Individualism in East Asian Cultures

Half Sigma says East Asians are collectivist, based on a study of Japanese and Western children:

[Quoting a study:] The Western students did not much change their assessment of a character’s mood no matter what was happening with the other characters. But for most of the Japanese participants, it made a measurable difference. If the figure in the center had a happy face but those in the background were sad or angry, they tended to give the happy figure a lower score. If everyone was happy, they gave the figure in the center a higher one.

Also, on ordering at restaurants:

The experiment reminds me of an observation in the book Predictably Irrational. In restaurants in the United States, every member of a party usually orders something different, because copying someone else’s order is frowned upon. But in Hong Kong, the opposite often happens. Everyone at the table orders the same thing.

A comment I wrote in response:

You can't generalize from the Japanese to all East Asians, as the Japanese are an extreme case. IME, the Chinese tend to be much more individualistic. For example, the Japanese Dream has traditionally been to get a good job at a major corporation and work there for life, whereas Chinese people generally aspire to own their own businesses.

I don't know about Hong Kong specifically, but I've eaten out with several different groups of Chinese people, and the usual procedure is to order several different dishes and share them. I guess you could point to this as a form of collectivism, too, but even at the individual level it has the advantage of allowing more variety than the American custom of each person ordering his own entree.

Comments from people more knowledgeable on either topic are welcome.

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You want anecdotes?

During college the asians would hog the terminals in the computer room.   They felt they were interchangeable on an line waiting to get on.   Asian A would be on line and along came Asian B and would cut right in next to A.   Then A might or might not leave and never come back when Asians C D and E might join B.   Then once they got a computer terminal they swapped in and out hogging the terminal indefinately till the wee hours of the morning.   Whereas, all the Americans would wait their turn on line, use the terminal then leave.

I think they were chinese but I have no clue.   We hated their behavior whoever they were.   No amount of displays of displeasure or pointing out that they were cheating the system would stop them.   They might leave then, or exit the line when you complained but they'd be back the next day repeating the behavior.   So any "group think" or "group cooperation" was only extended within their group.   

We Americans  had sad faces and they were perfectly happy not to conform so long as they were exploiting non-asians.   So apparently this collectivism is selective.

Stony Brook University.

Collectivism is not collectivism

We need to get one thing clear when we talk about cultural "collectivism" on a political blog. It's not the same thing as political "collectivism". Japanese "collectivism" as described above is extreme conformity. Every culture has conformity. For example, in any given year, people generally wear broadly similar clothing, people generally drive similar-looking cars, people speak the same language, people get their tastes in music generally from people around them, and so on. It's often hard to tell apart a Honda from a Toyota from some other make of car. Only a few makers produce cars that stand far apart such as the Volkswagen bug, the Mini Cooper, and the PT Cruiser, and even these cars share a lot of design elements with run of the mill Toyota Corollas of the same day (as contrasted with, say, cars of the seventies). So in Japan you've got an excess of conformity: everyone eats the same thing, everyone is happy at the same time.

Political collectivism is related to conformity (since the slaves must all conform to the will of the master; recall the extreme conformity of the stereotypical drab Mao-era outfit) but it is not the same thing, because conformity is a habit, a practice, whereas political collectivism is a belief about the way the political order should be. One does not necessarily entail the other. A political libertarian does not have to be a nonconformist.

The same fact viewed from the other direction means that different things go by the name of "individualism". A political libertarian is not committed to ordering something different from everyone else at the table.

It's not only about

It's not only about conformism / anti-conformism but also about communitarism / atomism. Atomism is frequently mistaken for individualism. Individualism recognizes that every human structure, including society is a composition of individuals, it's a rejection of holism. Atomism is a form of society where links between individuals are loose, there are no strong communities or family ties. In fact, states have often promoted atomism as a mean to control the population, presenting itself as the only thing linking people together.

The fact that strong conformism is distinct from collectivism doesn't mean there's no ground to wonder which kind of culture is most conducive to political individualism.

That's fine

It's not only about conformism / anti-conformism but also about communitarism / atomism.

Sure. My point was that distinctions needed to be made, not that I had given the final analysis of Japanese society. By the way, unfortunately "communitarianism", like "collectivism", refers to a particular political philosophy that opposes libertarianism in addition to whatever else it refers to, so again, a distinction needs to be made.

The fact that strong conformism is distinct from collectivism doesn't mean there's no ground to wonder which kind of culture is most conducive to political individualism

I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. I was arguing that it was distinct, and not anything further than that.