How different is Japanese culture and psychology, really, from the "West"?

Recent events in Japan have stirred up discussions about the differences in behavior and psychology between Japanese people and the “West,” which for the sake of this discussion we’ll say means America, Europe, and maybe Australia. But these issues have always been there, at least since World War II. The common perception is that Japanese are simply not on the same wavelength psychologically, not necessarily because of genetics or something but because of their cultural conditioning.

Since I know very little of Japan and have never really known any Japanese people, I can’t say anything conclusively. All I can do is say the impressions that I, personally, have of what Japanese culture is like, and which many other Americans probably share:

  1. Collectivity rather than individuality. People are encouraged to work for the common goal and not do whatever they want to do.

  2. Fetishistic obsessions with things, sexual and otherwise. Sexually weird in general. Japanese men sincerely devoting themselves to “virtual girlfriends.”

  3. Workaholics. Not just that, but devoted to their work. I’ve read that Japanese factory workers salute the flag of their company and recite pledges of allegiance to it and stuff before beginning the workday; I can’t imagine Americans ever doing anything like this.

  4. Obsessed with “honor”. This one might owe more to distorted and antiquated views of Japanese culture from old movies and stuff, but certainly they seem to take the concept of honor and “saving face” much more seriously than Americans and Europeans.

  5. “Beta males.” Supposedly most Japanese men are not very sexually or socially assertive when it comes to the opposite sex; I think I read that something like 40 percent of adult Japanese males are virgins, something that I can’t possibly imagine being true of the US or Europe even 100 years ago let alone today. This ties into the “virtual girlfriend” stuff and notion of Japanese males resigning themselves to sexless lives and plunging into fantasy worlds.

Their culture appears to many as an incomprehensible mix of technology, cartoons, runaway consumerism, and just generally more intensely into everything compared to the Western world.

What do the experts on Japan (and I know there are many), and the Japanese themselves, have to say about this?

The only thing I feel qualified to comment on is #3. I have been in Japanese businesses at opening time, and the workers have sung/chanted a company cheer and seemed sincere about it.

I’m somewhat familiar with some of the broader aspects of Japanese culture, although I am by no means an expert. Here are a few things I’ve picked up:

~ Japanese society still has fairly structured social hierarchies, and how you are expected to behave towards someone can vary depending on their relation to you. A prime example of this is the system of honorifics: there is a particular way one ought to address another person based on whether that person is of inferior or superior standing. The standard polite honorific is “-san”, as in “Fujita-san”, for someone you aren’t intimately familiar with. A student would address their teacher with “-sensei”: “Fujita-sensei”. This term infers respect. A term of endearment that a boy would use when speaking to his girlfriend is “-chan”: “Keiko-chan”. This term infers cuteness of or fondness for the subject. A lack of honorific either indicates extreme closeness to the subject or is meant as an insult.

~ Japanese people don’t seem to have the exact same sexual hangups that Westerners do. In Japan it is apparently not hard to find cute statues and other depictions of tanuki - creatures thought to have shape-shifting and otherwise magical abilities. What’s funny (and can be initially jolting to Westerners) is that tanuki are often depicted with comically large testicles. I don’t think it’s a strictly sexual thing - it’s just one of those things that make tanuki different (they’re usually depicted as mischievous, not horny). OTOH I think probably there are sexually-charged subjects that are more taboo in Japan than they are in the West.

~ animation in Japan is not regarded as a medium suitable only for children’s stories - anything and everything is fair game to be animated, from strictly kiddie fare like Pokemon to pornography, and everything in between.

Well, I know that they blur out genitals in porn, right? I’d say that would qualify as something that’s more taboo in Japan than in the West. A pretty major thing.

Many people are justifiably baffled that they do this, yet are seemingly very tolerant of sexual stuff that seems quite out-there (tentacles.)

The Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede developed four (later five) dimensions for comparing national cultures. On almost all of them, Japan is very different from the US. Some of the examples that already appear in this thread can be viewed as expressions of these dimensions. Think of a continuum, with Individualistic at one end and Collectivistic at the other; the US comes out way towards the Individualistic pole and Japan towards the Collectivisitic. (The US is the most Individualistic country.)

Well, they did invent Seppuku, the act of suicide by self-disembowelment as a way to preserve one’s honor.* I can’t ever imagine myself doing this for any reason, certainly not for honor. When you’re willing to plunge a knife into your stomach to avoid shame, that’s hardcore.

  • Okay, so the West has “falling on one’s sword,” notably featured in Macbeth.

Actually, as I understand it, the tentacles were an end-run around the rules that said “no showing genitals or penis-in-vagina.” They were, ahem, filling a need.

Japan and Asia as a whole is only a couple of generations removed from a feudalistic society. Pretty much since WW2. In simplistic terms, think samarai and peasants translated into modern corporate boss and cubicle slave terms. This is a lot different from the US experience.

You kind of have this right, except for the part about not doing what they want to do. Japanese people generally derive more satisfaction by working and playing together than, say, Americans. It’s taught from young childhood that it is more desirable to fit in than to stand out.

Yeah, I hear a little about that, but I think the West overblows it. None of my Japanese friends or colleagues are any more obsessed with sex than any other group. In fact, I’d say the average Japanese person is less obsessed with sex than the average American.

Devotion to the company is very apparent, but I think it’s all of a piece with the Japanese penchant for attempting to achieve excellence in everything they do. Unfortunately, in recent years this has become a problem as Japanese people, usually men, are literally dying of exhaustion. The term for this is: 過労死 (Karoshi), which means ‘death from overwork’, and is beginning to be taken quite seriously.

I don’t think ‘obsessed’ is the right word. Yes, honor is important, but it’s not as though the Japanese spend any time looking for excuses to be honorable. It’s just a different culture’s expression of making amends and taking responsibility for actions taken.

Yes, there is definitely a general malaise when it comes to romance and procreation, and Japanese men are generally less aggressive sexually than their Western counterparts. I think there’s a false impression, however, that it is the norm for the Japanese, especially men, to satisfy their libidinous desires with deviant sexual practices. Oh, I’m sure some do, but it’s probably about in line with other cultures.

I think the only time a Japanese person thinks about this is when a non Japanese person brings it up. It’s kind of an exaggerated vision of a culture, similar to the Japanese wondering why all Americans carry guns, love hamburgers, are overweight, and look down upon the educated.

But didn’t the Vikings beat that by their famous “opening your bowels, attaching one end of your entrails to a spear and jumping off a cliff” move?

I am sure I saw a Viking movie were some king ended it that way
Talk about a crowd pleaser

Can’t find a cite though ….

There’s definitely more of a community over individual feeling there. Children clean the school together, women volunteer their time to clean around temples and the Imperial Palace, things like that to keep the place looking pristine. When I was there I would often see moms (whose kids were currently in school) or elderly ladies pulling weeds around the stone walls at the palace. I was always impressed with how clean it was there, I’ve never seen a place in America that even came close.

Another thing I was amazed at was just the sense of pride and respect there was there. Again, this bounces off the whole community/work to keep things clean kind of thing, but also there were signs everywhere with things like “Let’s keep Duck River clean together!” as if it was anywhere close to littered. :smiley:
At temples or shrines, people left offerings (including money) and they went untouched by others, unstolen. That would never work here.

I’m pretty sure that one’s artistic licence.
The only explicitly honourable way to die according to Vikings is to die in battle. So I suppose a Viking that wished to die could seek out battles with poor odds until one of them takes… but I’m not sure they would have conceptualised that as suicide as such.

This is kind of an important point, not to be understated.

William Gibson, in one of his more recent (fashion-phase) novels, I forget which - maybe Pattern Recognition, wrote about the concept of ‘mirror worlds’. For example, where to an American in Britain things might seem familiar at a quick glance but only after closer inspection the subtle differences are revealed - resulting in, paradoxically, a greater disorientation than one would get from traveling to a place where everything is different. It’s because you already knew everything was going to be different that you weren’t so disorientated.

As a westerner in Japan, I came here expecting everything to be different, and therefore was surprised by the similarities. The similarities are more on a one-to-one personal level, or national/group level. People worry about the same things. They have the same hopes and ambitions, the same fears, and pretty much the same moral codes and values. They want the government to protect them from foreign threats and makes sure the things they need to live are provided for.

The differences are more interesting.

The Japanese spend a lot of time during childhood learning how to be Japanese. And you might say, “well, Americans spend a lot of time during childhood to learn how to be Americans.” But it’s not the same thing. They were born Americans by right of birth and being American means living life on your own terms while respecting and following the laws of the land. Being Japanese has nothing to do with following the laws of the land or being born in Japan or living life on your terms. It’s about following custom and ritual. Get away with what you can on your own time, but when you’re with family, friends or in the public eye, you must act within what is considered the bounds of normal behavior, which are stricter than western bounds.

To be clear, I’m talking about present day japan here.

He’s got big balls
She’s got big balls
But Tanuki’s got the biggest
Balls of them all

I’ve heard an explanation for Tanuki’s acute macroorchidism, same as what’s found here:

If this is accurate, then the big testes aren’t a sexual symbol, they’re a wealth symbol.

Was in Kyoto last November, and these statues are indeed everywhere.

From what I’ve heard (and I freely admit that I could be very wrong about this), there has been virtually NO looting or price gouging or scamming in Japan after the recent devastation. Compare that to, say, New Orleans after Katrina. It seems that the Japanese value their collectiveness (cultural pride?) to not take the first opportunity to start stealing stuff in a time of national disaster.

And I don’t know about the porn thing. I am very attracted to Asian women and a cute Asian girl in a “regular” porno is a plus. But just about everything I’ve come across that is made in Japan involves the girl getting tied up or subject to (simulated I hope) pain and humiliation.

After hearing this story on the radio this morning, it strengthened my suspicions that modern Americans are one of the biggest bunch of emotional and fearful people in existence.

If something like Fukushima happened today in the US, people would have a collective meltdown, even though there is very little danger at all. There would be thousands of people marching on the capitol to ban nuclear power everywhere.

I really respect how the Japanese are not letting the emotional response to a perceived danger take over their rational judgment.

Edit to add: And we are some of the worst spellers!

I don’t understand why you take away from that story the idea that it’s Americans who are unusually fearful, rather than the Japanese being unusually stoic.

I learned that the Japaneese were stoic. I live in America and I can see they are fearful.

I think that Japan being such a homogenous society helps explain the the lack of price-gouging and looting to some extent. It’s easier to rip off/loot from them than it is from folks just like you.

If it makes you feel any better, the West seems really strange to most Japanese.

Some things are very different, some things seem different superficially but aren’t that different and some things are quite similar. Then there is always a danger of attempting to provide a single label for 120 million people.

Find a way to define all Americas, from right wing nuts to far left wing crazies, “sophisticated” superficial socialites, hill billies, blacks, whites, Native Americans, men, women, stay home mothers, stay home fathers, ruthless tycoons, corporate dropout and everyone else and come up with a common set of attributes.
Tell me how to describe both my highly-opinionated, Southern, uber-convervative, Texas-bred, gay- and black- hating (although he will deny it), Southern Methodist brother-in-law and my highly-opinionated, militant-atheist, gay bartending buddy in San Francisco with “common American social conditioning and psychology.” Failing that, try to get them into the same room without strangling each other.

I’ll be putting together a single set for the 120 million Japanese at the same time and then we can compare notes.

In each culture, you get nice people, asshats, introverts, extroverts, thieves, murders, and what not. Look at the people on this board, and this is just a self-selected group.

As one researcher who studies differences in genders says, that may be true but for which woman and which man.

Yes and no. Groups are stressed heavily; we were surprised to see that our daughter, when she was less than one, was still expected to be to daycare by 9:30 for the morning meeting.

If you do want to succeed in Japan, you quickly learn how to negotiate groups.

That said, there are the “elites” who are groomed to gain personal power within organizations and those who cease it on their own. Akio Morita did not found Sony because he was always putting others ahead of himself. Companies have presidents, politicians run for office, and there are people who monopolize conversations without asking how your weekend was.

There is more – and quicker – acceptance within groups once you have become a member. People talk about katachi kara haeru or “joining through a form.” What this means is that you can be accepted by adopting the form which that group expects. An example is taking up a new sport, say skiing. I’m from Utah, and we would ski in blue jeans and our usual winter coats and gloves. Go to a Japanese ski resort and everyone is decked out in matching ski gear, and a good deal of them are beginners. Wear those outfits in Salt Lake and you better be the best damn skier on the hill.

Japanese can be accepted into the group of “skiers” by making a commitment to purchase the gear and the clothes, and show up regularly at the lifts.

And that said, here’s an expert with a different take.

Read the article, it’s great timing. Are the Japanese different?

Never underestimate the ability of otaku and hentai to dominate the image of Japanese sex. The percentage of otaku is small and the percentage of otaku who are into hentai is even smaller. Not that it’s zero, but even within Japan, it’s considered an abnormality.

I’m not really into porn, and never have been into hentai porn, and all I really know about Japanese porn is what is sold at 7-11, which doesn’t cater to that market. Hopefully, someone with more expertise will come along.

Just remember that you can never judge a whole country by its porn, although I’m sure that someone could get a PhD by studying it.

For the “virtual” girlfriend thing. Yes, it happens, and if more than 75 guys take it really seriously, I’d be surprised.

This tendency is rabidly changing. See notes below.

This is one of the most common misperceptions of Westerners, and I cannot count how many times I have to correct the idea that zillions of Japanese are killing themselves daily for “honor”.

Saving face is very important, but it’s a different concept than what most Westerners take it to be. There is as much embarrassment or awkwardness involved as “honor.” It’s similar to breaking unspoken rules anywhere.

I think that too many people watched Shogun and thought that it’s a documentary.

Completely and totally inaccurate. I’ll call bullshit on your reference.

The “beta males,” called soushoku-kei or “herbivores” is a term which was recently invented, and would be useful to describe a number of posters on this board. :wink:

It certainly gets portrayed that way, doesn’t it? Sensational journalism sells a lot more papers than well-researched thoughtful analysis.

China Guy, my impression is that the feudal system was under great strain before Perry and them big-assed cannons(**) mounted on steam-assisted warships showed up off Edo bay and forced the changes. Certainly, the Meiji period saw radical societal changes in a span of 40 years – less than two generations – or so as Japan simultaneously undertook a belated industrial revolution and sweeping reforms in the political and social structures.

However, as you pointed out, it took until the complete and utter defeat in WWII in order to eliminate more of the vestiges of the system.

The popular misconception of Japan is that the society is a reflection of the samurai class there in reality, you can find more parallels in the small rice growing villages and the merchant class.

You must also note that the Greatest GenerationTM were not those who fought in the war, unlike the victorious Americans, and lost a short-lived empire, (wining isn’t everything, until it comes to memories) but those who voluntarily made great personal sacrifices after the war to take Japan from the complete destruction to what was the second greatest economy in the world, one unpaid hour of overtime at a time. This is not only the men who slaved away for the good of the country, as their wives became, en masse, a generation of single mothers as they raised their children absent the fathers.

As expected, there are those who directly remember the horrors of the war, when more souls were burned to death in one night of firebombs in Tokyo along than who died in both atomic bombs; those who were raised by these people and are one generation removed, and then those even younger who were raised by within the affluent society which these previous generations built and frittered.

I’m at a loss as to how to characterize all these groups within a single succinct category of “Japanese.”

The final point is that each society makes sense within its rules. People take actions bases on how those actions are viewed within their group. A very common misconception is assigning the same motive or value from your tribe to the actions of another. An example is that we were told as missionaries, back in the early 80s to not open doors for women, as it would be misunderstood as a romantic gesture, which it would be from a similarly aged Japanese male.

  • OK, I’m lying here. This is a description of a damn good Singaporean friend who lives in Japan, the MC at our wedding party, and absolutely the funniest guy you will ever meet. But teach him English and move him to San Francisco and there you would have it.
    ** Technically (and this is a point which all guys should know) it isn’t the size which matters. It was the range. Perry could have dropped anchor and leisurely blown apart all of the shogun’s defenses at no more danger to himself than practice fire.