A pervasive stereotype about Japan is that it is a highly group oriented society in which the individual is repressed. In the undergraduate years of my first degree I studied Orientalism and wrote essays de-constructing totalising stereotypes. Then in my first foray into the post-graduate (for which I wrote about Japan’s history textbook controversies) I read in lurid and depressing detail about the suppression of individualism in the school system and the imposition of uniformity so extreme that even students with naturally brown hair were required to dye it black. Then I started working in schools, and gained an entirely different perspective. I’m going to state it provocatively: Western schools are more group centric than Japanese schools. Did that get your attention? The reason I think inaccurate stereotypes about group-ism persist is a fundamentally different understanding of groups (I emphasis inaccurate, because there are areas where Japan is incredibly group oriented in the oppressive way English speakers usually have in mind). “One for all, all for one” is a hugely popular saying that is emblazoned all over class banners and is a regular school festival slogan. It means exactly what it says: A group is made up of individuals, and every individual in the group is equally important to the group. In contrast, in Australia when we say “individualistic” what we actually usually mean is “majority rules”. It may seem like I am playing with semantics, but if you think semantics don’t matter then frankly you haven’t read enough Orwell!
Let me give an example. In the “group-oriented” Japanese classrooms where I work, if one student is struggling and loudly disrupting class the teacher will cease teaching and devote all of their attention to that child, while the rest of the class twiddle their thumbs. In “individualistic” Australia, one student would never be allowed to disrupt the learning of an entire class. We’d just send the individual out of the room and address the majority. When there is a conflict between what is best for the individual and the majority group, Australian systems tend to prioritise the group (when it comprises the majority). In Japanese schools, I feel that the group does what it can to support each individual.
I wonder how different my perspective would be if I worked in a high school or an exclusive private school?