On Losing Control in Japan


America, Japan has a question for you.

Try to think of ten recent moments where you gracefully adjusted to a change you didn’t agree with. You didn’t resist or put up a fuss. Jot it down, with the date. Then, try another one: When was the last time you influenced something – changed someone’s mind, or something around you, to be more comfortable.

Did you do it? Of course you didn’t. That’s OK. Some researchers in Kyoto and Muhlenberg University already know what you’d say.

Ask Americans to remember the last time they had to adjust, and we’ll likely have trouble remembering it, maybe reaching back months or years. We will, however, easily remember influencing or changing someone’s mind, and those memories will be fresher. In Japan, the situation is reversed. Americans act, the Japanese adjust.

Thinking about adjustment vs influence helps frame a lot of the divide between American and Japanese cultures, and this research paper came as an “Aha!” moment in finding the fundamentals that make me a human being and the cultural context that makes me an American. The research found while people on either side of the Pacific acknowledge some degree of both, they are “primed” to respond to influence or adjustment by the cultures they live in.

It’s a two-stage process. First, American culture emphasizes efficacy and self-reliance, while Japan encourages closeness and social interdependence. Second, American culture presents more opportunities to be independent, while Japanese culture presents more opportunities to be interdependent.

Our cultures have been built up to reward things which were already prevalent in our culture – which only serves to make these cultural forces stronger.

You Gotta Have Faith
Think about religion: American Christianity emphasizes the value of good deeds, that the person themselves is in charge of their fate in the world by being either a good person or bad person. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist or a Buddhist in America. It is inescapable. This good vs bad idea of our nation’s first settlers (and binary robots), the Puritans, is enshrined in our legal system, business culture and education. This emphasizes our control over anything that happens, even before God.

You survive a flood by building an ark. You resist temptation when it comes to you, by sheer force of will. This metaphorical flood, and how to build this metaphorical ark, is at the heart of every American political argument: How do we empower people to rise up over adversity? Do we give them wood (liberal), or do we get out of the way when they go to chop down trees (conservative)?

Japanese religions, particularly Shinto, place the human being in the center of a constant balancing act between spirits. And the spirits are everywhere – in the rocks, in the foxes. A person isn’t good or bad per se, but lives in harmony with these spirits or disrupts them. This principle is found across Japanese culture: Discuss, come to consensus, move forward. There is no sense in seeking “control” over nature, or the people around you, but by enduring it. You survive a flood by getting wet.

The paper goes on to discuss the reigning views of psychotherapy in the West and in Japan. While both have become influenced by the other, a good sum of Western psychology has centered on overcoming the symptoms of one’s neurosis – facing your fears, confronting your parents, changing your inner dialogue, medicating away your feelings – rather than learning to live and adjust to their constant gnawing presence, which is the influence of Eastern mindfulness practices.

American culture has evolved from the idea that human beings will act on their environment, and that by bringing their environment into their control, they will find personal satisfaction. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness and all that. Even American law assumes that satisfaction comes from developing a sense of competence. This spreads into our arrangement of work, the ownership of personal property. People are rewarded for taking action socially, because our culture values those who do and convince. These traits are rewarded by our society with money and power, so we are encouraged and praised when we exhibit them.

Contrast this to Japanese culture, which praises passive dignity and stoicism. The people who are admired are the ones who endure, rather than those who try to take charge: the idea of adjustment. There is no promise of individual liberty and the right to define our happiness within the roots of the Japanese state. Children are discouraged from selfishly seeking control, and rewarded for agreeable cooperation. Societies reward what societies value.

Darling Don’t You Go And Cut Your Hair
Our researchers in Kyoto asked people from America and Japan to describe a situation where they could take charge of something, “exert influence,” and one where they gracefully adjusted to accommodate someone else. The wording went as follows:

In daily life, we are surrounded by a variety of people, events, and objects. We would like you to think of situations in which you have influenced or changed the surrounding people, events, or objects according to your own wishes. Please consider as broad a range of situations as possible; however, the situations should be ones that you have actually experienced.


In daily life, we are surrounded by a variety of people, events, and objects. We would like you to think of situations in which you have adjusted yourself to these surrounding people, events, or objects. Please consider as broad a range of situations as possible; however, the situations should be ones that you have actually experienced.

Americans could easily imagine situations where they were influential, but struggled to come up with stories of adjustment. In fact, I struggle even comprehending the second question on my first read. The situation was reversed for the Japanese.

The differences in stories are amusing. In particular, a Japanese memory of “influence” included:

“I have a lot of hair and it is difficult to wash. So I cut it short so it is easy to wash now.”

Whereas an American idea of influence included:

“I talked my sister out of dating a guy who I knew was a jerk.”

For adjustment stories the following examples:

“When I am out shopping with my friend, and she says something is cute, even when I
don’t think it is, I agree with her” (from Japan) and “I had to adjust last school year when one of my roommates’ boyfriends moved into our house” (American).

What’s particularly amusing is that the American here doesn’t even explain how they adjusted to the presence of the roommate’s boyfriend, only that they had to do it. Indeed, Americans were more likely to describe changing someone else in their influence answers, whereas Japanese people were more likely to describe changing something about themselves (such as hair length).

Everybody’s Working for the Weekend
In their conclusion, the researchers mention another crucial aspect of this cultural difference:

“Our data show that psychological characteristics often attributed to people in the two cultures (i.e., independence and efficacy in the United States and interdependence and connectedness in Japan) are not purely psychological; they represent a joint effect of both a psychological tendency and social situations to which the tendency is attuned.”

As an expat in Japan, this is a critical bit of wisdom: Japanese culture, compared to American culture, doesn’t provide as many opportunities to be in control of a situation. I feel powerless all the time here, and racked it up to my weak Japanese, or poor relationships, or low position in the office hierarchy. But really, Japan simply doesn’t present opportunities to feel empowered, because the culture assumes you don’t need that as much as you need relationships.

It’s arranged around prizing adjustment to accommodate relationships. That means avoiding presenting situations that might disrupt them. That would be extremely stressful for native Japanese – asking them to be in control and make decisions for others with force means asking them, constantly, to risk their carefully maintained sense of interpersonal harmony.

Work Ethics
Consider how drastically you would change if you went to a job where promotion wasn’t necessarily a sign of hard work. While the culture in Japan has shifted recently, working hard for your superiors in Japan isn’t likely to earn the kind of influence or power it would in an American office. What’s valued, instead, is your ability to stay calm and aware of other people’s needs. As a result, it is typical for workers to distribute their hard work among peers.

I brought my standard work ethic: I worked hard, with the understanding that my role was to make the lives of my co-workers and supervisors easier by taking on parts of their workload and pointing out ways to streamline the system. That goal was laughable. Despite my efforts, I was not allowed to leave work 10 minutes early to catch a train. Soon after that I was denied consideration for a promotion simply because I “didn’t socialize enough” at work parties.

People weren’t consciously depriving me of control or influence. They just had no idea that I was expecting it. The traits they respected were social ones, and I hadn’t developed those at all. I was too busy working. The culture was tugging along valuing interdependence while I was blazing my own efficient trail.

Few people understood my need to feel competent – for positive feedback, a good performance review, a project to call my own, or anything to reduce my perpetual feelings of incompetence.

Imagine a culture where you feel good because you didn’t tell your sister that her boyfriend was a jerk, that you took pride in biting your tongue and being graceful about withholding your opinions and your boldest ideas. Where nodding politely to an angry idiot isn’t a demeaning act of social cowardice, but an empowering act of self-control. When someone comes in and says, “You have to tell that guy he’s an asshole and stand up for yourself,” the answer might be, “Why?” Both views are equally valid ways of doing things. But we’re primed to see one more than the other based on where we were born.

The Hipster in American Culture
One result researchers hadn’t expected to stumble into is that Americans also socialize through influencing each other. Social status is determined by sharing positions and persuading people to agree. I think of how many conversations at home were arguments about taste. Americans talk about what they like, what they don’t like and why, and they expect to defend it. We want to make sure others agree with their conclusions – because influence, and showing off our ability to persuade, is a form of control we all long to have. Why do we spend so much time arguing with people who don’t like Mad Men or the Beatles? Because not changing their mind carries a nagging sense of failure: The failure to fully display our power of influence.

You don’t agree? Whatever.

*You can read the full study here. Notably, this is an American vs Japanese study. I’d be curious to compare results of American and British or New Zealand cultures, as they seem more akin to Japan in terms of social reserve around self-expression.

If your sister is dating a jerk, you can like This Japanese Life on Facebook and we’ll hook you up with a haircut. It’s the cosmopolitan way. 

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19 Responses to On Losing Control in Japan

  1. mangrovemission says:

    This is a fascinating and important observation. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to effect some kind of change in my small, private Jr. High school to no avail. Even with the school’s immanent closure at stake (due to low enrollment), change of the status quo in any way was hard to come by. More shockingly for me, this was at a Christian school, where I had supposed the moral imperative of the organization should trump any societal or cultural tendencies to “endure (gaman)”, since enduring would likely mean closing down the school. They’ve survived with a change in leadership (decided from above), but are still barely holding on.

    Anyway, thank you for your perceptive writing. You’ve given me a new perspective on this aspect of Japanese culture. I’ll need to chew on these ideas for a while.

  2. Nippaku says:

    Very interesting point!

  3. temoshi says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your entries about life in Japan, though I’ve been more of a passive fan and haven’t really shared my reactions to them. As a fellow ALT, I will say that you very accurately capture the nagging cultural differences and nuances that seem to lead us down a slow path to madness, or perhaps a higher state of intercultural understanding. I’m sad to see you’re leaving Japan, if only in that I can’t expect the same steady stream of insightful essays. I do, however, wish you the best of luck in the UK and am confident, despite not having met you, that you will quite successful in your future endeavors.

  4. Ian Lewis says:

    Facinating! I wonder what the Japanese v Chinese or Indian v Chinese comparison would be?

  5. Neville S-Jones says:

    My daughter sent this to me after her almost 2 years in a major city on Shikoku. Should be required reading, if not understanding, by people before they start their OE ( Overseas Experience). Interesting the comparison with NZ attitudes/national psyche….. which my Australian brought up wife tells me is too passive.,,, where we see ( generalising ) Australians as often rather abrasive and Americans inward and self-absorbed
    Could be wrong on both counts.:-).

  6. Specialk says:

    The whole time I was reading this I was thinking about the different ways people in Japan and the US respond to finding out that I’m a vegan. In the US, people immediately ask me why I don’t drink milk or eat eggs, since it’s not immediately obvious how that hurts animals. It’s like they try to understand my view by arguing with me. In Japan, despite veganism and vegetarianism being known of by so few and understood by even fewer, I’ve never been questioned or argued with about my decision, besides a litany of questions about all the things I can and cannot eat. I think that’s kind of unfortunate (I’d love to explore the reasons for eating or not eating meat with people in Japan), but I get the sense Japanese people would consider it rude to interrogate me about something that is after all a very personal choice.

  7. Pink Barry says:

    Awesome article – got me that much closer to understanding a culture I clearly haven’t a clue about. The very idea of NOT rewarding society’s most outspoken jerks had honestly never even occurred to me lol.

  8. Sophelia says:

    A few years ago I was asked to proof-read a reference my Japanese JHS was writing to include in a high school application for a student of ours who was going to study abroad. The reference form had a number of criteria we were supposed to address, including “leadership”. The JTE had written “*Student* is not a leader, but she can support the leader very well.” This was completely true and realistically a very good and useful trait, but I had to insist that we change it. In making my argument I pointed out that “leadership” was in the high school’s motto and that we would be disadvantaging our student if we didn’t claim that she had leadership skills. The world is a funny place.

    On a related note, at a teaching seminar I attended a few years ago we did a really interesting experiment. We divided into small groups and told we weren’t allowed to speak. We were given a deck of cards a sheet of rules, and told to start playing a game. After a few minutes some members of each group were told to join other groups, and we continued playing in silence while periodically changing groups for some time. When the exercise ended we discovered that each group had been given different rules to play by. When we moved between groups everyone had a different idea about how the game should work. Without being able to speak or even realising that it was happening, someone in each group inevitably dominated the others and “enforced” their version of the rules. This wasn’t an inter-cultural thing, although there were some ALTs there. It was about learning more about your own personality and how that impacts your teaching style. It was really, really interesting though. Among the people who did not come out as dominating there were some who simply accepted that the rules had changed but also some who became annoyed and resentful but didn’t do anything about it.

    • kamo says:

      That card game exercise sounds interesting. I don’t suppose you’ve got a link to anything like it, have you?

      As for references, I was asked to proof-read one written for a former SHS student who’d spent a year in the UK doing a foundation course and was now applying for Oxbridge (forget which one). It basically ended up as a complete rewrite. The original consisted of five paragraphs about how well he worked with others and how conscientious he was, followed by a single one saying, ‘He also got good marks in subjects X, Y, and Z.’

      “Er, Sensei, could we be a little more specific about his grades? May I have a look at his transcript?”

      Turns out he’d sat the nationwide preliminary Uni entrance tests, and ranked in the top 100. Out of about 20,000 entrants.

      “Oh. Do you think we should mention that?”

      I put it in the first paragraph.

  9. Stichero says:

    Another interesting observation is that of the shame culture in Japan and in contrast, the guilt culture I’m from.
    When something happened and I didn’t do it, I will defend myself, and try to explain why I didn’t do it. To many Japanese colleagues it sounds like I’m making excuses to avoid blame. They would rather have me say I’m sorry and preserve the harmony in our group.
    I always thought that in professional work environments saying “sorry”, or taking the blame for something you didn’t do would have a negative impact on how people see your and will result in bad evaluations. Saying “sorry” however, actually is applauded in Japan, and I was surprised to hear that showing you’re ashamed will have a positive impact on how people see you.
    It’s still confusing for me sometimes, and I try to adjust my behavior to this different culture, but deep inside I feel bad whenever I apologize for something I didn’t do…Just shows you how strong the guilt/sin culture is imbedded in my being.
    BTW here’s an interesting article about this difference!

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