Japanese Culture: Group over Individual

Culture involves aspects of our lives which we do not even consciously think of anymore. One of the most important aspects of Japanese culture is that the “group” reigns superior over the “individual”.

If you have ever heard that the Japanese are a polite culture, it is completely true. However, it is not as simple as it is made out to be; it has a darker side to it. Although blatantly oversimplified, why is it that we always hear that Americans are rude and Japanese are polite?

Images of Japanese school uniforms. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the U.S, we pride ourselves on our outspoken opinions and ideas; we are proud to be “different”, even from each other. It is often said, “I don’t care which opinion you have, as long as you have an opinion“. Because of this, a situation like this is perfectly suitable for daily life in America:

You are out walking in town with a group of friends, perhaps a group of four. Someone realizes they are hungry and asks if anyone else is. Two are hungry, but the two others are not and do not particularly want to go eat at the moment; they’d prefer to finish their sightseeing and go eat in another twenty minutes or so. The two that are not hungry, in the U.S, might vocally say this outloud to the others, even if it is just an alternative suggestion (“Let’s finish this and then eat in about 20 minutes instead?”). In the U.S, perhaps another idea might even creep up — one in which two go eat, and the other two continue sightseeing.

In Japan, individual wants and desires are often pushed aside for the group’s sake. In the above situation, the two that are not actually hungry at the moment would most likely say nothing in regards to their hunger status, and instead happily agree to join the others at whichever restaurant is decided upon (again, by the group collectively). To them, there is no need to go against the grain, because it would cause an awkward social situation, and they do not want to personally be accountable for it.

While this example might seem generalized, oversimplified, or just plain silly to you, it is indeed a real concept that is ingrained deeply into the Japanese culture, involving a plethora of everyday activities, phrases uttered, and ideas thought by Japanese people every single day. At the beginning of this entry I described it as the “darker side” to the politeness of Japanese culture, but I am biased as an American. Many Americans are indeed loud and rude with their individual desires, yet we can also have open discussions with several different suggestions and ideas without necessarily creating any situation that is considered too awkward or uncomfortable to us. Many Japanese are indeed incredibly polite and considerate of others’ desires, yet it is taken to such an extreme as to trump their own individual desires in such a manner that some psychologists might consider unhealthy. What do you think?


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