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Individualistic Americans vs. Collectivist Japanese
July 23, 2012 2:54 PM   Subscribe

Wisdom, Age, and Society in America and Japan "ONE stereotype of wisdom is a wizened Zen-master smiling benevolently at the antics of his pupils, while referring to them as little grasshoppers or some such affectation, safe in the knowledge that one day they, too, will have been set on the path that leads to wizened masterhood. But is it true that age brings wisdom? A study two years ago in North America, by Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo, in Canada, suggested that it is. In as much as it is possible to quantify wisdom, Dr Grossmann found that elderly Americans had more of it than youngsters. He has, however, now extended his investigation to Asia—the land of the wizened Zen-master—and, in particular, to Japan. There, he found, in contrast to the West, that the grasshoppers are their masters' equals almost from the beginning.... Japanese have higher scores than Americans for the sort of interpersonal wisdom you might think would be useful in an individualistic society. Americans, by contrast—at least in the maturity of old age—have more intergroup wisdom than the purportedly collectivist Japanese. Perhaps, then, you need individual skills when society is collective, and social ones when it is individualistic."
posted by bookman117 (31 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Japanese kids are taught from stage 1 in life to consider the feelings of others in the group, which, in MetaFilter-lingo, makes Japan, broadly speaking, a nation of "guessers", trying to map out how others in the group might think or feel about something.

However, this study and accompanying Economist article are problematic in a number of ways.

Is the United States an "individualistic" society, and is Japan a "collective" society? In other words, are the two terms sufficiently sophisticated enough to describe the two societies?

Is it binary comparison? If you think about it, Japanese and American society are pretty damn similar. The car in the garage, the house, the rows of strip malls anchored by Esso gas stations.

Also, just what the fuck is "Zen"? Are all Japanese people "Zen"? Are all old Japanese people "Zen masters", or do they resemble "Zen masters"?

Are "Zen masters" infallible sources of wisdom?

I actually know a "Zen master", as well as his disciple. His name is Sekkei Harada, and his disciple's name is Daigaku Rumme. I had the chance to ask Harada some questions about Zen in a one-on-one session, and the answer he gave me was almost completely incomprehensible. A different time, Rumme said the biggest difference between American Zen and Japanese Zen is the idea that it is important to have opinions and express them. The number two difference was the importance of making sure others catered your likes and dislikes in America.

In short, while Zen has probably influenced contemporary Japanese culture a great deal (it's an awesome religion if you're an employer trying to organize company retreats in order to persuade your employees to work harder, for more hours, for less money), not all Japanese people are "Zen".

And no Zen master ever calls his students "grasshopper".
posted by KokuRyu at 3:50 PM on July 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Half described conflict between groups, such as a debate between residents of an impoverished Pacific island over whether to allow foreign oil companies to operate there following the discovery of petroleum. [...] The other half took the form of advice columns that dealt with conflicts between individuals: siblings, friends and spouses. After reading each article, participants were asked “What do you think will happen after that?” and “Why do you think it will happen this way?” Their responses were recorded and transcribed. [...] Each participant's scores were then added up and mathematically transformed to create an overall value within a range of zero to 100 for both interpersonal and intergroup wisdom.

This suggests that the article's so-called paradox is a misunderstanding of the nature of Japanese "collectivism". The interpersonal is exactly how this works on a day-to-day basis -- how meaningful can in-group/out-group distinctions be if people aren't first attuned to their siblings, friends, and spouses (i.e. their in-group)? I also agree with KokuRyu: interpersonal relationships in both countries are much more complicated than a binary "collective"/"individual" distinction makes them out to be. As this paper puts it, some of the simpler ideas about what collectivism means must be discarded and [...] a more complex understanding of the construct is possible.

Dumbest dichotomy ever.
posted by vorfeed at 3:58 PM on July 23, 2012


GAH SCIENCE WRITING. This may not have been a fantastic study but I'm sure it can't have been as idiotic as that article makes it sound. Nothing is that idiotic.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:18 PM on July 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is this just misremembered pop-culture ignorance, or does the author of a study comparing American and Japanese culture just kind of assume it's "all Asian?"
posted by Ghidorah at 4:27 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]



Is this just misremembered pop-culture ignorance, or does the author of a study comparing American and Japanese culture just kind of assume it's "all Asian?"

Yeah, grasshopper was from the TV show "Kung Fu"..Shaolin. Are they "zen"?
posted by Mojojojo at 4:33 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait, I am 70, perhaps I will start getting a bit of deference and respect on the blue--right--fat chance. To get respect here you have to be witty, quick, bright, have multiple windows open and reasonably literate. I had some of those characteristics, once.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:40 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have NOT RTFA, so probably should keep my opinions to myself for the time being, but generationally older Japanese went through an incredibly disruptive world-view shattering event in WW2, while Americans ("the greatest generation") went through an affirming, community binding event. Surely that would be entirely relevant.
posted by wilful at 4:51 PM on July 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yeah, grasshopper was from the TV show "Kung Fu"..Shaolin. Are they "zen"?

I guess if you want to get technical about it, if they were talking about the Chinese branch of Zen Buddhism in that show it'd be 禪, or Chán Buddhism. Zen probably sounded cooler for a tv show, though.

He has, however, now extended his investigation to Asia—the land of the wizened Zen-master—and, in particular, to Japan

because all of Asia is populated with wizened Zen-masters amirite
posted by zennish at 4:56 PM on July 23, 2012


I had some of those characteristics, once.

You're supposed to lull us into a false sense of security and then chop our heads off. It's the American Way.
posted by XMLicious at 4:58 PM on July 23, 2012


The best part of TFA is that he ends by saying that the real root of wisdom is this: do not assume, little grasshopper, that your prejudices are correct.

And yeah, Kung Fu was a charicature of Shao Lin kung fu and Chinese culture where the lead character was Chinese, but played by a white man. This guy is conflating cliches from that show with Zen Buddhism, which, while centered in Japan, is not widely followed here. This is a very, very secular society.

Oh well, at least he wasn't trying to explain Japanese society through the teachings of Confucius.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:01 PM on July 23, 2012


Contrary to popular belief, not all sects of Zen Buddhism require monks to undergo wizening. Some will now let their initiates stay at a normal baseline level of wiz.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:03 PM on July 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I've noticed that people on Metafilter generally hate it, but the individualism-collectivism spectrum is a perfectly useful sociological model. Key word being model; it's a scientific approximation for reality, and approximations are used everywhere in science. It's one thing to misuse a model, it's another to completely dismiss it.
posted by polymodus at 5:07 PM on July 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have NOT RTFA, so probably should keep my opinions to myself for the time being, but generationally older Japanese went through an incredibly disruptive world-view shattering event in WW2, while Americans ("the greatest generation") went through an affirming, community binding event. Surely that would be entirely relevant.

I have idea what this has to do with "wisdom", but my father-in-law, RIP, was a kid when Tsuruga was flattened and burned to the ground (it was an important port and connection with Korea, and also hosted a major POW camp). He saw his sister burned alive. He hated war.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:08 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the measures of wisdom was "recognition of the limits of personal knowledge" which those doing the study could use more of. I also think the reason the younger Americans seemed less interested in compromise or avoiding conflict is because they probably were active on the internet more than the older Americans..
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:13 PM on July 23, 2012


Contrary to popular belief, not all sects of Zen Buddhism require monks to undergo wizening. Some will now let their initiates stay at a normal baseline level of wiz.

Yeah, and in fact the Zen sects in general are far behind other forms of Buddhism in the wizening race.
posted by No-sword at 5:59 PM on July 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


I also think the reason the younger Americans seemed less interested in compromise or avoiding conflict is because they probably were active on the internet more than the older Americans.

Eh. I think idiot 18 year olds have been idiot 18 year olds for a good long while before the internet came in to play.
posted by maryr at 7:55 PM on July 23, 2012


@No-sword

o_O GaaaaAAAAHH! Worthy of an FPP, or a particularly haunting ending of a Choose-your-own-Adventure. (If you successfully automummify, turn to page 85...) Suicide by self-control, over 2000 days, holy crap.
posted by eurypteris at 10:10 PM on July 23, 2012


Confusing and not representative of the best of the Economist.
posted by gen at 10:12 PM on July 23, 2012


Forgot the "inscrutable Asians" tag.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:35 PM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ugh... Individualism-Collectivism is DONE in the social sciences. Outdated, little empirical support... I wish it hadn't caught on like this.
posted by k8t at 12:13 AM on July 24, 2012


the individualism-collectivism spectrum is a perfectly useful sociological model

polymodus, I think everyone understands that Individualism-Collectivism is a model, and that some models are very useful indeed. The problem many people have with it is that it's a ridiculously oversimplified model, and that it just doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Not only is it not very useful, it is highly problematic and misleading.
posted by jet_manifesto at 1:47 AM on July 24, 2012


Why is it problematic and misleading, and is there a model to replace it with? Everyone here is hatin' on individualism/collectivism, and I'm curious as to why the haters be hatin'. I'm not trying to be a jerk, I'm just genuinely curious.
posted by meows at 3:00 AM on July 24, 2012


Everyone here is hatin' on individualism/collectivism

The Economist has taken tired old cultural stereotypes at face value, which is very unwise.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:44 AM on July 24, 2012


Well, I'm not a sociologist, but my understanding is that every culture has elements of collectivism and individualism; Americans are very fond of thinking of ourselves as rugged individualists, but there is very little empirical evidence showing that Americans and Western Europeans are more individualistic than everybody else. Replication of studies is rare, and sampling and study design can be problematic.

So people who are like, "OK, now given that we Americans are individualistic and that Japanese people are collectivistic ..." are making a weak statement. Further, there's kind of a history of westerners being all "Now we are x, which means that people from the Orient -- who are clearly the opposite of us -- are the opposite of x", whether or not this is true. This is particularly the case when it comes to things like sexuality and whatever.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:38 AM on July 24, 2012


... but there is very little empirical evidence showing that Americans and Western Europeans are more individualistic than everybody else. Replication of studies is rare, and sampling and study design can be problematic.

Isn't this true of most of sociology in general? I'm not really sure that this attacks the individualism/collectivism dichotomy as much as it informs us as to why sociology is difficult in practice.


The Economist has taken tired old cultural stereotypes at face value, which is very unwise.

But why are you calling it a tired and old stereotype, and not a useful construct for understanding other cultures?


Sorry if I'm harping on this. I guess I'm having a hard time with it because for me the idea of individualism vs collectivism has been pretty useful to me as far as understanding other cultures that I've encountered. If Americans, as Comrade_robot stated above, believe that they are rugged individualists, isn't understanding individualism useful for understanding their stories, symbols, beliefs, and behavior? Regardless of whether or not Americans are empirically more or less individualistic, understanding individualism can still help someone navigate American culture, no?
posted by meows at 9:18 AM on July 24, 2012


I'm not really sure that this attacks the individualism/collectivism dichotomy as much as it informs us as to why sociology is difficult in practice.

Again, all cultures tend to have aspects of both individualism and collectivism. Why does it have to be a dichotomy?

If the idea that Americans are individualistic and Japanese people aren't doesn't come from anything empirical ... where does this idea come from? Are they possibly informed by stereotypes held within American culture? How useful are those stereotypes, especially given the fairly problematic treatment of Asians/"The exotic Orient" in the past?

What do American stereotypes of Japanese people tell you about Japanese people? Or might they tell you more about what Americans need Japanese people to be?
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:15 AM on July 24, 2012


But why are you calling it a tired and old stereotype, and not a useful construct for understanding other cultures?

Well, as I've said a couple of times in this thread, this is not a useful construct because it is too simple, and also is probably inaccurate.

meows, I'm not sure if you have ever lived in a different culture for an extended time, but cultural constructs are pretty useless - cultures are very complex, contradicting things, and what you refer to as a cultural construct in this case is actually just a stereotype.

It all comes down to "why do Americans get wise as they get older, while Japanese people do not increase in wisdom as much?"

Using the stereotype "individual society vs collective society" doesn't provide any real insights.

And I don't even understand how Japan is "collective". It's not like people live together in communal dormitories or something, and attend a community potluck seven days a week.

Japan is more of a European-style country, which takes Zen or Kung Fu right out of the question. Maybe Japanese wisdom is based on the influence of Edvard Munch or Hans Christian Anderson.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:07 AM on July 24, 2012


The work cited by the Economist is a dissertation and a more complete reference is: Grossmann, I., Karasawa, M., Izumi, S., Na, J., Varnum, M. E. W., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. Aging and wisdom: Culture matters. Psychological Science. Why anyone referencing any research/study that doesn't include a LINK or at least the TITLE of the work is beyond me.

You can find the work here (112 page pdf, likely gated).

For those concerned about the lack of cultural perspective, please note several JAPANESE names* who helped author this, so it's no surprise that grasshopper isn't in the text, nor Zen. In fact the author covers the whole cultural angle on pages 13 and 14, referencing Kitayama's work. Of course, Kitayama also helped write this dissertation- so its not exactly a broad or wide ranging engagement with this particular issue/subject, and I'm not an expert either, but it really is really not the primary issue with the paper.

The primary issue is that they had a group of different people assess the "wisdom" found in open ended statements - which is difficult to effectively operationalize (note the lengthy description of methods) and very difficult to replicate. That's a potentially major issue, but I'm big on the methodology, YMMD.

They chose different countries because they are different, it's in the Economist because of the counterfactual findings, and Freakanomics has demonstrated that we all love counterfactuals.

*of course someone who is Japanese can still be very wrong about Japanese culture
posted by zenon at 12:16 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


*of course someone who is Japanese can still be very wrong about Japanese culture

I agree. For example, a big meme right now in Japan is about "rudderless leadership" and the inability to deal with Japan's problems. It is often presented as both a cultural and sociological problem (eg, Japan's population is a nation of sheeplike followers who won't elect a government that can change things), but Japan's political problems are to a certain degree structural and constitutional.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:30 PM on July 24, 2012


"Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night/Now they blew up his house too".
posted by KokuRyu at 12:49 PM on July 24, 2012


Individualism/collectivism is not a dichotomy or a blanket term for understanding a society as a whole. It is a spectrum usually used to measure intergroup relationships like marriages, dating, persuasion, and goals. There has been plenty of cross-cultural empirical research using it as a model, so it's not exactly an untested stereotype randomly assigned to different nations. Recent research has shown it to be somewhat hit or miss but there has been some really interesting research done in the past using using the spectrum as guide to define a core dimension. This study was not one of them.
posted by Rocket Surgeon at 8:03 PM on July 24, 2012


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