Individualism's Face on Both Sides of the Globe Public Opinion on Gender Roles in the US and Japan Suggests That Egalitarianism Doesn't Necessarily Increase Happiness

Article excerpt

On the campaign trail this year, President Clinton has been talking about school uniforms as a way to bring more discipline and better education to the schools. In Japan recently, there has been discussion of abandoning school uniforms so that students can express their individuality.

These anecdotes bolster a conclusion we have come to in our review of 50 years of public opinion data from the United States and Japan. As is often the case for those who study American politics and culture, Alexis de Tocqueville arrived there first. In his magisterial study of the young democracy, Tocqueville argued that the American experience should be studied for what it told us about aspects of everyone's future. He believed that the principles he saw in America - egalitarianism, individualism, and democracy - would eventually sweep the planet. He did not think that a vigorous assertion of these ideas would produce social betterment or greater happiness.

Japan and the United States are being propelled along the course he described, although they are at very different points. The call for school uniforms in America is a way to deal with the darker side of unfettered individualism; the desire to get rid of uniforms in Japan is an expression of a more insistent assertion of individualism. Looking at areas of social and family relations, and at relations between men and women, confirms Tocqueville's insights and prescience.

The idea that women and men are to be accorded full equality of status in the workplace and in other areas of social life is a natural element of the sociopolitical individualism Tocqueville described. That does not mean that highly individualist societies such as the US have always honored this commitment. After all it wasn't until 1871 that women were able to vote in any state in the US. But an individualist society finds it hard to deny fundamental claims for gender equality. Traditional societies like Japan have, by contrast, posited differences in men's and women's roles as a part of a natural and immutable (and often patriarchal) order.

Evolving gender relations

In the 50 years since World War II, Japanese society has moved quite far from the male dominance that historically distinguished the country's gender relations. Clearly, from the perspective of Japanese women, it has not moved far enough. Many traditional norms and assumptions bearing on gender roles remain at least partly in place in Japan. Put another way, gender relations have changed in both countries, but they are far more in flux in Japan than in the United States, where the patriarchal structure so common to traditional societies was never established. Many surveys, including one done by Roper Starch Worldwide in the United States and Dentsu Inc. in Japan, confirm both the progress and the distance yet to go. They also underscore the observation that a more complete expression of individualism can produce problems of its own.

Large majorities of women in the Roper/Dentsu survey say they have seen great improvements in women's economic position since 1970. …