Monday, September 5, 2016

Being an Individual in Collectivist Japan: Myths, Stereotypes, and Whiny Anecdotes


In college, I majored in Japanese and minored in Communication Arts. In my first Communication classes on international communication, Japan was the textbook example of a collectivist society, contrasted with the U.S. at the individualistic end of the spectrum. In a textbook, it's easy to see how opposite these two cultures are. But how does collective thinking play out in real life? What does living in a collectivist culture look and feel like? I've compiled some myths about collectivism and what I really see going on around me.

Doesn't collectivism mean communism?
Japan is a capitalist society in that private property and private ownership of production is the foundation of its economy. Its modern economic and business system borrowed much from 1950s American progressivism and is largely unchanged since then. It's a competitive, materialistic society; however, there are some collective tendencies one can see in government and in business. More important than pragmatic capitalistic decisions is 継続 keizoku, continuing or carrying on the methods and values of your ancestors, elders, and superiors, and 気合い、kiai, succeeding through the merit of your intentions and spirit alone. A "good" Japanese company is one that's like a benevolent feudal lord who provides ample food and protection to his serfs. In return the peasant workers must simply show they're loyally trying hard every day. Getting fired is rare, and so is finishing anything on time. It all makes me wonder, just how free is this market, really?

Collectivism means people are more connected, involved in community, less lonely, happier
Behind this myth is the criticism of individualistic societies and their tendency towards less community involvement or integration. It may be so. In my church in America, there was definitely less fellowship time after the service because most members leave very soon after to "do their own thing". Japanese communities seem knit tighter and closer. People care about others' daily lifestyle choices. The flipside of this is, persecution for the sins of being different and not fitting in can be that much crueler. Membership in and approval from these 組織 soshiki, organizations (schools, clubs, companies, in a larger sense social class and Japanese-ness itself) is so very paramount, so much a foundation of identity, that not belonging is devastating to the individual. Since Japanese education teaches children to put their personal value in their ability to perform responsibilities to the whole, when it is lost the result is extreme shame and loneliness. It's not the American individualist "you do your thing, I'll do my thing" kind of loneliness. It's a loneliness of being told, "if you can't belong you might as well not exist". Japan's suicide rate, though tapering off in recent years, is still 60% higher than the global average. Culturally, depression and suicide are not always thought of as mental problems per se but as evidence of maladjustment to society (I disagree with some conclusions drawn about hikikomori and otaku). This article is also a bit dinosaur-ish, but the use of the words "social murder" and "obligatory death" to replace the word "suicide" I found interesting. Japanese compulsory education is very thorough in turning out a massive middle class whose lifestyles and values all look very much the same. People who don't fit tend to disappear: to the underclasses, overseas, or they literally die.

Collectivism means everyone is equal
Tabloid articles like this one about new hires in a Japanese company perpetuate this image. Robotic. Same. Everyone in the same uniform, no expressing of individual differences allowed. This is not untrue in certain sections of Japanese society: schools are full of such rules, and the typical hiring practices of Japanese companies will remind you of a clone army, as does rush hour at major trains stations because the uniform of a working man is a suit and tie. However, this puts us in mind of what's called horizontal collectivism, which is not the brand of collectivism in Japan. Japan is an extremely hierarchical society, so what is really going on is vertical collectivism. People are not on equal planes of worth but somewhere in a totem pole. Your rank and ability to claim rights and privileges goes up as you gain age and experience. Senior members have a responsibility to care for and "raise" junior members of a group, and juniors a duty to respect and follow seniors obediently. Think master and disciple in those old martial arts movies. I go more into that in this post on key aspects of Japanese culture. Everyone has their level and place, and individuals are expected to put this hierarchical organization first, and this is where collectivism comes in.

Collectivism means everyone is part of the "hive mind" and groupthink
These words bring to mind the imagery of an entire planet's population living by the rhythm generated by a giant disembodied brain from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. No human society is of course that extreme, but it is true that the level of uniformity here often surprises me. In conversations explaining Japanese things to my foreign self they often say "we Japanese..." and if a foreigner expresses admiration of something like the Japanese language, landscape, people, or country in general the response is almost always "thank you!" When non-citizens tell me, "I love the Grand Canyon, it's so amazing!" I don't  think to say "thank you". My thinking is not collective enough to take the praise of American geography as a personal compliment.

This is not to say a Japanese "hive mind" exists of course, it's just that individual choices are ranked far below group ones in importance to society, so they are given less voice and relegated to private rather than public life, resulting in a picture of unity. Japanese people I think are better at hiding personal proclivities and strange hobbies than Americans are. They're educated to leave all that home, for the most part. I notice this watching my company deal with (foreign) vegetarian employees when planning company dinners. They try to accommodate, but they grumble, because in their way of thinking the vegetarians should just keep their choices for their free time and eat what's in front of them when "at work" without causing problems.

Collectivism means less selfishness and egotism
Continuing from the above, it's true collectivism requires the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the organization, which can indeed look very selfless. It means staying in the meeting even though you'd rather not. It means showing up and smiling for events even when you're going through something horrible or feeling sick. It means staying late and unpaid at work to help your team finish up. However, in this post on overwork I argue that this is not always an absence of selfishness but rather a different out-working of it. Since approval from the organization is absolutely vital to Japanese life, the group is put ahead of individual needs as a method of self-preservation.

From my point of view, the organization is allowed to be extremely selfish and inconsiderate of individuals. At our church, everyone knew we were newlyweds, that Yuya was working long hours,  and that our schedules were different so we only had Sundays to spend together. Yet they still "voluntold" Yuya to be a deacon, knowing its commitment to long Sunday afternoon meetings.To me, the church's action is collectively selfish in that the decision was made without consideration for our situation.

Collectivism is all about harmony
On paper, yes. But many life experiences here make me doubt the existence of harmony.
For example, superiors are allowed to use voilent means to educate their inferiors. In schools and in the workplace, wrath can explode (screaming profanities and dehumanizing insults, throwing things, hitting walls and tables, slapping faces, blowing up at small mistakes, sabotaging of projects etc.) when subordinates don't perform to par. When it is not done out of rage at real insubordination, it's a performance to "toughen up" younger students or workers. Flying into rages doesn't fit the "harmonious" or "conflict-avoiding" image we have of Japanese people, because it's true there is generally avoidance of direct conflict among peers.  This "discipline" from superior to inferior mostly takes place behind closed doors, and until recently it was simply taboo to talk about. It is just finally being labeled as パワハラ or power harassment in the media. It lurks in every sector of Japanese society, behind the impeccable customer service and the trains that run on time.

A further disruption of harmony is drama. So. Much. Drama. When collectivism says everyone should have more or less the same amount of toys for the same effort but real life is less fair, there is fodder for enough drama to make you think it's time to pack your bags. He said, she said. I can't believe she... the nerve of him... usually about much smaller things than I would personally consider worthy of offense. Jealousy for someone who seems to have life easier than "all of us" is real. That's not fair, are words we have heard from grown adults talking about other grown adults. I grew up being told "life isn't fair" but that only makes collectivist people angry.

Story time: at my first job here, the first week was spent at a regional training facility where I lived with 4 other newly employed foreign women. On the weekend, we had a free day. I went to Kyoto to go to my old church and see Yuya. My fellow trainees decided to explore Osaka castle. The next day as our training started, we were asked what we did on the weekend. Osaka castle excursion was met with applause for trying to find their own way in the big new city together. When it came out that I had gone to Kyoto by myself, silence. Later I was pulled aside and told I should really work on my team spirit, and to please try to like everyone. Days later, I heard rumors being circulated by our Japanese trainers that I probably hated my fellow trainees. Because I had gone off by myself on the weekend. All we could do was laugh about it and try to reassure our trainers that no we didn't hate each other even though we didn't act like we were all joined at the hip.

Collectivism means less cutthroat competition
Well, maybe in a case of pure ideal collectivism, but in real life in Japan, no. On a national scale Japan has always cared about its ranking in the outside world since it was aware of it, and long before Western-style capitalism was implemented. Japanese people love winning, they love excelling, and they love being the best and being recognized for it by others. They're not a boastful people and they are often their own worst critics, judging themselves harshly and speaking modestly about their achievements. But competitions and qualifications are everywhere, of all kinds imaginable. A good friend of ours studied for and passed an official ichthyology exam identifying hundreds of fish species from a color photo--but not the highest level, he modestly added. I think this comes from Japanese love of excellence and pursuit of mastery and perfection, perhaps from their old feudal apprenticeship culture. People who do things by halves or half-halfheartedly are more criticized than those who gave their all but still failed. And yet failure is a bad sign: if you lost a game or failed an exam, it's because you weren't training the right way, didn't put in enough kiai or are even morally deficient.
In business, it's the same as anywhere, really, with the added Japanese values of 我慢 gaman, perseverance, and 忍耐、nintai, patience as tests for membership in the ranks of middle class success. Those who buckle under the strain, who fail and drop out, were worthless weaklings anyway. The juggernaut of Japan Inc. must roll on, supported by the strong, good, and morally superior members who were tested and found worthy.

So, collectivism=bad, individualism=good?
The older I get and the more I see of the world, the more I'm convinced there's never a positive aspect without a negative one. There's no rain without mud. There's no such thing as utopia in this world, just different sets of human miseries. Based on my education and values, some are going to shock and upset me more than others. One of the cool things about our international marriage is that it makes us feel less tied to any one system, country, or place. We can examine all these things, realize the kind of society we have been placed in and our position in it, and decide how then should we live. Nothing is ever as simple or clear-cut as it may seem on the outside. It's going to be a long journey to unravel it all, I can tell.

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