Yuya Kiuchi: Horizontal Japanese Society and Vertical American Society


Re-reading “Mirror on Japan” reminded me of one of the most significant gaps between Japanese and American societies: horizontal Japanese society and vertical American society. This is a concept that I share with my students when I teach a global culture course at Michigan State University or with Japanese students who are interested in American culture. I would like to elaborate because this cultural difference can come as a shock when someone is not aware of why such a gap exists, especially when Japan and the U.S. seem to share a lot in technology, popular culture, etc.

Many scholars in sociology, anthropology, and other disciplines have stated that Japan is a collective society and horizontal. This is to say that what your neighbor, coworkers, friends, and peers think about you is very important. This is why “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” in Japan. Such a nail disrupts harmony. If you excel at something, you should use your skills so that people around you can excel at it together and make progress. If someone has a lot of work and has to stay at work until 8pm, especially if (s)he is your boss, you should stay there until 8pm, even if you don’t have much to do. If your boss says, “let’s go out for a drink” after work, you will not say no, even if you have children waiting for you at home. Things have changed, but in many ways, these cultural assumptions hold true to this date.

On the other hand, American culture tends to be more individualistic and vertical. Although “individualistic” can often mislead some to think it is equivalent of being “selfish,” the reality is different. So parents try to nurture their childrens’ individuality. “Leave me alone,” and “I don’t care” exist as a part of common lexicon among 5-year old American children. If you think something is right, you do it, even if your neighbor thinks you are strange.

Of course, there are exceptions. Both societies are constantly changing. Despite the name, “vertical,” I am not claiming that a form of divine being exists in every American’s consciousness. But American cultural tradition and public culture have a tendency to be more vertical than Japanese counterparts that tend to be horizontal. When you look at these two cultures from this perspective, sometimes misunderstandings disappear and it helps better cultural understandings.

Yuya Kiuchi

“Mirror on Japan”を再読したのは、日米間にある文化的差異を考えるきっかけになりました。日本は横社会であり、アメリカは立て社会であるということです。グローバリゼーションの授業で学生に話すことであり、日本人の学生でアメリカ社会に興味のある人には、やはりお話をすることです。アメリカと日本はテクノロジーや大衆文化の点で様々な共通点を持っていますが、だからこそ文化の違いが思わぬ驚きとなりえます。そこで今日は、この点についてお話をしたいと思います。






About Author

Yuya Kiuchi

Mr. Yuya Kiuchi received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University. His research interests include post-bellum African American culture and history, use of media for social change and community empowerment, history of memory production and consumption, and identity formation through media use and conten production. He is currently a fixed-term assistant professor of the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. He has translated and published multiple books from English to Japanese, including Barack Obama’s first autobiography, Dreams from My Father.

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