American-Style Individualism in Japan: The Family Cost

Long known as a land of Confucian social solidarity, Japan has felt the influence of American-style individualism in recent decades, an influence corrosive of marriage and family life. Indeed, in a recently published study, social psychologist Yuji Ogihara of Kyoto University and the University of California, Los Angeles, measures the increasing strength of such individualism in the Land of the Rising Sun by assessing the degree to which Japanese family life now resembles American family life. Confucius (called Kōshi in Japan) would find Ogihara’s assessment deeply troubling.

Sensibly, Ogihara begins his cross-cultural inquiry with a foundational definition of individualism.  Drawing on the work of other scholars, Ogihara defines individualism as “a social pattern that consists of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives; are primarily motivated by their own preferences, needs, rights, and the contracts they have established with others; and emphasize rational analyses of the advantages and disadvantages of associating with others.”  “The core element of individualism,” Ogihara elaborates, “is the assumption that individuals are independent of one another.”  

Predictably, when he wants to illustrate what individualism looks like, he identifies America as a place where the “culture has become more individualistic over time.”  Few will dispute the markedly individualistic character of American culture.  But for Ogihara the question is “whether other cultures, especially East Asian cultures, have also shifted toward greater individualism.”  In particular, Ogihara wants to investigate “temporal changes in individualism in Japan and their ramifications on psychology and behavior.”  

As part of his inquiry, Ogihara examines “individualistic concepts” as they have played out in workplace, school, and other settings as the consequences of “socioeconomic changes” resulting from “economic growth and urbanization.” But Ogihara devotes much of his analysis to the indications of increasing individualism in Japanese family life.  “Specifically,” Ogihara remarks, “the divorce rate [has] increased and household size decreased.”

Ogihara particularly highlights a rising divorce rate as a symptom of a cultural turn toward individualism.  “The rate of divorce,” he remarks, “is a behavioral measurement which reflects individualistic tendency,” making it quite unsurprising that earlier studies have concluded that “the divorce rate was correlated with other indices of individualism.” After all, “in individualistic societies, family structure tends to be looser and freer relative to that in collectivistic societies.” So it only stands to reason that the “divorce rate is more likely to be higher in individualistic societies.” 

It is therefore understandable that in comparing individualism in Japan with individualism in the United States, Ogihara looks at divorce rates in both countries. 

Ogihara cites statistics indicating that in the United States, “in 1900, only 7.5 out of 100 couples divorced, but in 2009, 51.0 out of 100 couples experienced divorce.”  It is quite clear to Ogihara that “this rise in the rate of divorce is indicative of an increase in individualism in the U.S.” A similar rise in divorce rates in Japan, then, can only mean a comparable increase in individualism there. And such a rise in divorce rates is evident: “In Japan,” Ogihara reports, “the divorce rate increased between 1947 and 2015,” rising from 8.5 divorces out of 100 couples in 1947, to 35.6 divorces out of 100 couples in 2015.” Just as in America, the rise in divorce rates in Japan evinces “an increase in individualism.”

Like divorce rates, household size serves as a “behavioral indicator of individualism.” And like divorce rates, household size correlates with other measures of individualism. Nor does this correlation surprise Ogihara, who understands how individualism generates impulses “leading people to live separately and independently of other family members.” Ogihara limns the household-shrinking dynamics of individualism in the United States, where household size dropped from an average of 5.6 people in 1860 to an average of just 3.1 people in 2012. “This shift in household size,” Ogihara asserts, “is indicative of an increase in individualism in the U.S.”  

But the same individualistic dynamic has been at work in Japan in recent decades. Ogihara traces a decline in household size in Japan, pointing out that the average Japanese household in 1953 comprised five people but in 2015, just 2.5 people. Detecting a “correlation between year and household size [that] was highly negative,” Ogihara interprets the pattern as indicative of “a rise in individualism” in Japan.

In explaining why individualism has surged in Japan, Ogihara highlights the effect of rising levels of affluence. For people living in “an environment that has few resources,” he avers, “accomplishing things by oneself is relatively difficult, which increases the necessity to depend on others.” Consequently, “people who have less wealth must pay more attention to other people and the surrounding context.” In contrast, Ogihara remarks, “wealth affords separation from others.”

Also fostering greater individualism are “social values [that have become] more individualistic,” a value change manifest in popular media in which “individualistic words such as ‘individual’ and ‘uniqueness’ appear more frequently” than in the past. No wonder, then, that Japanese school systems have “adopted systems that encourage students’ and children’s independence and uniqueness.”

Reflecting on his findings, Ogihara concludes that “at least some aspects of Japanese culture have changed toward greater individualism over time.” Nonetheless, Ogihara believes that the evidence of increasing individualism in Japan “does not necessarily mean that all aspects of Japanese culture have shifted toward greater individualism.” More particularly, Ogihara identifies enough persistence of “traditional collectivism” in Japanese collectivism to engender “an overall ambivalent attitude toward individualism.” Ogihara identifies this ambivalence toward individualism as a cultural difference separating the Japanese from Americans.

Ogihara sees Americans assessing individualism from an entirely favorable perspective. “American people regard individualism as significantly positive,” he asserts. “They value it highly for the freedom and independence it provides.” Ogihara sees more complexity in the Japanese attitude toward individualism. He concedes that, having grown up in a collectivist society with “relatively strong norms . . . [that] sometimes prevent [them] from pursuing their own goals,” Japanese men and women sometimes appreciate an “individualism [that] can give individuals independence and freedom from such constraints.” But countering this favorable Japanese attitude toward individualism is a widespread concern among “Japanese [who] regard individualism as negative because they believe that individualism contaminates close interpersonal relationships.”

Ogihara asserts that widespread ambivalence about individualism “seems to have a negative impact on people in Japan” because it brings together two attitudes that “cancel each other out.” Apparently, he believes that the uncomplicated American faith in individualism is psychologically healthier. But as Kōshi could have explained, a society that has lost the ability even to perceive the great peril in family-destroying individualism is in profound peril. Japan’s only hope lies in retaining that ability; America’s, in regaining it.

(Yuji Ogihara, “Temporal Changes in Individualism and Their Ramification in Japan: Rising Individualism and Conflicts with Persisting Collectivism,” Frontiers in Psychology 8 [2017]: 695, Web.)