Communal Japan vs individualistic America

Not a Hetalia post, just used some screencaps X)

Now that I’ve had some years of experience studying and being immersed in Japanese culture, one particular thing that’s always fascinated me about Japan when compared to America is the sense of communality that permeates many aspects of the country. Japan’s emphasis on the communal is quite contrasting to America’s emphasis on individuality…

During the two times I’ve stayed in Japan while living in a dorm or going to camp with many Japanese people, Japan’s communality was quite noticeable – there would be welcome parties and farewell parties for me and my group, every morning the residents of the dorm would meet and do chores together, and my group at camp would always eat meals and bathe together in the communal bathhouse (separated by gender of course).

The Japanese people I’ve met here in southern California have also demonstrated this communality. On a number of occasions, Japanese people have given me rides to various events, often miles out of their way, quite enthusiastically and without asking anything in return. I’m usually left feeling surprised at these acts of kindness – perhaps that communal feeling makes it easier for them to want to go out of their way to help others at these group events.

Japan’s communality is more commonly recognized by their politeness, family ties, and strong work ethic. Acting polite, whether they truly feel that way or not (honne and tatemae), keeps the communality from being disturbed. A staggering number of communal family events as well as all the extra dedication employees are expected to put into their job, from going out with the boss and coworkers for a drink, to always putting in extra hours without complaint, adds up to a permeating communal sense in the country. Shame could be another aspect, with the idea of not causing trouble for others or being looked upon badly by your peers being another strongly emphasized Japanese trait.

Since coming to recognize Japan’s emphasis on the communal, I’ve also come to realize how starkly contrasting it is with America’s sense of individuality. An example is how different typical Japanese and American parties are since I’ve been to a few of both. American parties, especially for young people, often have obnoxiously loud music, with people inviting their friends, friends of friends, etc., who are constantly coming in and out, and getting drunk enough to do idiotic things. On the other hand, there’s never been loud music at Japanese parties I’ve been to – they mostly consist of the people there eating and drinking, without getting too out of hand when they get drunk, and usually only people who are part of the group (family, dorm, company, etc) come.

Japan’s communality can also be related to how most anime is presented. America, being individualistic, places emphasis on an engaging, concrete story centering around individuals proactively achieving their desired goals. Japan, being communal, has anime stories containing small pieces of a whole story, emphasizing how each character plays an integral part in the communal whole. Or, some stories simply convey a communal group of characters without any plot or significant individual action. This is one of the reasons why anime like Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note are popular in mainstream America while anime like Lucky Star and Ouran are niche titles. The stories of the former present characters actively working towards individual goals, while the stories of the latter simply present communal groups of characters interacting with each other.

This difference in culture could probably be traced back hundreds of years in history. Americans had to stand up and fight for their individual freedom against the British, while Japan, spending much of its history isolated from other countries, developed a strong group mentality. I’m not saying that Japan’s communality is better than America’s individuality or vice versa. Like many things in life, both have their good and bad points. Unfortunately, many Americans go overboard with the individualistic ideal and develop an “I can do whatever I want” attitude, partaking in obnoxious parties like I mentioned above and doing all manner of insincere, irresponsible things without caring if they’re disturbing or hurting others (just watch a few episodes of Judge Judy and The People’s Court to see how so many Americans are like this). It’s quite contrasting to Japan’s sense of the communal and being extra careful not to disturb others or cause trouble for those around you. This could also be a contributor to Japan’s cleanliness and how Japanese children are so responsible – from an early age, they’re made to clean their classrooms and taught that it’s more important to be responsible and respectable in society than to pursue individual desires.

But then again, Japan’s communality is so overbearing that, as I mentioned, so many people are forced to act polite and agreeing even though they’re angry and protesting inside. If an employee doesn’t partake in drinking with the boss or always saying “good morning” to everyone, they’re immediately looked down upon. If you don’t buy trivial gifts for certain people at certain times, you risk shame. Compared to this, Americans have an openness and freedom that Japan is sorely lacking. Individuality makes them much more accepting of change, expressing themselves, and becoming who they want without worrying about what tradition dictates.

Too much communality creates pressure and hypocrisy while too much individuality creates selfishness and irresponsibility. I think a proper balance of both would be ideal. Perhaps as Japan and America become more interested in each other’s cultures, they will take in the good aspects and become better for themselves.

9 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Jan Suzukawa says:

    The two cultures really are amazingly different. I’m still sorting out the nuances that set each apart from the other. My thoughts on this subject are always colored by my own background, i.e., being of Japanese ancestry while being in all other ways completely American. I must say though that the loud obnoxious American parties you’ve described are still more fun than the quiet Japanese parties. ;)

  2. Yumeka says:

    @ Jan

    It is amazing how different the two countries are…I honestly can’t think of very many similarities they have besides similarities for people in general. But despite this, Americans are becoming more enamored with Japanese culture and many Japanese have always loved certain aspects of American culture.

    I personally can’t stand obnoxious parties with music blasting so loud it obviously disturbs the neighbors and you can’t even hear the person you’re talking too. Plus people more often than not get drunk and become terribly irresponsible. However, though I like quiet, I wouldn’t like the uptight feeling of Japanese parties where you have to put on your “tatemae,” drink even if you don’t want to, and kiss a superior’s ass or something. But the kinds of parties I participated in with Japanese young people were relaxed and casual, never got out of hand, and people just talked peacefully. But I’m sure there are wild Japanese parties and subdued American parties…haven’t been to enough parties to say for sure =P

  3. One aspect that I think you hit on would be the fact that through much of Japan’s history, they have been subservient to either an emperor or a lord (in feudal times) and as such they’ve grown to be in a more submissive role (especially in public) compared to America who had emphasized the aggressive role ever since the American Revolution.

    In the past in Japan, you were loyal to a lord, much like the people around you, and as such you knew your role was much like any other. That could play a part in the social niceties. I like to think that it’s a part of the “we’re all in this together” mentality rather than “one stands above all” mentality praised in American culture.

    I think that the two conflicts are best seen in a manga entitled “Liar Game” where the main character grows to learn that the best strategy is for no one person to win everything, but for everyone to pull together so that no one loses, but no one wins.

  4. Yumeka says:

    @ ultimatemegax

    I was actually gonna write something about Japan’s history with emperors and feudal lords but I didn’t want to make this post any longer. But like you brought up, in addition to being isolated from other countries, Japan has a history of subservience to a ruler by tradition or divine right. After the revolution, America on the other hand has a history of advocating freedom, with individuals being able to live as they want and vote on their leader.

  5. Dann says:

    Very good social observation. It’s tough to put exactly into words cultural differences unless you really pay attention to them. I can’t help but think of the word “communism” when reading your article, even though I know the word actually pertains to political ideology. What’s so wrong about emphasizing COMMUNITY over Individuality? You may have clarified that for me – at least in comparison to Western/Asian cultures.

  6. Yumeka says:

    @ Dann

    Glad I could help you out =)

  7. Canne says:

    I like your take on Death note and Ouran. Many anime are simply about people trying to live together and to get along. While American is more about individual person or conflict.

    side note: I don’t like loud music and crowded places, so I’ll go with Japanese style party

  8. Little Samurai says:

    I love your blog! The first time I went here, you just inspired me to keep reading!! You sound wise. I like that=) Thanks!!! I’m trying to catch up on this amazing site, but it’s not easy when you have a messed up laptop=P

  9. EJM513 says:

    This was quite interesting. I don’t know that much about Japanese culture (I know, typical American), so it’s interesting to see how different out cultures are.

    As an American teenager, I have to agree about the parties. Granted I never been to one-even if I was invited I would go because I don’t drink-and the music is annoyingly loud and people do get stupid drunk. I’m sure shows like “The Jersey Shore” don’t help our rep either. The parties I’ve been too have been very laid back with music at a normal level and no alcohol, granted the parents were there but my friends and I would drink anyway. I hate to say it, and I tell myself this isn’t true… there is this “I can what ever I want attitude”, but that’s really only a handful of bad kids who give everyone else a bad rep. In fact, the only class there’s really that attitude problem is my math and spanish class. Not that we’re goody goodies at FLHS. However, the fact that we are aloud to express ourselves is key to surviving in school, and there are so many different options and ways kids can excel. It can be a beautiful experience.

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