One of the big misconceptions about Japan is the idea of collectivism.
I’m going to say straight out that Japan is not the collectivist society that Westerns think. Rather it is an inaccurate label that has been applied to a culture from the outside.
Collectivism – the practice or principle of giving a group priority over each individual in it.
The one disclaimer that I am going to make is that Japan may have been collectivist once, hence why it earned its stereotype, but even that I doubt.
So why has Japan been mislabelled as collectivist and what are the underlying cultural values that are different to Western individualism?
Harmony: similar but different
Where the stereotype has likely come from is the culture of keeping harmony.
Harmony – the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.
Harmony is a very Confucian and Taoist idea, both of which greatly influenced early Japanese culture.
Harmony is about maintaining social, natural, and family order above all else. Breaking with harmony means breaking with the Tao.
While not being Taoist, harmony has rooted itself in Japanese culture from early on.
It is this harmony that Japanese people seek to maintain. Examples of this can be found in their language, culture, and social behaviour.
Humility ties in with harmony in that it is by discarding your own sense of self-importance that you can keep the greater social harmony.
While this is exaggerated in women, I think it is reflective of the whole culture.
Humility – the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.
When Westerners look at Japanese culture they see the humility and attribute it to collectivism, thinking that they hold a low view of themselves and a high view of the “whole”. I think this is only half true, they simply hold a low view of themselves compared to everyone else.
In my opinion, this is the ultimate driver of Japanese behaviour.
I imagine shame was originally used as a way of enforcing other values such as harmony, respect, etc. However, I think it eventually surpassed it’s original purpose and became the goal in-and-of-itself.
What I mean by this is that when Japanese people make a decision, “avoiding shame” plays a much greater part in their decision than “creating harmony” or any other value.
And this is the thing to realise. In a sort of reversed way, Japanese people are actually more individualistic because they are constantly focused on avoiding the shame that their actions might bring. They focus internally about their image and how they are being perceived.
You could possibly (bit of a stretch) term this “intrinsic individualism” in contrast to Western “extrinsic individualism” which seeks to express uniqueness 🤷♂️
Same-same or different-different?
While “keeping harmony” sounds similar to “collectivism”, it’s different in an important aspect.
- Collectivism paints the picture that there is no individual expression in Japan.
- Collectivism paints a picture of camaraderie and group thinking.
- Contrarily there is not much group thinking and plenty of self-expression, where it doesn’t break the harmony.
This distinction is important as I think it is what makes Japanese individualism different from Western individualism.
- Western individualism says that the individual is king and can do, say, act in any way they like because it is an expression of their “inner self”.
- Japanese individualism says that you can do whatever you like as long as it doesn’t bring shame by breaking harmony.
- I think Western individualism often goes too far, and seeks to break harmony in the name of freedom and individual expression.