[Paleopsych] Guardian: East is east - get used to it

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East is east - get used to it

    As Japan has shown, and China will too, the west's values are not
    necessarily universal
    Martin Jacques
    Friday May 20, 2005

    Not so long ago, Japan was the height of fashion. Then came the
    post-bubble recession and it rapidly faded into the background,
    condemned as yesterday's story. The same happened to the Asian tigers:
    until 1997 they were the flavour of the month, but with the Asian
    financial crisis they sank into relative obscurity. No doubt the same
    fate will befall China in due course, though perhaps a little less
    dramatically because of its sheer size and import.

    These vagaries tell us nothing about east Asia, but describe the
    fickleness of western attitudes towards the region's transformation. A
    combination of curiosity and a fear of the unknown fuel a swelling
    interest, and then, when it appears that it was a false alarm, old
    attitudes of western-centric hubris reassert themselves: the Asian
    tigers were victims of a crony culture and Japan was simply too

    During Japan's crisis, western - mainly American - witch doctors
    advised that the only solution was to abandon Japanese customs like
    lifetime employment and adopt more Anglo-Saxon practices such as
    shareholder value. The age-old western habit of believing that its
    arrangements - of the neo-liberal variety, in this instance - are
    always best proved as strong as ever: it is in our genes. The fact
    that the US was at the time in the early stages of its own bubble
    might have suggested a little humility was in order. In the event,
    Japan largely ignored the advice and has emerged from its long,
    post-bubble recession looking remarkably like it did before the

    Japan has long been part of the advanced world. It was the only
    non-western country to begin its industrialisation in the 19th
    century, following the Meiji Restoration in 1867. It has the second
    largest economy and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in
    the world. By any standards, it is a fully paid-up member of the
    exclusive club of advanced nations. Yet Japan is quite unlike any
    western society. In terms of the hardware of modernity - cars,
    computers, technology, motorways and the rest - Japan is,
    unsurprisingly, largely familiar. However, in terms of social
    relations - the way in which society works, the values that imbue it -
    it is profoundly different.

    Even a casual observer who cannot understand Japanese will almost
    immediately notice the differences: the absence of antisocial
    behaviour, the courtesy displayed by the Japanese towards each other,
    the extraordinary efficiency and orderliness that characterise the
    stuff of everyday life, from public transport to shopping. For those
    of a more statistical persuasion, it is reflected in what are, by
    western standards, extremely low crime rates. Not least, it finds
    expression in the success of Japanese companies. This has wrongly been
    attributed to an organisational system, namely just-in-time
    production, which, it was believed, could be imitated and applied with
    equal effect elsewhere. But the roots of the success of a company such
    as Toyota lie much deeper: in the social relations that typify
    Japanese society and that allow a very different kind of participation
    by the workforce in comparison with the west. As a result,
    non-Japanese companies have found it extremely difficult to copy these
    ideas with anything like the same degree of success.

    So how do we explain the differences between Japan and the west? The
    heart of the matter lies in their different ethos. Individualism
    animates the west, now more than ever. In contrast, the organising
    principle of Japanese society is a sense of group identity, a feeling
    of being part of a much wider community. Compared with western
    societies, Japan is a dense lattice-work of responsibilities and
    obligations within the family, the workplace, the school and the
    community. As Deepak Lal argues in his book Unintended Consequences,
    the Japanese sense of self is quite distinct from the western notion
    of individualism. As a result, people behave in very different ways
    and have very different expectations, and their behaviour is informed
    by very different values. This finds expression in a multitude of

    Following the recent train crash in which 106 people died, the
    president of the operating company, JR West, was forced to resign:
    this is the normal and expected response of a company boss when things
    go seriously wrong. Income differentials within large corporations are
    much less than in their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, because it is group
    cohesion rather than individual ego that is most valued. Even during
    the depth of the recession, the jobless figure never rose much above
    5%: it was regarded as wrong to solve a crisis by creating large-scale
    unemployment. Even those who do the more menial tasks - shop
    assistants, security staff, station attendants and canteen workers -
    display a pride in their work and a courtesy that is in striking
    contrast to the surly and resentful attitude prevalent in Britain and
    other western societies.

    In a survey conducted by the Japanese firm Dentsu, 68% of Americans
    and 60% of Britons identified with "a society in which everyone can
    freely compete according to his/her will and abilities" compared with
    just 22% of Japanese. In the same survey, only 15% of Japanese agreed
    with the proposition that "it's all right to break the rules,
    depending on the circumstances", compared with 37% of Americans and
    39% of Britons. This finds rather bizarre expression - to an
    Englishman at least - in the way pedestrians invariably wait for the
    pedestrian lights to turn to green even when there is not the
    slightest sign of an approaching vehicle. Even the preferred choice of
    car reflects the differing ethos: whereas in the US and Britain, the
    fashionable car of choice is a 4x4 - the very embodiment of a "bugger
    you and the environment" individualism - the equivalent in Japan is
    the tiny micro-car, much smaller than a Ford Ka - a genre that is
    neither made nor marketed in the UK.

    The differences are legion, and not always for the better. Japan, for
    example, is still blighted by a rigid and traditional sexual division
    of labour. In a survey on the gender gap published last week by the
    World Economic Forum, Japan came 38th out of 58 countries, an
    extraordinarily low ranking for a developed nation. Or take democracy,
    that hallowed and allegedly universal principle of our age. Japan has
    universal suffrage, but the idea of alternating parties in government
    is almost entirely alien. Real power is exercised by factions within
    the ruling Liberal Democrats rather than by the other political
    parties, which, as a consequence, are largely marginal. We should not
    be surprised: in a society based on group culture rather than
    individualism, "democracy" is bound to be a very different kind of

    Far from conforming to the western model then, Japan remains
    profoundly different. And so it has always been. After the Meiji
    Restoration it deliberately sought to engineer a modernisation that
    was distinctively Japanese, drawing from its own traditions as well as
    borrowing from the west. Globalisation notwithstanding, this is still
    strikingly the case. Indeed, Japan remains unusually and determinedly
    impervious to many of the pressures of globalisation. The lesson here,
    perhaps, is that we should expect the same to be true, in some degree
    or another, of the Asian tigers - and ultimately China too. That is
    not to say they will end up looking anything like Japan: China and
    Japan, for example, are in many respects chalk and cheese. But they
    will certainly be very different from the west because, like Japan,
    they come from very different histories and cultures.

    · Martin Jacques is a visiting professor at the International Centre
    for Chinese Studies at Aichi University in Japan

    [4]martinjacques1 at aol.com

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