Japanese Collectivism

Food for Thought

In the film, My Dinner with Andre, André Gregory urges Wallace Shawn to escape from New York, a prison guarded by inmates, before it’s too late. It’s true; here, we can get stuck in the blind pursuit of making something out of our lives, and this noble aspiration can become mechanical. Japan, as a collectivist culture, is a good place to regain some perspective.

I noticed that the idea of becoming somebody was absent from TV shows, comic books, and conversations with friends. You are more likely to be evaluated as a team player in a family, community, and society. In the US, “leadership” is the ultimate virtue. All elite colleges are looking for “leadership qualities” in applicants. In an individualist society, you are judged by the influence of your individuality. But by definition, a leader requires followers, which mathematically guarantees that most fail.

Japan’s collectivist values are apparent in films like Seven Samurai, where no lone hero exists. A typical Japanese talk show has multiple hosts. A typical dinner table has no main dish but a collection of small dishes. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” sounds oppressive to American ears, but “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” can also be oppressive in a different way, which is what André Gregory is describing, a self-imposed prison where leaving symbolizes failure to secure enough followers.

In a collectivist society, there is no leader-follower hierarchy. Everyone is a member, and leaders function more like facilitators. It’s possible for everyone to succeed. In Japan, you’d be liberated from the pressure to compete for followers. Success isn’t defined by the failures of others.

Japanese films are too abstract for Americans because their artistic substance often consists of multiple characters’ contributions to their community. Also, contradictions are left unresolved because goals cannot be defined clearly in a collectivist society without a leader. It is decidedly unsatisfying to an American mind, but this pressure to resolve contradictions is ultimately dehumanizing, from which New Yorkers yearn to escape in our vulnerable moments.