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Culture and Civility: U.S. vs. Japan

Differences in Ethical Values Between the Two Countries

I just returned from several days in Japan and noticed a marked difference in how Japanese people carry themselves in public and ethical values that differ from those in the U.S. Traveling in Japan one notices right away how respect is deeply ingrained into all segments of society starting with the traditional bow of the head, a sign that a person is important to the Japanese. It is very noticeable in shops and on public accommodations including traveling their excellent subway system and by rail and bullet trains. For years we in the U.S. have debated the need for high-speed rail transportation but, like so many other quality of life issues such as fixing a crumbling infrastructure, the problem has been kicked down the road over and over again.

In America, respect is earned, not given, and even then one may not be respected because many in U.S. society seem to be oblivious to the civilities that make for a friendly and warm society. It’s an internal feeling, not one created by words but by actions.

It was interesting to note the divide in Japanese society. The older generation appears to be insular. The younger generation is more outgoing, a fact that clearly has been influenced by American tastes and fashion. The Japanese youngsters use their electronic devices on trains and in the streets much as do Americans. I have to wonder what the level of stress is between the generations in Japan.

The underlying cultural value in Japan is to respect the group: family structure; work group; and so on. Imagine you work for a company and your work team discovered that one member was involved in a bad practice, even fraud. In Japan this is not likely to be exposed because the needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. If one person is outwardly embarrassed in Japan it reflects negatively on everyone. In order to “save face,” such criticism would not be voiced to outsiders. In the U.S., individualism is more highly valued than collectivism so individuals might come to believe they should not be punished for the act of one person in the group. The implications for workplace productivity and getting things done is significant.

Another example of differences in society is the way Japanese baseball games are played and the role of those in attendance. It was quite fascinating to watch the organized cheering sections for both the home and visiting teams as they shouted out their praise in unison. You would never hear a Japanese person using offensive language as they cheer whereas in the U.S. it’s quite common to hear s_ _ k and f_ _ k.

The word “ugly American” took new meaning for me when a U.S. fan pushed a Japanese fan out of the way and snatched a foul ball from him. I wanted to apologize to all of Japan when I saw what was the epitome of incivility.

The most fascinating thing to watch at baseball games is during the 7th inning stretch when the home team fans let go of inflated balloons at the same time. Just look at this picture and you’ll see why collectivism wins out in Japan.  Japan BBall-balloons

Finally, the streets in Japan are spotless. The Japanese go so far as to clean the restrooms in shops during the day and mop the floors to make for a more enjoyable experience. When was the last time you saw this in the U.S?

I came to respect the Japanese culture even more last Monday, the “Respect for the Aged Day.” It’s a public holiday where families get together to honor the older generation. In the U.S. we tend to ignore the needs of the aged, even in our own families. In Japan the family takes care of their parents in their old age, whereas in the U.S. we sometimes send our parents to assisted living facilities to live out the remaining years with a stranger caring for them.

America can learn much from the Japanese. I do not believe their approach to societal ethics could ever work in the U.S. Still, I have to wonder whether a more orderly society in America would create a higher quality of life for all our citizens.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 27, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplace ethics.com.