The Japanese emphasis on group extends far beyond the family. It runs through every facet of their lives. Every Japanese person's life is centered in a group, and exclusion from such a structure, whether it be school, work, or play, is the equivalent of non-existence. To meld, to be one with others is not only socially important, it is essential for survival. A common Japanese proverb says: "The head of the nail that sticks up is pounded down." In others words, if you are different or out, you will be forced to conform.
The concept most fundamental to understanding this emphasis on group is Japan is amae (ah-mah-ee). This concept governs individual beliefs and behavior as well as social structure. It literally means -- "to look to others for affection" -- and implies a deep social interdependence. Japanese children are taught early to express loyalty to each other and to be both dependent and responsible to the groups to which they belong. In fact, the Japanese word for individualism (kojin-shugi) has negative connotations of selfishness rather than self-reliance.
The best model of amae is the relationship between baby and parent. The Japanese word for that relationship, ninjo, means "spontaneously arising feelings. Amae relationships in Japanese social groups are called giri, which refers to the interdependence similar to an unwritten social contract, that sense of duty and obligation to those who are a member of the same group (classmate, club, co-worker). Japanese don't think about amae, they just do it as part of growing up and establishing bonds beyond family in school, study groups, clubs, and corporations.
The Japanese depends on the group throughout their lives for approval and gratification. They are who they are because of who they are dependent upon. The threat of ostracism or abandonments is one of the most devastating to the Japanese. Because of the cultural emphasis on the authority of the group, Japanese place the desire and needs of the group before their own individual desires and needs.
The Japanese term for people outside the group is tanin (tah-nin) or "other people." Tanin includes everyone with who one does not have a ninjo or giri relationship. Naturally, one's parents can never be tanin since that is an unbreakable bond -- similarly one's school, study, or company group is basically unbreakable. But as long as someone is tanin, a Japanese person has no real relationship with them.
The degree of group loyalty is strongest towards the inner circle (family). The middle circle contains friends, classmates, co-workers. Outside that is everyone else, who are generally ignored. The Japanese tends to ignore the world of strangers until they are perceived as a threat or interest. Then they act superior (an old battle strategy). If that doesn't work (and strangers can no longer be ignored), they will attempt to identify with them and adopt their ways. Amae teaches the Japanese to be comfortable with identifying and assimilating. This helps explain why Japanese have been so open (particularly since World War II) to incorporate many aspects of US culture.
A concept closely related to amae is wa (wah) or "harmony," another essential Japanese trait/ value. Wa works horizontally among group members while amae works vertically between groups in a hierarchy (i.e. between a person and those who have authority over that person. Japanese take care to avoid confrontation and conflict. A Japanese child will rarely confront or provoke a classmate because he or she has been taught that such behavior is childish and shameful.
Starting with preschool, children begin to identify with a group outside the home. Each youngster carries a book bag made by his or her mother based on exact instructions from the school on how it is to be constructed. In first greade, children spend many days repeatedly placing pencils at top of desk, notebooks on right, switching outside for inside shoes, standing up, sitting down, bowing, taking notes, and learning how to answer questions. Nothing is left to chance and "academic" lessons don't start until the rules which teach group conformity, are firmly learned.
In Japanese elementary schools, the homeroom (kumi) is important. Each contains 40-45 students with one teacher for two years. It is here that Japanese children learn deep loyalty to the group. Within each home room are smaller groups (han) study and do projects together. While each home room and study group has a leader, the main leadership role is to maintain harmony within the group and to build consensus and cooperation. The teacher looks for ability to get along with others as a prime trait in choosing student leaders.
School is family and does not feel that discipline ends outside the school room. Teachers visit homes and have even been know to patrol the neighborhood to be sure children are not misbehaving. If a high school student gets in trouble (traffic ticket), the whole school feels responsible.
Japanese junior and senior highschool students are also loyal to their home rooms. Teachers come for each subject (except science and art where students go to the lab or studio). Even lunch is brought to the home room.
For adults, the company for which they work becomes the equivalent of an extended family. Employees rarely change jobs for more pay or to enhance a career (although this is beginning to gradually change in the late 1990s). Employees wait for promotions based on seniority and age. Companies look after younger members, even to the point of playing matchmaker for unmarried employees. Employees typically wear a company pin or badge and sing company songs and perform group exercises as part of work experience. Note such activity in the movie "Gung Ho" which demonstrates some of the differences between Japanese and American management concepts.
The only areas where individualism is encouraged are in gardening, flower arrangement, writing poetry, art expression, and hobbies (such as music, golf).
(based on Phyllis Kepler, Brook S. Royse and John Kepler. Windows to the World: Themes for Cross-Cultural Understanding. Glenview, IL: GoodYearBooks, 1996. Pp 168 - 171.
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