crime rate in Japan. According to comparative victimization surveys, Japan’s level of serious crime has been proven to be much lower compared to the United States.

In addition, other data studying the difference in the level of conformity between Japanese and Americans had also evidenced that Japanese are relatively more compliant with norms and avoid committing offences that go against laws and social rules than Americans. For example, since the outbreak of coronavirus at the beginning of 2020, many Japanese people have been compliant with the social rule of wearing masks. Meanwhile, in the United States, under the same circumstance, there are people who choose to refuse to cover their faces, claiming that they have the right not to do so (McKelvey). Although this may not be solely due to American’s lower level of compliance (considering the influence of Donald Trump, who refuses to wear masks), the fact that some Americans are prioritizing their personal choice (to not wear a mask) over society’s rule shows that they are less compliant and are unaffected by conformity. Referring back to Japan in October 2020 today, we can still see almost everyone wearing masks wherever we go. A journalist in a Japanese Newsweek article wrote that this phenomenon reflects one aspect of collectivism, the “pressure to conform” in Japan (Hayasaka). Even if individuals are unwilling to wear masks, they feel obligated to follow what everyone else is doing. A survey regarding mask culture in Japan has revealed that many people fear what others may think of themselves if they did not wear masks in public. Though the author believes that conformity or “pressure to conform” is especially seen in Japan, this kind of “public spirit” is what has prevented the virus from spreading exceedingly. Therefore, the collective mind within Japanese people can, at times, produce positive outcomes.

Section 2: What are some of the major problems in Japan caused by embracing collectivism?

            As the world continues to globalize at a fast pace, many cultures are beginning to pursue individualism for greater economic growth and survival in the global market (Hamamura). In order for businesses to compete on a worldwide scale, companies must seek innovative ideas and individuals who can think differently. Since individualistic culture embraces uniqueness and emphasizes “distinction from others,” individualism may be a better suit for globalization and economic development (Rhee). How about the countries that are considered relatively collectivistic like Japan? Perhaps one of the major negative aspects of collectivism may be the fact that it has the tendency to hold back the society’s economic growth, compared to an individualistic culture that advances innovation (Ball). This is because collectivism can be characterized as promoting conformity, which leads people to avoid exchanging new and different ideas that go against the majority’s beliefs and perspectives within the in-group (Rhee). During decision-making processes in workplaces, for example, workers may find it uncomfortable to express their opinions in situations where the majority of co-workers might disagree with them. This phenomenon can also be referred to as “groupthink,” wherein group decision-making, individuals choose not to contribute an alternative or an unpopular opinion; this phenomenon often leads the group to reach the poorest decisions and unfavorable outcomes (Choi). In a collectivistic culture, keeping harmony seems to be more prioritized than anything; collectivism creates an atmosphere where people should never disturb the harmony. By placing a limitation on individuals from expressing their thoughts, such practices may damage Japanese companies and economic growth in Japan. In addition, Japanese society tends to focus on “face-saving,” which can be referred to as preserving a positive impression of how others perceive themselves (Rhee). Face-saving requires acknowledging and respecting the perspectives of others within the group, and their perspectives should be placed over their own opinion. Furthermore, conformity in Japan pressures people to play their social roles within their in-groups. In workplaces, the relationship between boss, employees, and older employees, is kept distinct and emphasizes power differences in social status. Collectivistic culture in Japan, particularly in workplaces and business scenes, is hindering innovation and economic development by pressuring people to conform and preserve harmony within groups. This may lead to Japan’s economy gradually being left behind in the global market. 

            Another similar problem caused by embracing collectivism in Japan is douchou atsuryoku or strong “pressure to conform”/ “peer pressure.” Referring to the example of mask culture in Japan, conformity can sometimes lead to a better outcome; however, in many cases, such pressure can negatively impact the way people behave within groups. For instance, Japanese students in a class may experience peer pressure and feel obligated to do the same thing as what their peers are doing. Peer pressures can be dangerous, especially in situations where a group targets an individual for bullying. This may be the reason why bullying, or ‘group bullying’ in particular, is an ongoing social issue in Japan (Takekawa). 

Section 3: Is incorporating individualism the right movement for Japan? 

3.1 To what extent is Japan an individualistic society?

            The common perception that Japan is a collectivist society, and the United States is an individualistic society had first emerged as far back in 1888 in Lowell’s book The Soul of the Far East when Japan had reopened itself to the outside world in 1854 (Fukushima). This idea has been a popular field of study ever since, as it seemed to have accurately captured the cultural difference between Westerners and East Asians. However, since modernization and rapid globalization have been driving many countries around the world to pursue individualism, including Japan, to what extent has Japan become an individualistic society today? This section will highlight some aspects of individualism seen in contemporary Japan. In addition, the section would consider some studies against the common view (“Japan is collectivist, United States is individualist”) to assess whether Japan is truly a collectivistic society or not. 

            A common example of individualism seen in Japan is a situation during job interviews. Towards the end of the interviews, interviewees are oftentimes asked to express their uniqueness during the so-called jiko PR time or “self-summary” time. In this short period of time, interviewers seek people who are different and have special talents that stand out from the group. Although workplaces in Japan tend to reflect many collectivistic aspects, this particular practice during job interviews is a clear sign of individualism seen in Japan. Another example of individualism observed within Japanese people are employees who go straight home when their work is done. It is rare to see employees staying late to help other co-workers that are not yet finished, despite how Japanese people tend to emphasize group-spirit and cooperation within their in-group (Saint-Jaques). This is especially seen in the younger generations, which may be a sign that Japan is gradually becoming more individualistic. Furthermore, it is very common in Japan for workers to switch from one job to another to seek better working conditions and fulfill their own happiness.          

As mentioned above, there are many examples of individualism seen within the Japanese culture, which goes against the popular notion that Japan is a collectivistic society. In one meta-analysis study regarding individualism and collectivism dimensions, it has been proved that Japan has shown fewer signs of collectivism than what many studies have revealed in the past. Bond claimed that “Japan and the United States would have been cultural neighbors rather than opposing deviations.” Therefore, strong emphasis on the cultural difference of individualism-collectivism to United States-Japan could be invalid (Yamawaki). 

3.2 Will replacing collectivism with individualism work?

            Although there is much evidence of individualism seen throughout contemporary Japanese culture, Japanese culture’s overall tendency can still be leaning more towards collectivism compared to western countries. Would replacing such collectivistic culture in Japan with individualism be the best solution for Japanese society? For my research, I have conducted a survey on collectivism in Japan to see what kinds of attitude Japanese people have towards the ideologies of collectivism and individualism. The respondents were asked to identify their nationality, give their self-evaluation of individualism/collectivism, and answer a series of questions regarding the two dimensions. As for the results, the majority of the respondents had identified themselves as Japanese (80%) and evaluated themselves as a collectivist (70%). This outcome seems consistent with the common view Japanese people tend to perceive and associate themselves with collectivism. Upon answering the questions, it is likely that some respondents have referred back to their past behaviors, which they believe reflect collectivism. It is noteworthy that none of the respondents have identified themselves as an individualist, aside from the remaining 30% that have answered unsure/neither. In the follow-up survey questions, the respondents were asked whether they believe Japan is an individualistic society or a collectivistic society. Those who have responded as a collectivistic society were then asked if they believe Japan would become better if it ever became an individualistic society. The results showed that 90% of the respondents believe Japan is a collectivistic culture, while the remaining have responded as “both.”  Despite some individualistic aspects found in Japan, the perception that Japan is a collectivistic culture seems to be strongly embedded in the minds of Japanese people. Furthermore, what was interesting about the results of the second question was that the beliefs were clearly divided: 30% of the respondents believe Japan would improve if it becomes an individualistic society. In comparison, another 30% of the respondents believe Japan would not become better by simply switching from collectivism to individualism. The remaining 40% had responded maybe/unsure, and it is evident that the majority had mixed feelings towards individualism, both positive and negative. Based on these results, it may be misleading to conclude that individualism is the best answer to improve the country, as the respondents believe individualism is not a definite solution. Rather, considering how there are both positive and negative sides of collectivism and individualism, a balance between the two ideologies may be the best fit for contemporary Japan. As Kobayashi mentions in the article, “Japan’s Individualism in Globalization Trends,” what the country needs is the idea of opening-up the Japanese culture of “wa” or harmony, instead of removing it and replacing it completely with individualism. This is because the kind of individualism that countries should aim for, in a world of rapid globalization where people from all sorts of backgrounds come together, is acknowledging differences and uniqueness while also establishing trust between people “by sharing values for human solidarity,” or group spirit. Since the Japanese society tends to already encourage ‘solidarity,’ the next step should be to have more tolerance of differences and give people the opportunities to behave and express themselves freely.

Conclusion 

            Japan has been often referred to as a collectivistic culture where society emphasizes conformity and harmony within groups. While there are many examples of collectivism found in Japanese culture (such as the current situation where virtually everyone is wearing a mask), it should also be acknowledged that there are also many individualistic aspects found within Japanese society and the way people behave. Overall, Japan can be considered a collectivistic culture based on western standards moving towards an individualistic culture driven by globalization and modernization. Collectivism impeding economic growth in Japanese companies and conformity leading to a stressful and stifling society are some of the major problems observed from embracing collectivism. Individualism may remedy such problems, but simply mimicking the western spirit of individualism may not be the best solution for Japan. What Japan needs is a balance between individualism and collectivism that encourages cooperation within communities while also giving individuals the opportunities to cultivate an independent self that can stand strong within groups. 

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