Group Culture in Japan
Are you in Japan? Look around you!
What do you see? Don’t you sometimes feel that if you’ve talked to one Japanese, then you’ve talked to all? They all have the same mannerisms and expressions (eeeeh?). They all point to their noses when referring themselves. They count certain ways. I can pretty much tell a Japanese from afar (without hearing them talk or seeing their facial features) just by the way their heads bob up and down when talking.
Me and my husband, we like to play guess-that-Asian nationality. Stereotypes may not always be true, but..well.. let me say that it increases your chances of guessing correctly.
So why do Japanese act the way they do, in this certain way? Why do I feel like I can predict pretty much how they will react at the mention certain things? Why do they wave their arms all together at the same time when watching rock concerts? ( Rock concerts in the Philippines are rowdy, marked by fights and even deaths!)
But is it me, or do people appear to thrive in this sameness? I mean, sure,in the Philippines, we did wear uniforms when we were in school, but we all hated it. There was no way we’d wear it unless required. Here, girls wear their uniforms even when they’re not going to do any school-related activities. People seem to take pride in the group they belong to – they give me their business cards during a non-company-sponsored karaoke party. Why do they like identifying themselves as a part of the group, whether it may be the company, the school club, their extra-curricular organizations? I guess this is why they call themselves by their last names first : after all, before he is Taro, he is first and foremost a member of the Tanaka household..
When I worked in a restaurant, I used to to look through the kitchen window and tried to predict how people would act (and even what they would order). A group of three or four salarymen would usually stand in front of the restaurant and look at the menu outside. Even if it was freezing outside, they always seemed to take their time, making sure that it was a democratic decision to eat at our restaurant. If they choose to eat at our restaurant, one of them would hold the door open and say “douzo” while ushering his mates in. This predictable pattern amused me.
Once, when I took a long time making an order and I was panicking, the waitress assured me :
“Don’t worry, he’s not going to complain. Wives and mothers may complain, but, no, not salarymen in a group.”
I was surprised at her observation. It turned out that it was a very good (and useful) observation : indeed, a salaryman wouldn’t want to draw attention to himself and cause some sort of discomfort to his group(who already had their orders) by complaining. The welfare of the group goes first.
At school, I was also very much surprised at the symptoms of collectivism : the lack of healthy competition among the students. It seemed like this is purposefully avoided. After all, good performers (or the “winners”) will “stand out” from the rest. For example, after an exam, instead of acknowledging those who performed well, the teachers would just state the over all class average（平均） and how it was better or worse than the previous term. The election of student councils had no real losers – everyone who ran won, with one being elected as the Student Kaicho. The spelling contest had no real winners either – they were not competing against each other but against themselves. It’s like they really go out of their way to eliminate competition, to lower the bar so that no one is left out. Personally, I wouldn’t thrive in a place where, no matter how I performed, I’m being pushed to the background ( I am just, by nature, “in-your-face” kind of person).
Japan and the group mentality
But these aren’t just my baseless observations, mind you. Percival Lowell (1855-1916) from more than a century ago, wrote :
Especially is this agreement of gods and men conspicuous in that most interesting of Japanese traits — the race’s unindividuality.
Lowell, Percival. “Occult Japan; or, The way of the gods; an esoteric study of Japanese personality and possession”. 1894. Web. October 25, 2013.
The internet is not short on resources regarding collectivism in Japan :
It’s widely known that Japan is a group-oriented culture—group solidarity is valued over individualism. There is strength in the group, as the famous Japanese saying implies: “A single arrow is easily broken, but not ten in a bundle.” [１本の矢は折れやすい。１０本束ねれば、折れにくい] This cultural mindset impacts certain behaviors such as how praise is received. While we value individual contributions and strongly believe in recognition and individual praise, the opposite is true in Japan. Singling out an individual in the group for special recognition, no matter how helpful he is to you, is likely to embarrass that individual. Always remember that the team concept is very important for the Japanese and strive to give public credit to the entire group.
Martinuzzi, Bruna. Open Forum. Doing Business in Japan: 10 Etiquette Rules You Should Know. August 5, 2013. Web. October 13,2013. <https://www.openforum.com/articles/doing-business-in-japan-10-etiquette-rules-you-should-know/ >
In the article, Expert weighs in with his ideas on what defines the Japanese character, Australian Gregory Clark lists ten characteristics of a typical Japanese. The number one on his list ? Group mentality.
1. Group mentality
First on Clark’s list is Japan’s well-known propensity for putting the group before the self, and by extension following orders from one’s superiors. Clark points to the danger such a mentality can pose if the controlling force is malicious in nature, illustrating his point with the snowballing nationalism that led to Japan’s overseas aggressions leading up to and during World War II.
In more ordinary circumstances, this tends to manifest itself most noticeably in the workplace. Part of the reason workers in Japan do so much overtime is that it’s traditionally seen as bad form to leave the office before your coworkers, and especially before your boss. Even if you’re done with your individual tasks, it’s considered polite to remain in the workplace, either to lend a hand to your fellow employees or, as is sometimes the case, to busy yourself until everyone is ready to go home.
Baseel,Casey. Rocketnews24. Expert weighs in with his ideas on what defines the Japanese character. October 24,2013. Web. october 24,2013. <http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/10/24/expert-weighs-in-with-his-ideas-on-what-defines-the-japanese-character/ >
And it doesn’t end there. Number 5 states :
5. Affinity for teamwork and familial managerial styles
Related to the group mentality mentioned above, Clark says people in Japan work well in groups, whether they take the form of sports teams, student associations, or workplace committees. Clark also describes the preferred managerial style as being familial in nature. Indeed, Japanese companies often express a desire for open communication between workers and managers, which even influences office interior design. In Japan, managers almost never have separate offices from their direct subordinates. Instead, the entire team sits as a group in the same room, and often at the same table, to facilitate the exchange of ideas and feedback.
Baseel,Casey. Rocketnews24. Expert weighs in with his ideas on what defines the Japanese character. October 24,2013. Web. october 24,2013. <http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/10/24/expert-weighs-in-with-his-ideas-on-what-defines-the-japanese-character/ >
Wow. To add credence to this, yes, I do share the whole room with the all the teachers and vice principal and I do share the table with seven people!
And how can I forget? Another of their proverbs prescribing conformity and collectivism is the namesake of my other blog :
出る釘は打たれる。 A nail that sticks out gets hammered.
The typical individualist Westerner may cringe,but the Japanese seem to have no qualms about it. Here’s a joke about the Japanese collectivist mindset:
On a luxury cruise ship, the Titanic of Noah’s Arks if you will, every nationality in the world is represented on board. But suddenly the ship springs a leak and begins to sink. Sadly, there aren’t enough boats for everyone. The women and children have filled up all the boats, and the ship’s captain needs to persuade the men to jump into the sea. What does the captain say to each guy to make him jump?
To the American… “If you jump, you’ll be a hero!” (cue superman pose, and big splash)
To the Russian… “All the vodka was washed overboard, I can see the bottles floating past… if you’re quick you can grab it.” (glug glug glug)
To the Italian… “See that beautiful woman with the luxuriant underarm hair swimming past? You can really make a splash and impress her.”
To the French… “Please do NOT jump into the water.” Yep. Nice reverse psychology.
To the English… “At a time like this, a true gentleman would jump.”
To the German… “According to the regulations, all the men must jump into the sea.”
To the South African… “Before the braai we’re going for a swim.” Braai = ultimate barbeque.
To the Australian… “Don’t be a wuss, all your mates are down there in the drink.”
To the New Zealander… “Strap on this bungee cord- she’ll be right!”
To the Chinese… “Check out that juicy, delicious-looking fish over there. And the yummy fins on that shark.”
To the Japanese… “Everyone else has already jumped.”
Moon, Rona. RocketNews24. What’s Your National Stereotype? Japanese Sinking Ship Joke Has Got You Pegged. March 11, 2013. Web. October 13, 2013. <http://en.rocketnews24.com/2013/03/11/whats-your-national-stereotype-japanese-sinking-ship-joke-has-got-you-pegged/ >
While some people may claim that this was written by a foreigner, it is nevertheless a very accurate humor that hits close to home. But the Japanese seem to know to poke fun at their collectivist mindset. One way to look at this video is to see it as a parody of the group mentality. What better way to emphasize that by wearing suits while dancing in perfect sync.
Welcome to Asia, where the group rules
Yes, the largest continent in the world is composed of many countries who breathe and live collectivism.
Asian countries like the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan are good examples of being defined as the collectivist culture. Mohan J Dutta-Bergman and William D. Wells are the authors of the article “The Values and Lifestyles of Idiocentrics and Allocentrics in an Individualist Culture: A Descriptive Approach,” who define collectivist culture as: “…the close linkage among individuals who see themselves as parts of one or more collectives and are primarily motivated by the norms and duties of those collectives, emphasizing connectedness with other members of the collectives..”
Being a part of the collectivist culture, it is an advantage to get to know better your own culture in terms of: family values, personal values, social customs and lifestyle, and work value or ethics.
Cimatu, Janice. Le Foundation. The Social and Psychological Approach of the Collectivist Culture. 2008. Web. October 23,2013. <http://www.le-foundation.org/files/Social_and_Pyschological_Approach_of_Collectivist_Culture.pdf >
Geert Hoftstede created a ranking of countries based on the level of individualism (100 being the most individualist). Here are the results for some Asian countries :
Admittedly, the most shocking result of this study that it claims that Japan is the least collective of all the Asian countries. Granted, the subjects were IBM employees across the world (and some do contest this study), so some discrepancies may apply. Personally, though, I think the truth just hurts and offends our “individualist” sensibilities. However, I am not surprised : I even gave my own take on the possible reasons why the Philippines ranked lower than Japan on individualism (to be found on this page).
Geert Hofstede scores explained. Factors Affecting Countries’ Scores
The author of the book, Art of Choosing, Sheena Iyengar, explains :
It is important to note that a country’s score on scales like these is nothing more than the average of its citizens’ scores, which aren’t solely dependent on the prevailing culture and can cover a significant range. many of the same factors that affect the culture of a nation or a community can have an effect on the individual as well. Greater wealth is associated with greater individualism at all levels whether we compare nations by GDP, or blue-collar and upper-middle-class Americans by annual income. Higher population density is associated with collectivism, as living in close proximity to others requires more restrictions on behavior in order to keep the peace. On the other hand, greater exposure to other cultures and higher levels of education are both associated with individualism, so cities aren’t necessarily more collectivist than rural areas. People become slightly more collectivist with age as they develop more numerous and stronger relationships with others, and just as important, they become more set in their views over time, meaning they will be less affected than the younger generations by broad cultural changes.All these factors, not to mention personality and incidental experiences in life, combine and interact to determine each person’s position on the individualism-collectivism spectrum.
Iyengar, Sheena. The Art of Choosing.New York: Hachette Book Group,2010.34-35. Print.
Aha. Educational level. Higher GDP. Exposure to other cultures. Fine. Japan may indeed be the leading individualist nation in Asia : after all, you have China and Vietnam, championing communism (that is hugely associated to collectivism), and Malaysia and the Philippines, both deeply religious countries.
The Collectivist Mind’s perception of the world
Differences are not only restricted in the way people of collectivist cultures act or do things, but also of how we perceive things. If you ask people what do they see when shown a video similar to this one:
would the answers of people from collectivists countries and individualist countries differ? The answer is yes.
Whereas people of Western culture tend to engage in context-independent cognitive processes and to perceive and think about the environment in an analytic way, people of East Asian culture tend to engage in context-dependent cognitive processes and to perceive and think about the environment in a holistic way.
In an illustrative study, both Japanese and Americans were shown a short video clip depicting an underwater scene with ﬁsh, small animals, plants, and rocks, and were asked to report what they saw in the clip (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001).
Americans referred mainly to features of focal ﬁsh (large, foregrounded, rapidly moving, brightly colored),whereas Japanese referred more to context and to relationships between focal objects and context (background objects and location of objects in relation to one another). Such cultural differences in attention were also found in other tasks stripped of sociocultural context t (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Kitayama, Duffy, Kawamura, & Larsen, 2003). For example, Kitayama et al. (2003) presented participants with a square frame in which a line was drawn. Participants were then shown other square frames of various sizes and asked to o draw a line that was identical to the ﬁrst line in either absolute length or ratio to the surrounding frame. Kitayama et al. found that whereas Americans were more accurate in the absolute task, Japanese were more accurate in the relative task. These ﬁndings suggest that the Japanese were paying more attention to the frame (context) than the Americans were.
Miyamoto, Yuri,Nisbett, Richard, Masuda, Takahiko. Department of Pscyhology. University of Wisconsin. Culture and the Physical
Environment Holistic Versus Analytic Perceptual Affordances. Web. October 25, 2013. <http://psych.wisc.edu/Miyamoto/Cacl/Miyamoto%20et%20al%2006.pdf >
Note : They did more perceptual environments study on their paper accessible through the link above.
East (We) Vs West (I). The background of collectivist mindset
Now let’s look at these Asian countries’ IDV scores and compare them to the West :
Some may claim that this outdated or inaccurate. But do these results really surprise anyone? Our collective-orientation affects the decisions that we make in our lives : from how we address ourselves to our marriage partners. The Art of Choosing explains :
Those of us raised in more individualist societies, such as the United states, are taught to focus primarily on the “I” when choosing. In his book Individualism and Collectivism, cultural psychologist Harry Triandis notes that individualists “are primarily motivated by their own preferences, needs, rights and the contracts they have established with others.” Not only do people choose based on their own preferences, which is itself significant given the number of choices in life and their importance; they also come to see themselves as defined by their individual interests, personality traits, and actions; for example, “I am a film buff” or “I am environmentally conscious.” In this worldview, it’s critical to that one be able to determine one’s one path in life in order to be a complete person, and any obstacle to doing so is seen as patently unjust.
Central to individualist ideology is the conceiving of choice in terms of opportunity – promoting an individual’s ability to be or to do whatever he or shedesires. The cumulative effect of these events on people’s expectations about the role choice should play in life and its implications for the structure of society was eloquently expressed by 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who wrote, “The only freedom deserving the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, long as we do not atempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it… Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”
The way of thinking has become so ingrained that we rarely pause to consider that it may not be a universally shared idea- that we may not always want to make choices, or that some people prefer to have their choices prescribed by another. But in fact, the construct of individualism is a relatively new one that guides the thinking of only a small percentage of the world’s population.
Members of collective societies, including Japan, are taught to privilege the “we” in choosing, and they see themselves primarily in terms of the groups to which they belong, such as family, coworkers, village, or nation. In the words of Harry Triandis, they are “primarily motivated by the norms of, and duties imposed by, those collectives” and “are willing to give priority to the goals of these collectives over their own personal goals,” emphasizing above all else “their connectednessto members of these collectives.” Rather than everyone looking out for number one, it’s believed that individuals can be happy only when the needs of the group as a while are met. For example, the Japanese saying makeru ga kachi (literally “to lose is to win”) expresses the idea that getting one’s way is less desirable than maintaining peace and harmony. The effects of a collectivist worldview go beyond determining who should choose. Rather than defining themselves solely by their personal traits, collectivists understand their identities through their relationships to certain groups. People in such societies, then, strive to fit in and to maintain harmony with their social in groups.
Collectivism has, if anything, been the more pervasive way of life throughout history. The earliest hunter-gatherer societies were highly collectivist by necessity, as looking out for one another increased everyone’s chances of survival, and the value placed on the collective grew after humans shifted to agriculture as a means of sustenance. As populations increased and the formerly unifying familial and tribal forces become less powerful, other forces, such as religion filled the gap, providing people with a sense of belongingness and common purpose.
Whereas value for for individualism solidified mainly in the Enlightenment, multiple manifestations of collectivism have emerged over time. The first can be traced directly back to the cultural emphasis on duty and fate that gradually developed in Asia – essentially independent of the West – thousands of years ago and is still influential today. Hinduism and those religions that succeeded it, including Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, place a strong emphasis on some form of dharma, which defines each person’s duties as a function of his caste or religion, as well as on karma, the universal law of cause and effect that transcends even death. Another significant influence is Confucianism, a codification of preexistising cultural practices that originated in China but later also spread to Southeast Asia and Japan. In The Analect, Confucius wrote, “In the world, there are two great decrees : one is fate and the other is duty. That a son should love his parents is fate – you cannot erase this from the his heart. That a subject should serve his ruler is duty – there is no place he can go and be without his rulers, no place he can escape between heaven and earth.” The ultimate goal was to make these inevitable relationships as harmonious as possible. This form of collectivism remains foremost in the East today; in these cultures, individuals tend to understand their lives relatively more in terms of their duties and less in terms of personal preferences.
Iyengar, Sheena. The Art of Choosing.New York: Hachette Book Group,2010.31-34. Print.
Duties. Indeed, above our own desires, many Asians prefer to put the welfare of our families and group above their own.
An important goal of collectivists is to fulﬁll their duties and obligations.
Triandis, Harry C., Suh, Eunkook M. Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Champaign,Department of Psychology and Social Behavior, University of California. Cultural Influences on Personality. 2002. Web. October 26, 2013 <http://web.yonsei.ac.kr/suh/file/cultural%20influences%20on%20personality.pdf >
Is it why arranged marriages are still prevalent in many Asian countries like India?
Is it why Asian kids (allegedly) thrive more when decisions are made for them by their parents (please see the video below)? Is it why many Filipinos strive hard abroad in the name of duty to family? Is it why Asians don’t seem to like confrontations and prefer to say yes when we mean no? And is it why (it seems that) Japanese live to work while Americans work to live?
Sheena Iyenger wrote a segment of her book regarding her amusing experience in Japan. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to quote (again) extensively from her book without being accused of plagiarism. The best is to watch this video which she delivered herself :
In this video, she talks about her difficulty in customizing her order in Japan – why can’t she get sugar with her tea? This is not the first story I hear about this: as a foreigner, you must have wanted to customize your burger, add more sauce, for example, even volunteer to pay more, if needed, only to be refused. Why did a simple order, in the case of Sheena, cause so much commotion, with the manager eventually being brought forth?
Secondly, she also talks about the interesting study done on Anglo-American kids and Japanese-American kids whose performances vary depending on who made the decision. The experiment results showed that Anglo-American kids excelled when they make their own choices and performed least satisfactorily when their parents or an unrelated person decided for them, while the Japanese-American kids excelled when their parents chose for them and least when they had to make a decision by themselves or when an unrelated person made the decision for them. Similarly, in a study done in Kyoto, she asked 100 American and Japanese college students to write on a piece of paper. On the front, she instructed them to write down all the aspects of their lives in which they like having choices, while at the back, all the aspects in which they would prefer not to have a choice.
The front side of the American’s pages were often completely filled with answers such as “my job”, “where I live,” and “who I vote for.” In fact, many people’s lists were so long they were forced to squeeze answer into the margins of the page. In contract, the backs, without exception, were either completely blank or contained only a single item, most commonly, “when I die” or “when my loved ones die”. The Americans, in their words, expressed a nearly limitless desire for choice in every dimension of their lies. The Japanese showed a very different pattern of results, with not a single one wishing to have a choice all or nearly all of the time. In fact, on average they listed twice as many domains in which they did not want choice as compared to domains in which they did. They often wanted someone else to decide, for example, what they ate, what they wore, when they woke up in the morning, or what they did at their job. Comparing responses between the two, Americans desired personal choice in four times as many domains of life as did the Japanese.
Iyengar, Sheena. The Art of Choosing.New York: Hachette Book Group,2010.46-47. Print.
But even if we accept that indeed, we are duty-bound, and that we must consider the well-being of the majority ahead of ourselves, paradoxically, we also tend to believe that we are not in control of everything. There are greater forces at work and there is only so much we can do.
Collectivist cultures, by contrast, encourage people to think about control in a most holistic way. In perhaps the most famous passage of the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna tells the hero Arjuna, “You have control only over you actions, never over the fruit of your actions. You should never act for the sake of the reward, nor should you succumb to inaction.” Because the world is affected by not just an individual’s goals, but also by the social context and the dictates of fate, people should ensure that their actions are righteous without fixating on obtaining a particular result. Similar acknowledgements of the limits in one’s ability to affect the world can be seen in the Arabic phrase, in sha’ Allah (God willing), which Muslim regularly append to statements about the future; for example, “I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing,” and in the Japanese shikata ga nai (it can’t be helped), which is widely used by people coping with adverse circumstances or unpleasant duties. The individual is by no means powerless, but he is just one player in the drama of life.
Iyengar, Sheena. The Art of Choosing.New York: Hachette Book Group,2010.55. Print.
To add to this, in the Philippines, we have a favorite saying when we throw our worries to the wind: “Come what may.” We also have our own version of in sha’Allah : “Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa.” Literally: God gives mercy, but it is up to man to act.
Oddly, it also seems as though that collective cultures are more tolerant of different values:
Paradoxically, individualist cultures tend to believe that there are universal values that should be shared by all, while collectivist cultures tend to accept that different groups have different values.
Rutledge, Brett . The Artciulate CEO. Cultural Differences – Individualism versus Collectivism. February 26, 2013. Web. October 10, 2013 <http://thearticulateceo.typepad.com/my-blog/2011/09/cultural-differences-individualism-versus-collectivism.html >
(to be continued)