Japanese Collectivism versus Western Individualism-Can they work together?
On a recent trip to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, I heard two interesting stories from two Westerners who took part in traditional Japanese apprenticeships-one in the art of Rakugo and the other in Taiko drumming. Both apprenticeships were gruelling, hierarchical and involved lots of menial tasks and hard graft before being allowed to partake in the actual performance. They initially supressed individualism and ego-based ambitions thus increasing the work ethic and loyalty to the group-all strong tenents of Buddhism and Confucianism.
Needless to say, I was very impressed by their ability to endure this training. As Westerners, we are fundamentally individualistic in our societies and expectations. From the moment we learn to talk, we are encouraged to speak our minds, share our successes and make independent choices for ourselves. Not quite “every man for himself” but the idea of putting the needs of the group before our own is not particularly attractive or rewarding when there is so little importance placed on it. In the business world, we are mostly incentivised for individual achievements and a reasonable amount of self-promotion is generally accepted.
Anyone spending time in Japan knows this is not generally the case there. Awareness of how your actions affect group dynamics and playing down personal achievements by showing humility are still common behaviours. Although the value system amongst the younger generation is slowly shifting towards individualism, there is still an emphasis on collectivity and group loyalty, especially in the large corporations, which contrasts with some Western organisational cultures. For further insights into this, I recommend you look up Kazuo Inamori’s “Amoebe” management style implemented at Kyocera or read about the “Inamori Way”. Again, this style has strong links to Buddhism and was an incredibly successful style.
Values so deeply ingrained in religion, culture and society can make it hard to operate within different value systems. As Japan globalises and more Japanese are working in individualistic cultures, they are having to learn to harness the power of the individual and find their own place amongst them. Understanding, adapting and a certain amount of “acting” can be incredibly effective.