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How different are the Japanese?

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We all know that the Japanese are different, but just how different really?  Some insights can be gleaned from the work of Geert Hofstede.

Hofstede measures culture in terms of five national cultural dimensions:

1.  Power distance – this is extent to which the less powerful accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.  In harsh terms, it could be regarded as submissiveness in the face of unfairness.

2. Individualism versus its opposite of collectivism-- in individualist societies, people are expected to fend for themselves and the immediate family, whereas in collectivist societies people are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families which continue protecting them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

3. Masculinity versus its opposite, femininity.  The assertive pole has been called 'masculine' and the modest, caring pole 'feminine'. The women in feminine countries have the same modest, caring values as the men; in the masculine countries they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so that these countries show a gap between men's values and women's values.

4. Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society's tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it ultimately refers to man's search for Truth. It indicates to what extent a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations. Uncertainty avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of such situations by strict laws and rules, safety and security measures, and on the philosophical and religious level by a belief in absolute Truth.  People in uncertainty avoiding countries are also more emotional, and motivated by inner nervous energy. Uncertainty accepting cultures are more tolerant of opinions different from what they are used to.  They try to have as few rules as possible, and on the philosophical and religious level they are relativist and allow many currents to flow side by side. People within these cultures are more phlegmatic and contemplative, and not expected by their environment to express emotions.

5. Long-term versus short-term orientation.  Values associated with Long Term Orientation are thrift and perseverance; values associated with Short Term Orientation are respect for tradition, fulfilling social obligations, and protecting one's 'face'.

So how does Japan stack up?

First, in terms of power distance, Japan comes in at 26th out of the 69 countries surveyed, with a score of 54.  Not bad, you might say.  But in general, the countries which are less submissive tend to be advanced democracies, countries like Austria, Israel, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and US.  That said, Japan does much better than Asian neighbours like China (score of 80), India (77), Malaysia (104), Philippines (94), Singapore (74), Thailand (64) and Vietnam (70).  In fact, Japan comes in with a  score quite similar to South Korea (60) and Taiwan (58), other developed Asian countries.

Let’s turn to individualism?  Japan ranks 31st.  Here the story is even more stark, with Japan being right in the middle of two groups, that is, the rich, western democracies which have individualistic societies (with US, Australia and the UK being on top), and the developing countries which have collectivist societies like China and most other Asian countries.

When it comes to masculinity, Japan almost tops the world with a score of 95; only Slovakia with 110 beats it – no other country comes near them.  We all know that Japanese men are macho and sexist, but this result suggests that Japanese women are also assertive and competitive, presumably mostly in their principal domain of the family.  Anglo Saxon countries, where the women’s movement has been strongest, have moderate scores – Australia (61), Canada (52), UK (66) and the US (62).  China with 66 is in the same ballpark. 

If Japan is so masculine, surely the Japanese will have no problem coping with uncertainty.  Not in your life!  As anybody who has dealt with Japanese would know, they are very uncomfortable in unstructured situations.  With a score of 92, they are only beaten by Belgium, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Poland, Portugal, Russia and Uruguay.  Predictably, the Anglo Saxon countries are at the other end of the spectrum – Australia (51), Canada (48), UK (35) and US (46).  And our Chinese friends apparently have no problem with uncertainty, with their score of a mere 30.

No-one will be surprised to learn that Japanese have a very long term orientation (only beaten for that by China and Hong Kong), in sharp contrast with the Anglo Saxon countries.

None of this is all that surprising, although there may be some insights into why China is better positioned than Japan for the 21st century.  China has a stronger long term orientation, very much less fear of uncertainty and a more balanced society in terms male/female roles.  What’s more the Chinese are much more accepting of the existing power structure and are more collectivist.  In other words, although they swallow inequality, within their social groups they help each other out.

These factors could well shape the future of North East Asia.


Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions