Group mentality or individualism?

Japan is often described as a group society, where the individuals always downplay their own significance and instead underline the importance of harmony within the collective to which they belong. I am not so sure this is a correct description. I remember several years ago, when I was invited by a Japanese politician to his constituency. He wanted to show me how politics in Japan worked in real life. We sat down with various local people and they were very blunt in their criticism of what his party was doing, or rather not doing, and although they were relatively polite, they did not mince their words. They also argued loudly among themselves. He explained their behavior by saying that “you know, in this country people are only thinking of themselves. They just want to save a pile of gold and bury it in their own garden.” That was his opinion and I am not sure it was a correct description, but I think we in the West exaggerate our own individuality and the group mentality of the Japanese.

Look at sports for instance. Recently the Japanese women’s soccer team won the world championships, and soccer is definitely gaining in popularity. But the traditional Japanese sports are mostly individual in character. Judô, Karate-dô, Kyûdô, and Kendô are good examples, not to speak of Sumô. They all put emphasis on the individual and how the individual should meet the challenge from the opponent. The most popular team sport in Japan is baseball, a sport we in Sweden would probably describe as the most individualistic of the various team sports. It is the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter which is the most important part of baseball. In Sweden, we have had many good tennis players, some good skiers and some successful track-and-field athletes, but most of all we like team sports like soccer and ice-hockey. And we become very critical of athletes who forget the team and only think of themselves.

What I really want to say is that we should not exaggerate our differences. East and West are closer than what Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)  claimed.

02 comments Send comment

  1. 01

    I agree with you.

    One of Fukuzawa Yukichi’s conclusions after the famous visit to the US by the Kanrinmaru more than 150 years ago was “Japanese are too individualistic to adjust themselves to the Western system”.

  2. 02

    JANES (Japan Association for Northern European Studies, had a conference last Saturday and there was an interesting paper on this topic. “Group mentality of Japan vs Individualism of Sweden – Reconsiderd”

    Authors (Otsuka, Akiyama, Mori & Hoshino) argued that Swedes are “内柔外剛の個” while Japanese are “内剛外柔の個” based on surveys in the both countries.

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