Japanese Collectivism Vs Western Individualism

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Japanese Collectivism Vs Western Individualism

Posted on 19 August 2014 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -

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.

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Football Fans Cleaning Stadiums & Students Cleaning Toilets: What does it tell us about Japanese culture?

Posted on 7 July 2014 in Cultural Awareness, Inter-Cultural Training -
Class in Japan2

Having taught in Japanese schools, it came as no surprise to me that the Japanese football fans were cleaning up after themselves in the stadium in Brazil. Every day, children had to clean the school, including the toilets. I recently told some British primary children about it. Although they recognised that it would foster pride, they still couldn’t totally understand it. For the Japanese, this kind of behaviour is natural and is evident in all parts of society. When I first got to Japan, at 7am one Sunday morning, an old man knocked on my door gesturing to me wildly. I was expected to come and clean the steps in my apartment building along with the whole community! I know several friends who were expected to come in early to their office jobs to help clean and keep the place tidy-notably it was only the women though. I even had it written in my contract when working for the Japanese Government to keep my desk tidy.

This sense of social responsibility stems from the expectations of respect and consideration for others. These traits are woven into all aspects of Japan’s group orientated society. Every group member has a responsibility to help it run smoothly. It is often expected that individual needs are second to that of the group and the Japanese learn to cover up real feelings to maintain harmony. It would be unusual for any Japanese child to have refused to clean because it is “not fair”-a phrase I often hear from my own children. It is not fair to put other people out by not pulling your weight. Consideration for others is so important and they expect others to do the same.

As you can imagine, this culture conflicts with western individualism. If expectations of what behaviour is considered respectful are not communicated, frustrations and distrust can arise. As always, understanding and adaptation are the key. We can learn lots from their wonderful culture as shown in Brazil. I don’t think we will ever see British children cleaning school toilets though!

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