The View from Japan
Torii gate



Japan and America: The Group vs. the Individual

by Tim Young




I met a new student at the English school the other day. In the course of the normal small talk of a first lesson, I asked him, "So, what is your job?"

"I work for Olympus Optical Corporation."

That wasn't what I meant. "Well, but what do you do there?" I asked.

This often happens in Japan. The answer to the question is not what the American would expect because of differences in our cultural values.

While Americans are taught to assert their individualism in order to define themselves, Japanese are taught exactly the opposite: that one's identity is defined by the groups to which one belongs. So while an American would have answered "I'm an engineer," or, "I'm an accountant," the most important thing to the Japanese is the name of the company a person works for.

This is closely related to the difference in the way companies in our countries handle responsibility. In American companies, each person has his own responsibility and pays little attention to things unrelated to this responsibility. Offices are divided by walls to facilitate privacy and concentration. But where this system falls short is that it stops the flow of information.

Most Americans have probably called a company in America to discuss a problem or ask a question, and the call was transferred from person to person, each one saying, "I'm sorry, but that's not my responsibility. Let me transfer you to..." Maybe no one wanted to deal with that question, but it's also quite probable that no one really knew whose responsibility it was. The restricted flow of information slows down the process of dealing with customers.

In Japan, offices are large rooms with many desks. There's not even a temporary divider put up between desks; this would keep information from flowing through the room. While each person has his or her own work to do, each is very aware of everything else that is happening in the office, regardless of whether it affects him or not. This is true even of section chiefs, whose desks are in the same room with those of their subordinates. The Japanese don't see this as an invasion of privacy or listening in on someone else's business. Anything happening in the office is everybody's business. Although some of my students have said that it's difficult to concentrate at work, they wouldn't think of cutting themselves off from the rest of the office. One man told me that whenever a fax comes into his office, copies of it are distributed to the other people in his section. They may not have any involvement with the project referred to, but it's considered important that everyone knows what's going on. Staying informed is what keeps a Japanese feeling like part of the group.

Since everyone takes mutual responsibilty for everything the company does, a customer calling a Japanese company would never get the runaround. It would be unthinkable for a Japanese office worker to tell a caller "That's not my responsibility." If it involves your company, your group, then you do share responsibility. Furthermore, thanks to the lack of walls that would impede the information flow, everyone in the office will know who is best qualified to handle a caller's question.

Job titles are generally fuzzier in Japan than in America. An American job title generally conveys what that person's exact responsibilities are. In Japan, several people often will have the same job title, or it may simply be the name of the section they are in--for example, "export division" or "production control". These people all have the same job description and share the workload of a given type. This means that if one person is out for the day, the other people who share his job have more work to do. Therefore, there is great peer pressure not to take vacations, because no one wants to be stuck with extra work. I have heard of people who were feverish and still went to work because they didn't want to let their co-workers down or make them angry. In America, of course, with responsibility more specialized, if a person takes time off, that work is simply not done!

The difference between American individualism and Japanese group-orientedness is also evident in speeches and business letters from the two countries. When a Japanese is speaking or writing on behalf of his company, he generally uses the pronoun "we". But American business letters are filled with "I". The American writer will write, "I spoke with others in the office, and decided...", whereas a Japanese would write, "We have decided..." Rather than saying, "On behalf of everyone here, I would like to say...", a Japanese would simply say, "We would like to say..." Perhaps this is because we individualistic Americans want to point out that we are speaking for others without actually having asked them if their thinking is the same. Japanese can more safely assume that everyone's thinking is the same.

The "homogeneity" of the Japanese is often credited with Japan's economic success. The nation worked as a group with the goal of catching up with, and passing, the West in terms of economic power, and it succeeded. But of course, the group mentality has its down side. Japanese society not only has positive pressure to conform, it also has negative pressure to not be individualistic. Although things have loosened up slightly in recent years, it is still quite difficult to change companies. If a worker wants to quit the company he joined after graduating from college, it may be difficult for him to find a company that will hire anyone other than 22-year-olds. And within the company, one can lose the feeling of being in control of one's own life. One man said he feels like "a cog in a wheel", a piece of machinery owned by the company--he was given three months notice that he will be stationed in America for two years. It would be very difficult to say "no"; it would break the harmony of things and might even result in his feeling obligated to leave the company.

A Japanese uses "we" to show that the whole company or group shares responsibility for something. An American uses "I" to show that he or she is taking sole responsibility. But, considering the example of calling an American company and getting your call transferred several times, the use of "I" can also be seen as a way of avoiding responsibility. Of course, "we" can also be used to avoid responsibility, by diluting the blame to include everyone in your group, even when the fault lies only with you.

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Copyright 2003 This page last updated November 1, 2002 . E-mail Tim