Thursday, September 08, 2005


Japanese conformists, American rebels

That’s the stereotype, right? Americans like to think of themselves as uniquely gifted individuals, and to think of the Japanese and other Asians as participating in a collective culture so oppressive that it smoothes out any sharp edges of personality.

There is much to be said about this subject – including the fact that the Japanese on the other end view Americans with equally distasteful misinformation. But I recently read an interesting book that focused the discussion on one particularly fascinating aspect of both societies: teenagers.

The Material Child
The American sociologist Merry White has written an intriguing book called The Material Child, comparing teens in America to in Japan. Here is a salient quote:

"We (Americans) give confusing messages about sexuality, we teach children to obey and to rebel, and we say that learning and work are necessary evils. . . As a result, the hypocrisy of adult life is the source of great confusion and anger to American teenagers."

If you are an American, you probably know exactly what this quote means. You see it in movies like Rebel Without a Cause, The Dead Poets Society and Titanic and countless other works that capture the popular imagination. To rebel is normal and to be encouraged. Think, for example, how Americans take it for granted that kids at some point rebel against their parents.

Here's what White says about Japanese teens:

"Japanese support teen friendships and peer associations as a source of social and even hierarchical training for adult life . . . the family is the source of ongoing support and breaking away or leaving home is not a necessary step in maturation."

Now obviously there are difficulties with every generalization, but I found these and other statements interesting because in my own experience, I simply don't remember the same pressure in Japan to break with my parents, or to fight with peers and with society. There wasn't a cultural expectation that I would be unhappy with my parents. In fact, I was always really happy to be in Japan as a teenager and felt as if in general, people were excited to see me growing up and were curious to see what shape my life would take. This was very different in America where people liked to roll their eyes, and discuss how difficult their teenage years were. I found it confusing to talk to my American peers who complained about their parents; I genuinely liked and admired mine and wanted to get along with them. (I'd be curious to hear the opinions of others who have a foot in both cultures.)

White seems to agree when she says: "We (Americans) are suspicious, while Japanese adults do . . . not expect children to want to behave badly." I write this well aware that there are news stories circulating today in Japan about teens who are turning into bullies, or failing to socialize in ways that are expected. But I still think the insight is interesting if you look at the two cultures side by side.

I also find all of this interesting because it certainly helps set the stage for why some believe in the myth of American rebellion and the myth of Japanese conformity; our own cultural rules and impressions of ourselves are set up to reinforce these ideas and help us to believe in them at an early age. Americans want and like to see teens acting out; Japanese want and like to see teens getting along. And even if we look at Japan and see that its political system is stagnant, or that the American system frighteningly mercurial, I think these are observations we make about political structures, not about an individual’s capacity to be unique.

Predictable Conformity
I'd like to say here that I have always questioned the whole concept that all Americans are uniquely individual for a number of reasons. First, if you survived high school in the States, as I did, then you probably remember that there were a particular set of expected characteristics a so-called rebel was expected to do: drink, party, swear, ignore his parents, listen to "alternative" music, and smoke. In other words, teens are expected to rebel, but always in the same predictable way. But does doing any of this really make anyone all that unique?

I’m also suspicious of people who look at Japanese teens and see their group activities as evidence of "the hive." I think one reason Americans have difficulty "getting" the Japanese is because so many Americans don't actually speak the language. The only way to actually get to know someone is to converse with them, spend time getting to know their likes and dislikes, their talents, their interests and sense of humor. If you can’t do these basic things, then you are stuck on the outside looking in at a group of people who share a highly developed culture.

We would do well to remember this when we watch Japan from the outside and see nothing but interchangeable people acting in unison. We would do well to call this kind of attitude for what it is; pure and simple old-fashioned ignorance.

Thanks to the always awesome Japundit for first posting this little ditty. You can read it in the original form here and also check out people's comments. Thanks also to Global Voices for linking to the essay!

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