According to my language instructor as early as 20 years ago there was no word in Japan for accountability. In fact, the notion of accountability was one that the Japanese could not understand culturally. This was a difficult one for him to explain as I could not understand how the concept of the word was not present in the society, how do you trust someone? His explanation was that there was no need for this word as it was part of their societal norms, it was not required.

Fascinated, I kept questioning until he shared this story: When he was in the US, he was hired to teach Japanese at a school and was brought in front of the parents to explain how Japanese would help their children. The notion of having to explain to the parents was a very foreign experience for him, but required as the local taxpayers paid for the school’s programs. A parent stood up and said that he must be accountable for the money they are investing in him, to his bewilderment. He did not understand the word “accountable” and went home and looked it up in the dictionary. Even after reading it, he struggled with understanding the concept of individual accountability as it was not present in their culture.

In Japan it is all about about the group. That group pays taxes, contributes to society, lets the government lead (recently to their detriment) and think about the group over the individual. It is a homogeneous society (98.5% of the population is Japanese) where they all work together and the concept of rewarding the individual over the group remains foreign.

The downside to this thinking is that it may breed mediocrity, where the lower performers are protected by the group and higher performers are not individually rewarded as the society trends to a the middle. It also makes societal change such as women’s rights much harder to progress as it breeds a resistance to change.

The upside is that this notion is the epitome of the “golden rule”, where people take care of each other (Don’t get me started on the rich white “Christian” republican “cut taxes to line my own pocket” hypocrisy). It is the reason why I could leave my laptop on the train with a realistic expectation that I will get it back and walk around in Tokyo at 2am with almost no risk. 

With the notion of the individual so strong in North America and the notion of group so strong in Japan, it is easy to see how misunderstanding can flourish if not carefully managed.

Fascinating for this Canadian socialist who is fine paying 45% taxes due to a sense of obligation to the group’s welfare.


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