Sunday, March 01, 2015

Japan is not a collectivist society


As I prepare to get an Airbnb reservation for my upcoming trip to Japan, I am reminded of this article that came out about a week ago in the New York Times. The article is very good, the reporting is very good, but I did notice this bit from the Hofstede Center:
Dutch social psychologist...Geert Hofstede...developed a matrix of cultural dimensions by which one country could be viewed against another....[H]e came up with six measures...These include individualism versus collectivism, indulgence versus restraint, power distance (a group’s acceptance or rejection of hierarchy) and, perhaps most important for Airbnb, uncertainty avoidance...The center’s portrait describes Japan as a pragmatic culture that emphasizes collectivism and hierarchy and as “one of the most uncertainty-avoiding countries on earth.” (emphasis mine) 
Now, I wouldn't be surprised if the Hofstede Center makes good money dishing up this stuff to American businesses eager to "understand" Japan before they invest there. There's just one problem: this isn't what Japan is actually like.

Don't take my word for it. Go by the data. Grab a copy of David Matsumoto's 2007 book The New Japan, and skim through it - it'll take you maybe half an hour. Matsumoto, a Japanese-American social psychologist, rounds up data from a bunch of cross-cultural studies that use Hofstede's measure and others to measure individualism, collectivism, and a number of other cultural traits.

What they find, in short, is that Japan is not very collectivist. On the individualism-collectivism scale, Japan ranks about the same as the United States (which has consistently measured near the top of the individualism scale). Actually, Japan measures as slightly more individualistic than the U.S. Some of the studies also include Russia and South Korea. Russia is more collectivist than Japan or the U.S., and South Korea is the most collectivist of the four, at least when the studies were done (15-20 years ago).

Now, what's interesting is that this apparently used to not be true! Until the 1980s, Japan really did measure much higher than the U.S. on the collectivism scale. Then in the 80s, something changed, and Japan went individualist in a big way.

Now, Matsumoto is actually upset about this. He really likes traditional Japanese values, and he's actually sad that Japan has become more individualistic. The second part of the book is Matsumoto recommending policies that he thinks will restore Japan's old collectivist values. The policies are fairly silly, and this part of the book can be safely skipped.

Anyway, the data in Matsumoto's book shows two things:

1. Western stereotypes of Japan as a collectivist place are wrong, wrong, wrong.

2. Japan's culture probably underwent rapid change in the 80s, indicating that A) Japanese culture is not the eternal, unchanging thing that some people think, and B) economic changes really do have the power to cause big and sudden cultural changes. When countries get rich they become more individualistic. (I predict Korea measures much more individualistic now than in the 1980s. There's some evidence that China may be moving in the same direction as well.)

I don't expect the Western stereotype of "collectivist Japan" to die overnight. Stereotypes are actually more persistent than the cultures they claim to describe. But eventually, if you keep hitting a stereotype over the head with the hammer of data, it has to cry uncle.

20 comments:

  1. Ludwig von Mises3:49 PM

    "On the individualism-collectivism scale, Japan ranks about the same as the United States - slightly more individualistic, actually."

    This simply shows how far America has fallen from the days of hard money, honest capitalism and economic freedom that now even collectivist Japan is more individualist than America.

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    1. The U.S. consistently ranks as very individualistic in all time periods (going back to the 1960s).

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  2. Anonymous4:05 PM

    What are the actual actions that make a country measure as more/less collectivist/individualistic ? Or is this score just based on questionaires ?

    I'm always sceptical of this kind of "rate yourself" type of stuff, because (duh) I found there's a world of difference in between what people (and "cultures") say they want/do and what actually happens in reality, and the better metric for that are objective facts.

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    1. You can run public goods games, where people make choices for real money. For example: http://www2.kobe-u.ac.jp/~ishiik/in%20press%20Ishii%20Kurzban.pdf

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  3. Is there precedence for a culture/country undergoing what I presume as a lay reader would be a fairly major preference shift? That is, have any other countries had a documented preference shift of this scale in the modern era or is this unique to Japan?

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    1. Good question. I bet repeated studies of European countries would indicate something similar. And I bet if you test Korea now you'll find a lot higher individualism. But this is just my guess.

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  4. There are different kinds of collectivist.

    In Japan the corporation as collective still appears to mean a lot for many. The nation as collective still means something. But you sure don't see them doing much group tourism anymore for example.

    Americans are a very tribalist type of collectivist, especially about spectator sports and music and politics. They are mostly lifelong loyalists to the tribes they choose in their youths, and change strains and often breaks friendships. They idealize spontaneously formed voluntary collectives and abhor obligatory ones, except nation for the right, but they think of that as a voluntary collective.

    Russians are weird, inundated with collectivist ideology and at the same time with cynical practice, a la if you're not stealing from the state you're stealing from your family. There is a long ingrained system by which the two are made to fit with each other, which can't be understood without time spent there. They're more accepting of a fate of being dependent on a hierarchy and xenophobic than collectivist.

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    1. This is an important point about American collectivism. Tribal affiliation is the biggest factor. For a long time this was masked by racism in the American culture and to a certain extent still is.

      Voluntary collectivism is wildly popular amongst Americans.

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    2. Anonymous3:06 AM

      Oh...so you're one of those people that go through life labeling everyone and everything with a 'condition'.

      I'm curious as to what your 'profession' is, though I've got my suspicions.

      All neat and tidy, eh? That hundreds of millions of people all fit into your little categorizing slots - like everyone of them is an exact clone because of where they are (most likely) forced to live their lives?

      And what 'title' do you have for people such as yourself, who over-generalize every person on the planet into units and sub-sections and categories?

      Is your Avatar 'Mr. Labelman'?

      Farren McDonald
      Vancouver, BC, Canada

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  5. Anonymous7:21 AM

    "But eventually, if you keep hitting a stereotype over the head with the hammer of data, it has to cry uncle."

    I dunno. China has had how many dramatic upheavals and outright revolutions over the last century without shedding the image of the eternal, harmony-prizing Chinese civilisation?

    Language barriers can do a lot.

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    1. I think it's wealth, not revolution, that creates individualism.

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  6. Anonymous2:02 PM

    bob mcmanus

    Okay I will buy into this to a large degree, without accepting the terms individualist and collectivist, and stipulating that this doesn't apply to all Japan and each and every Japanese. My preferred term has always been "groupism" so as to understand a interlocking system of hierarchies that are far from simply vertical.

    And of course the operative useful frame is one that Smith hasn't been shy about: "neoliberalism" which is not only a economic rationalization but a full political, social, and cultural transition, and has been operating in Japan, very unevenly and only partially successfully, for at least thirty years, as it has been advancing globally. Searching "Japan + neoliberalism" will get you plenty of quick reading material, and of course shelves of books written on the subject.

    I deny emphatically that neoliberalism is in any way an inevitable consequent of development or rising standards of living, grotesque levels of inequality are generally understood as one of the consequences of neoliberalism. The causes are complex, but globalization and lowering of restrictions on cross-border capital flows is high on the list.

    Japan, like everywhere, would need to examined in detail to see how far neoliberalism has advanced. Certainly, for example, the labor market has become precarious.

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    1. Anonymous2:20 PM

      bob mcmanus

      http://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/03/24/precarity-readers-guide gives a short reading list on precarity. "Neoliberalism" has been the subject of deep and profound study since the late 70s and the Regulation School.

      Anne Allison "Precarious Japan" is recommended, or searching Amazon for precarious and precarity. Neoliberalism is first and foremost an ideology and subjectivity.

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    2. Anonymous2:40 AM

      And so the obvious simple solution is to shun/ban all western influence and the utterly abhorrent invention of the oh-so-symbiotic 'Democracy/Capitalism', then return to the 'KEEP YOU MOUTH SHUT AND YOUR NOSE TO THE GRINDSTONE' mentality that served Japan quite well from 13,000 BC till 1985 Anno Domini.

      Funny how every country's economy goes to absolute hell once the EU invites them in for a 'summit' or two, eh?

      After all...all's fair in Democracy and Capitalism, right? It's all about 'winning'.

      Just ask Killery.

      Farren McDonald
      Vancouver, BC, Canada

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    3. Anonymous2:56 AM

      Don't mean to be rude, but you're coming off like a ten-cent I.Q. using 5 dollar words.

      It won't impress your target audience, because they have the intellect to see right through it. Yes?

      Just trying to help.

      Farren McDonald
      Vancouver, BC, Canada

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  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. Culture will always change, and with it, tradition. However, the changing of culture does not mean that a nation's identity should be lost altogether. Japan will always be Japan, and even if Western influences alter their culture, the Japanese will still remain true to their roots.

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    1. Anonymous2:30 AM

      Smoke another one, buds.

      Delete
    2. Anonymous2:50 AM

      Japan will always be Japan, eh? Like England will always be England?

      Or Germany? Or Norway? Or France? Or Greece? Or any other country that the EU psychopaths try to convince they will 'improve' with their CORPORATE GLOBALIZATION?

      Got news ya', buds: Eventually there will only be ONE 'culture' left in a decade or so: The European Union - puppets of the Israeli Banksters and their psychopathic sycophants like Mrs. Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg Gotha, the Roths, and all the 'leaders' of the 'member states'.

      After the KALERGI PRIZE and the CHARLEMAGNE PRIZE medallions have been handed out for the final time, the only 'culture' left on the planet will be whatever is allowed to exist on their 'History Chips'.

      Till then, you will see the inevitable, slow, painful decimation of EVERY CULTURE ON THE PLANET.

      It's happening NOW.
      RIGHT NOW.
      Or are you blind?

      Farren McDonald
      Vancouver, BC, Canada
      August 25, 2016.

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