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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:02 03/09/2007
December 2000

Japan's Individualism in Globalization Trends

Yotaro KOBAYASHI (Chairman of the Board, Fuji Xerox, Co. Ltd.)

Misunderstanding of Individualism in Japan

Is healthy "individualism" growing in Japanese society? While we can find quite a few people in Japan who subscribe to "individualism" and practice it, it is doubtful if the concept of individualism is correctly understood and accepted in this country. There seem to be two factors that tend to hinder the growth of individualism in Japanese society.

The first factor is strong pressure to conform and adapt to a group or an organization. As is depicted in the Japanese proverb "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down," those who are different or stand out tend to be avoided and often excluded in Japanese society, leading to a kind of social pressure to conform. Traditionally, the roots of Japanese identity have been in such groups as Ie (family), mura (village) and kaisha (corporation). Among those who possess a strong sense of belonging to these groups, individual members are supposed to show "wa" (harmony) and cooperate to help manage their group smoothly, and any act to disrupt harmony is regarded as "wrong." While this kind of value system may have some merit to facilitate group solidarity, it tends to foster the sense of "yokonarabi" (an understanding that one should avoid being the nail hammered down), and therefore suppresses the dynamics of individualism.

The second factor is the misunderstanding of "individualism" in Japan. It was in the mid-1880s when the English word "individual" was imported and its translation "kojin" widely accepted in Japan. Since around that time, Japan has been actively studying and introducing Western concepts and institutions as engines for modernization. However, Japanese have not understood the true spirit and essence of some Western concepts and institutions. Perhaps individualism is one of those things.

Signs of Change in the Japanese Way of Thinking

Individualism in the original sense is based on a balance between individual rights for liberty, equality, and public responsibilities. American individualism in particular is rooted deeply in the republic tradition, where individual participation constitutes the public domain.

In the case of Japan, and especially in Japan's post-war education, we may have emphasized individual freedom and equality too much in trying to denounce pre-war totalitarianism. As a result, there has been very little education about public mind, and individualism tends to be misunderstood, leading to a misconception that individuals are permitted to do anything they like as long as it does not violate a law or offend others. In the process of post-war reconstruction and rapid urbanization, Japanese have been focusing on economic activities to satisfy their material needs, while lagging behind in nurturing the spiritual sense of publicness or social participation.

Recently, there seem to be some signs of change in this kind of Japanese way of thinking. For example, various NPO activities are widely recognized and supported by the general public these days. It is hoped that by expanding these activities individuals will think and act by themselves and influence each other mutually, and healthy individualism will be nurtured as a result.

Future Prospects for Japan's Individualism

How should we find future prospects for individualism in an era of rapid globalization and technological innovation? In fierce competition on a global scale, the pressure to conform as explained above may well become a fatal disadvantage because it tends to block the creative mind of individuals, which is a source of competitiveness. In our borderless activities, those who have different values and backgrounds need to work together and there are bound to be various frictions among them. Therefore, the kind of individualism desired in this context requires permissiveness and tolerance for differences as well as an ability for self-expression, because it is important to build mutual trust by sharing values for human solidarity through continuous discussions and dialogue while preserving individual uniqueness and value systems. This means the opening and expansion of the concept of "wa" (harmony), rather than the denial of "wa" as a traditional Japanese value.

More important is to possess the kind of philosophy and ethics that will open our eyes to the essence of various phenomena in times of drastic change. Globalization does not mean uniformity. Rather, individuality and personal independence will become more important than ever. At the same time, facing such issues as a worsening North-South problem, environmental degradation, and innovations and ethics of biotechnology, we will need to have stronger self-restraint and morals acceptable to the global community. Individualism will have to reinvent itself to go beyond the boundaries of one country or even a contemporary world.

In the last millennium, human activities, especially economic activities in advanced countries, have had a revolutionary impact globally in economic as well as non-economic fields. In view of their strong influences on a global scale, business corporations must bear due responsibilities for their decisions and their consequences regarding a wider scope than just economic activities. For such corporate activities, the kind of individualism that incorporates a sense of "greater publicness" will become more important in the future.


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