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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:30 03/09/2007
Debate: Comments

Comments on the Kobayashi essay titled "Japan's Individualism in Globalization Trends"

We have received comments on Mr. Kobayashi's essay from the following three individuals:

  1. Mr. Koichi MERA (University of Southern California in Los Angeles, U.S.A.)
  2. Mr. Marc BELIVEAU (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, currently in Tokyo)
  3. Mr. John DE BOER (University of Tokyo, currently in Tel Aviv, Israel)

Moderator: Takahiro MIYAO (GLOCOM)

Takahiro MIYAO:

First, Mr. Koichi Mera agrees with Mr. Kobayashi's views on Japan's individualism and emphasizes the need for Japanese individuals and corporations to acquire a strong sense of responsibility for the sake of "healthy individualism" in Japan.

Koichi MERA:

Mr. Kobayashi's essay is sound.

First, I would like to point out the cultural differences between the West and Japan. In Japan the group you belong to will take care of you. You are not expected to be individualistic. Even if you make some mistakes, you will be pardoned. In this culture, it is difficult to expect individualism to flourish.

Second, is there any change among young people toward individualism? Maybe, so. This change is taking place hand in hand with declining group culture such as family or corporation. However, there is no strong sense of individual responsibility that should accompany individualism. There is considerable degree of "amae." Amae has grown rather than shrunk over the decades as many parents take care of one or two children excessively due to increasing affluence.

Mr. Kobayashi is talking about corporate responsibility. To help develop healthy individualism society needs to get rid of amae. Due to the prolonged recession, Japanese corporations are reducing the level of tolerance. But still there is plenty of amae. Corporations should be governed by rules. Employees should be evaluated periodically. Rewards should be responsive to the evaluation. Evaluation should be made not only by supervisors but also by subordinates and colleagues and customers.

Corporations should be able to fire employees. Mid-career employees should be able to work in conditions equal to those employed earlier. These are basic conditions for healthy individualism to develop in Japan. In other words, corporations should work hard for this purpose.

Takahiro MIYAO:

While Mr. Mera suggests that Japanese individuals and corporations should follow their Western model, Mr. Marc Beliveau points out that Mr. Kobayashi's question about "healthy individualism" is relevant not just for Japan but also for many Western countries. He even says that Japanese individuals and corporations can become good citizens in the global community and thus make a contribution to the promotion of healthy individualism.


"Is healthy individualism growing in Japanese society?". The opening question asked in Mr. Kobayashi's essay has become a major concern, not just in Japan, but also in many Western countries. Despite some differences in the cultural context, how can we define what is healthy individualism? In the past, religions in Western societies have helped to determine the boundaries for good behavior in proposing high moral standards and in encouraging a sense of civic duties.

These days the situation has changed radically following the decline in the importance and the role of religion. Our modern societies have become more complex and more materialistic. The notion of individual rights have shifted to become much more legal matters than moral issues. Therefore, whose responsibility is it these days to promote healthy individualism?

Mr. Kobayashi's essay provides important points of observation in understanding the notion of individualism in the Japanese context. Interestingly, he refers to the existence and the public support for NPOs to illustrate some changes that are occurring in Japan. For many people, NPOs have become like a "civil religion" as its activities and the public acceptance they receive often reflect the popular belief "think globally and act locally". Could the actions and the awareness provided by the NPOs help to define a new set of standards for healthy individualism?

One could argue that many Japanese individuals working for large corporations have become world citizens in their own way because of their travelling, their knowledge of world markets and their own experience in living in a foreign country. In order to think globally, it is important to have a first hand experience in world affairs. "Act locally" implies the actions of some individuals involved either in politics, in NPOs or in the corporate world to show us the way. It means to have the courage and the wisdom to express views above their own corporate and immediate interests.

Mr. Kobayashi refers to that when he is suggesting that corporate activities should go beyond their self-serving and economic interests and should incorporate a sense of a "greater publicness". In mentioning its growing importance for the future, he implies the need for a quiet revolution in the corporate world and the mentality of its executives to become themselves pro-active individuals in setting up examples of what can be done.

This can probably lead to a form of healthy individualism, and considering the large number of Japanese multinationals world-wide and the presence of many Japanese individuals as world's citizens of their own within these organisations, Japan certainly has the chance to make an important contribution in that sense.


First, in a more general sense I would like to comment that Mr. Kobayashi is correct in suggesting that some Western concepts and institutions have not been understood in the true spirit and essence in which they were originally created, and individualism is one of them. However, I would contend that many such concepts have never been understood nor implemented in their proper sense even in the country of origin. They have been manipulated to serve the self-interests of the public institutions and individuals that coin them and mobilize such concepts.

According to Mr. Kobayashi's investigation, individualism in the original sense is based on a balance between individual rights for liberty, equality, and public responsibilities... with American individualism in particular being rooted deeply in the public domain.

Here are some examples of my contention. In an era of globalization where the public domain extends beyond a country's borders, the individual rights of the majority of the world--being malnourished, poor, and lacking essential access to health and education--have been neglected for the benefit of the minority of Western countries. Such countries benefit from the low standards of living, translating into low labor and material costs. This is even the case for 40 million Americans. Without expanding much more the same can be said for equality and liberty. I am highlighting a major contradiction between the definition and implementation of American concepts of individualism as a matter of fact. The individualism of a minority of individuals is obviously more equal than the individualism of other individuals.

Secondly, and more specifically relating to the context of Japan, individualism in Japan is a very elusive issue simply because it is difficult to gauge how deeply the concepts of uniformity stemming from values such as ie, mura, kaisha are operative. In fact, if you ask the individual (especially those living in urban areas) whether these values are part of their individuality, they will tell you that apart from kaisha they have very little to do with their lives. Even the value of kaisha seems no longer to be a value but rather a rule often imposed, or put differently, strongly suggested. An example is overtime in a Japanese company.

My point is that these traditional Japanese values have long but disappeared and since the period of reconstruction, which essentially began with American occupation and the various institutions that came along with that, have been replaced with a strange sense of individualism bent on the economic interests of Japan. This is where I agree full-heartedly with Mr. Kobayashi when he states, "Japanese have been focusing on economic activities to satisfy their material needs, while lagging behind in nurturing the spiritual sense of publicness or social participation."

On a positive note, I do believe that this self-centered value of individualism that Japan has adopted is now feeling the pressure or need to be more responsible globally. Perhaps moving closer to the original definition of individualism as cited in Mr. Kobayashi's essay. This can be seen in Japan's foreign policy as it involves itself politically into issues of conflict resolution in Cambodia, in Afghanistan, in the Korean Peninsula, in Africa, the Middle East and the United Nations. Another aspect of this can be seen on the individual level as Mr. Kobayashi indicated with the increasing number of NPOs in Japan. This is a good and welcome trend constituting Japan's increased participation in the public domain. Perhaps, Japan is getting closer to the original definition of individualism. Yet there remains much to be done.

Takahiro MIYAO:

Thank you.

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