Japan and America: How Exactly Different?

America and Japan are, well...different. 

Stating the obvious is the easiest part. How exactly? Now that’s harder, and way, way more interesting!

In a sentence: America is a low-context, individualistic society based on self- assertion, while Japan is a high-context, consensus building society.

You’re thinking, what does that mean?

Sociologists define societies as either low- or high-context. High-context societies include places such as Japan, Thailand, and Russia. Rules are important, traditions valued, and timeliness stressed. Low-context societies include countries like the US, Israel, and New Zealand. Rules are followed more flexibly, people are more willing to break with traditions, and being late tend to be not considered as big of a deal, for example.

Japan is considered one of the most high-context societies in this world. People will not cross streets at red lights even if no cars are in sight. Japanese tend to always show up to parties on time. Contracts are not as valued, as players within the society desire tacit agreements. One is expected to know and follow unspoken societal rules without being told.

Much of the US is low-context. Jaywalking is common, Americans consider it fashionable to be late to parties, and contracts are a must to put agreements into legally binding physical forms, as Americans more than Japanese are willing to break societal rules and promises.

Japan is consensus building – what groups you belong to is way more important than in the US. As a result, you see less entrepreneurship, and job seekers are eager to be employed by large, established, what people in Japan call “big hand” companies. Entrance ceremonies for schools and organizations are must-attend events, including coming-of-age ceremonies many Japanese 20-year olds attend nationwide on the second Monday of January called “Seijin-shiki.”

Japanese society respects and follows precedence and established protocols diligently. Rules, along with cemented group and organizational consensus, are harder to change than in the US. This practice works well when the consensus is effective – corporate Japan’s success in the 70s and 80s led by governmental leadership comes to mind. However, needed reforms were also slow to be implemented in the 90s after the bubble burst in ’89 due to this institutional momentum.

The US is not only individualistic, but you have to assert yourself. Not only is there a deep desire for one’s voice to be heard in America, but for it to be an impact that produces results and change. Entrepreneurship is not just common, but is encouraged and respected. Free-speech and democracy allow for marginal groups to make their voices heard, resulting in the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement, and other protests demanding influence and a voice within society.

Individualism in the US can be seen in the way graduation and retirement are celebrated with rigor. US society as a whole tends to not trust authority much compared to Japan.

The result in the US is a divisive society within America’s melting pot framework – from politics, ideologies, to race and gender relations, all vying to assert their voices.

This difference manifests itself in how the two countries select their Heads of State. In the US, American people vote for their President in contentious elections directly through the Electoral College system. In Japan, on the other hand, Prime Ministers are elected by the Diet, based on consensus.

You can also see these differences in how organizations operate. American governmental policies and corporate models are flexible compared to Japan – pitfalls are US organizations tend to lack long-term vision, operate with shortsightedness, and are unpredictable. Just look at how the switch from Obama to Trump is having global consequences.

Japan, though less flexible than the US both at the societal and organizational level, is better than the US at adhering to established structures put in place by consensus, generated under leadership operating with a long-term vision. The pitfall is Japanese people stick to plans even when they obviously aren’t working.

Which is better? That I can’t say. However, I can function in and navigate both worlds with freedom and ease.

For example, I asserted myself effectively in the competitive, contentious environment at the United Nations and forged robust relationships with member states from low-context countries, including the United States. I also cultivated rapport with representatives and U.N. officers from high-context member states, not only Japan but countries such as China, Russia, and Vietnam. I achieved top sales numbers at Wells Fargo Bank while navigating the individualistic milieu of the US, and I also effectively took part in the consensus building process at Japan International Food for the Hungry while working in Sendai for tsunami refugee relief.

Both models of how the two cultures operate have their strengths and weaknesses – I can bring the best of both to the table.

You also have differences such as institutionalized hierarchy reflected in language, definitions of masculinity and femininity, and the role of humor in daily living, but I won’t touch on these topics this time.

Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss the differences between these two very different societies.