Japanese Group Mentality?

(Shibuya station of the Inogashira Line on an evening in May 2011.)

One often mentioned cultural characteristic (a stereotype, plainly put) that has been so deeply impressed into theories of Japanese culture is Japan’s so-called “group mentality.” This theory might have become something of a non-issue in Japanese cultural studies of late (except perhaps for scholars of “Nihonjinron,” theories of Japanese uniqueness from a rather Japanese perspective), but it is still perpetuated by international journalism, Western expats living in Japan, and many Japanese nationals, who are also considered experts on the issue. As long as this stereotype is so widespread, I think it requires a closer look.

The standard reason given for the Japanese group mentality is Japan’s tradition of rice agriculture, where close, careful relationships among community members were necessary to ensure the fair division of water resources even when they were scarce. The community, it is said, had to set personal differences aside to survive. But, large parts of Japanese society (fishing communities and the often low-class, mobile groups of society, for example) were never really tied to rice agriculture. It might be argued that these communities were not involved in determining the dominant culture. Do any of these types of social structures actually still influence the fabric of Japanese society today after agriculture has become such an industrialized industry that fewer and fewer people are a part of it and more and more people move to urban areas?

If the memories of major natural disasters persist for no more than three generations, what about major impacts on society that have a far less traumatic impact on most members? The recent major shift from agricultural to urban lifestyles in Japan happened in large part one or two generations ago. Those who started living in urban areas were not those negatively affected by the change. They felt little to no trauma (although there was likely some trauma among those left behind in rural areas). Few people I met in Tokyo ever spoke of agricultural roots. (I met a few more people with rural ties in Kyoto, but I guess I’m focusing on Tokyo culture in this post.)

Certainly, urban, corporate culture has also been changing within the last generation, from conservative models of group structure and hierarchy and so forth to more flexible, smaller, and independent forms of business. This, of course, is only an impression I have after working in a small, newly established company for a while and from friends who are young, creative people in Tokyo. But even among this young generation, there is a kind of group mentality that has grown within the last year.

Even during the earthquake a year ago, Twitter and cell phones connected my community of friends, many students, independent young entrepreneurs, and creative types. One friend called us all “single” people, a bit of an exaggeration if understood in a purely romantic sense. A few have significant others, but these people live relatively free of regulative social institutions. Most of them live alone, have self-delegated schedules, and are critical of conservative family, business, and other social institutions. In that sense, these people are all “single,” independent, and even individualistic.

Despite their perhaps unconventional situations and world-views, these young people formed a community in the weeks following the earthquake. Over our phones, we kept tabs on one another’s whereabouts and needs, and on one another’s mental shape as the death toll rose, aftershocks continued, and more cryptic news stories came from Fukushima. Having collectively looked into the face of our own mortality, we suddenly shared something few other communities share.

And this sense of community went beyond the people represented by entries in my cell-phone address book. Another friend tweeted at that time, she now saw the people around her as she navigated Tokyo as potential teammates, people she would have to cooperate with in the next earthquake.

So, if Japanese society may be charged with having a group mentality, it is not for any historical development from rice agriculture. It is a shared awareness of our own transient nature shaped by a common experience. This is not so very different, perhaps, from the effects of natural disasters on the cultures of other communities throughout the world. But it is very different from the respective cultures of people who see death as something one meets very much alone. . .