I think collectivist societies such as Japan (and of course East Asia in general) have a lot to teach the rest of the advanced and advancing world. We typically think of collectivism as a characteristic of developing societies, but Japan is arguably one of the best advanced-nation examples of a collectivist society. Of course I say this with a full realization that there are many people who would challenge the characterization of Japan as “collectivist” relative, say, to China or Korea. Certainly Japanese children grow up with a strong sense of individual responsibility and individual rights, but these tend to be rights and responsibilities relative to some imagined, collective group.
Before stating my opinion about what Japan has to teach us about collective living, let me clarify my understanding of some differences between Japanese and Chinese collectivism. In the Japanese case, society at large looms significant as one of the collective groups to which individuals are responsible and with which they affiliate. This can be seen readily in the overwhelming in the “social capital” we have seen since the Great East Japan Earthquake in March of this year. Most people have shown themselves remarkably willing to do with less electricity, for instance. I just received an email announcement that we will have the power shut off on campus to save energy (because of Tepco’s problems) for: “3 to 20 seconds at 6 a.m.”! Are you kidding? That is so short! These planned power outages have ended up being short because so many people have cooperated with energy conservation. And although the Asahi Shinbun reported over the weekend that numbers of volunteers to affected regions have recently dropped, there nevertheless have been a lot of people grabbing for the opportunity to help, just because they care…for ‘people’. We have not seen this sort of thing occur across China yet.
On the other hand, Chinese folks show their collectivism in their tendency to cluster more tightly when living overseas. Look at how Chinese foreign students defended their country’s honor during the period leading up to the Beijing Olympics, when human rights claims against China threatened the participation of numerous actors. I find it hard to imagine Japanese foreign students doing the same thing around the world. This seems to me to be part of a family-loyal aspect of the Chinese psyche, in which one unapologetically defends the interests of one’s family (contrasting to the Japanese tendency to apologize not only for oneself but for one’s family or inner circle members—think also about how mainland Koreans speak honorifically to others about their own fathers and mothers, but Japanese, sharing a similar linguistic set of mechanisms in their language, speak with humble forms about their own parents). Likewise, when large numbers of Chinese live in any given overseas city, such as Brisbane, Australia, they establish stores on separate corners of the same intersection. You generally don’t find Japanese doing that, preferring as they do to mix in with local populations. Part of that could be historically motivated by the dishonor of coming out on the wrong side of World War II, but it would be difficult to argue that China has never had its historic episodes (as has any other country, Australia included).
Yet there are ways in which Chinese seem less collectivist than Japanese. Some Japanese anthropologists have referred to Chinese as having a “broad face” (kao ga hiroi), meaning Chinese individuals maintain many relationships, relative to Japanese individuals who prefer to deepen loyalty with fewer ‘others’. Japan Close Up has argued (in some issue a while back) that this development arose from China’s history as a continental entity in which people come and go—far away, compared to Japan’s island history, where everyone knows that the distance they may yet traverse is limited, and they must therefore maintain closer relationships and reputations with those they know. The example was given that a Chinese storeowner might criticize a customer for coming in and buying nothing, while a Japanese storeowner would never think of doing that (although I have encountered such treatment before in Japan on a rare occasion, and never in the US).
But living in Japanese society presents social difficulties for a Westerner like myself. Having been acculturated to expect public space is a domain where I relate first with those closest to me, I have often been surprised at how those closer to me turn their psychic ‘face’ away from me when others are present. My father-in-law, for instance, never hugged his daughter and me or our son when we arrived in Japan after three years away. Rather he immediately devoted his attention to the family friend who was kind enough to drive us to his home from the airport. Only after she had left did he start talking with us. My wife, when her finger was in pain because of an accident during a skiing trip with in-laws turned not to me, but to the whole group with her pain.
As an American, these episodes need to be interpreted culturally in order not to take offense. This is sometimes difficult to do, but in the long run it might be the sort of cultural learning that modern societies should strive for. In Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser writes about the ecological advantages of urbanization. Regardless of whether we agree with Glaeser, the reality of urbanization cannot be denied. According to the BBC’s One Planet, most of the earth’s population now lives in cities, and by 2050, that number should grow to 60% of humanity. If the world is to urbanize and families are to shrink, there would seem to be no choice but to collectivize our cultures, and among the advanced and advancing societies, East Asian cultures like Japan might have a way to show us how.
There are many aspects of the Japanese ‘nanny-ocracy’ that Western civilization may not be prepared to adopt (beeps and buzzes and bells that notify the public what time it is and what sorts of items are located where; tight transportation schedules; garbage separation expectations; enforced participation in neighborhood cleaning activities), as well as the networking conventions of group decision-making (nemawashi). But there might be Western ways of doing similar things, and as the world urbanizes, and as families shrink, we will no doubt need to look more to Japanese social models for how to turn our attention from our smaller and shrinking in-groups to larger social groups, because Japan already has viable ways of doing just that.