‘It is hard to be an individual in Japan.’
Social status determines social interaction, based on seniority and gender and education and company affiliation. The language has a rich vocabulary of honorifics and humble prefixes and pronouns, word choices and verb endings, to express relationships of superiority or inferiority. Without knowledge of a stranger’s background, Japanese may prefer to avoid eye contact or any other interaction, in order to avoid potential errors in etiquette; the exchange of meishi business cards has become so valuable, because it provides enough information to facilitate social exchange. In a culture that stresses the value of empathy, one person cannot speak without considering the other. Hierarchy is natural and involves a ranking of roles and a rigid set of rules, but responsibility is also collective and authority diffuses to a degree greater than in other cultures. The person ‘in charge’ is bound into a web of group interdependence as tightly as his subordinates. While Americans act to minimize status differences, Japanese find it unbecoming when a person does not behave within his status.
Japanese societal emphasis on collective harmony with others doesn’t extinguish appreciation for private personal uniqueness. Individuality is even celebrated as Iki, the sincere originality capable of contributing strength and empathy, and refinement and beauty.
But ultimately, the sphere of the self is still judged by the ability to contribute. There is no ‘I’ in team. The nail that sticks up is pounded down. Individualism is viewed negatively and equated with selfishness. Many social problems are blamed on the behaviour of ‘selfish mothers,’ whose children develop psychosomatic illnesses in an effort to avoid school, and resulting academic or social failure. They become adults who may make similar excuses to evade work, as they have apparently always done.