History, Social Structure and Individualism: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Japan

By Schooler, Carmi | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, February 1998 | Go to article overview

History, Social Structure and Individualism: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Japan


Schooler, Carmi, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


This paper explores how history and social structure affect individualism in Japan. In doing so, it reports on a variety of cross-cultural studies comparing Japan with the West. Although I have been involved in most of these studies, their approaches vary markedly. They span the range from broad historical comparisons covering centuries to analyses of variance of fine-grained time samples of parent and child behavior. The disciplines involved include not only sociology, but also psychology, anthropology and history. In the course of the paper, I will use all of these different cross-cultural comparative approaches to try to gain an understanding of the differences and similarities between Japan and the West in how the place of the individual in society is viewed.

There is a school of thought that takes a quite different approach - one which maintains that the Japanese are essentially different from other people - one of the most basic differences being their fundamental rejection of individualism in favor of psychological interdependency.(1) Known as Nihonjinron, those in this school tend to see Japan as essentially incomparable to other nations except in terms of the ways it is better than they are (for a critical review see Befu, 1993). This paper, on the other hand, focuses on the many historical and modem day similarities between Japan and the West. Where it finds differences it tries to explain them according to generally applicable sociological and psychological principles rather than postulating that the Japanese are somehow inherently different.

Substantively, I will try to show that:

I. From an historical perspective, the pattern of Japanese history is remarkably similar to that of the West. Furthermore, parallel historical periods in Japan and the West were characterized by similar levels of economic development and individualism. There are plausible reasons - involving causal interconnections among individualism, economic development and environmental complexity - for thinking that these similarities are not accidental.

II. From a sociological social psychology perspective, everyday socio-environmental conditions have analogous effects in Japan and the West. In particular, complex environments have quite similar psychological effects in both settings. In both, environmental complexity increases intellectual flexibility, self-directed orientations and the value placed on individualism and autonomy.

III. Japan has recently shown a rise in the level of individualistic values and an accompanying decrease in 'traditional' group-oriented ones. The evidence suggests that the Japanese have not remained impervious to factors such as rising levels of environmental complexity that increase individualistic values, orientations and behaviors.

IV. The increase in individualistic behavior among Japanese mothers and their children is especially noteworthy because it contrasts with the relative lack of such behavior found in the classic comparative study of Japanese and American infant and child rearing practices carried out by William Caudill in the 1960s. This study pioneered in revealing some of the behavioral mechanisms through which cultural norms are maintained from one generation to the next by being instantiated in infant and child-rearing practices.

V. In part because of behavioral modes of cultural reproduction such as Caudill described, cultural changes, such as those involving individualism in Japan, generally take place at a slower rate than socio-environmentally produced psychological changes in individuals.

VI. A more general basis for the slowness in change of cultural norms such as individualism is their institutionalization in the social structure of society.(2) Institutionalization furnishes us with at least part of the reason for the greater inertia of social and cultural, as compared to individual, level phenomena. This relative slowness of cultural change accounts, at least in part, for the remaining differences between Japan and the U.

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