Japanese Food for Thought

Japanese Food for Thought
Photo by Tamas Pap / Unsplash

You don't need to be a cultural psychologist to know that culture influences how you raise a child, create business structures, physically distance yourself, and what you value. But did you know culture influences how you see horizons, your levels of trust, embarassbility, types of mental illnesses you're subject to, and even how you play baseball?

In this article, we're going to explore all of these topics and more with psychology research spanning over fifty years and what I learned from my interview with Ikue Ueno. If you haven't listened to part one of our interviews, you can do that now or later when you're driving home from work, cooking a meal, waiting in a doctor/dentist/lawyer's office (or police station), pooping, avoiding a conversation, or whenever else you listen to podcasts. The second part of the interview will come out on November 15, 2022.

Alright, so let's get started with my Japanese food-for-thought list made possible by Heine's Cultural Psychology book. I encourage you to add your ideas in the comments. Cultural learning can't be done without dialogue.


Values & Beliefs

Japanese parents want their children to accommodate rather than assert themselves.

Japanese kids are shown to make fewer demands of their parents than American kids because "The developmental goal embraced by Japanese parents is much less a desire to see their children learn how to individuate and assert themselves that it is for them to learn how to accommodate to others and to become part of a harmonious social group (Rothbaum, Port, Azuma, Miyake, & Weisz, 2000)."

I can second this notion from my teaching experience with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese children. Asian children often share their school supplies and rarely disrupt the classroom by yelling, playing, or hitting. And the parents will ask if there is anything else their child can do to improve and ask for additional material. On the other hand, if a western child breaks or steals or doesn't share school supplies and then yells and plays and fails a test, the parents might come in with mind-boggling statements like "Why did my child fail? It just doesn't make sense. I look up to my kid." I'd love to say that's an extreme example, but it's not.

So, if you're a western parent tired of your six-year-old child screaming in the grocery line-up, "GIVE ME THE GOD DAMN LOLLIPOP, KAREN!" I suggest sending them to a boarding school in Japan or for a week-long sleepover at their Japanese friend's house or just buying them the lollipop. Because if your kid is anything like I was, they'll run back into the store after discovering that, in fact, you didn't buy the lollipop, find the most gorgeous woman in the store, and ask her to buy it. True story, one that my father brings up once a year.

Another study related to accommodation and work ethic was by Morling, Kitayama, & Miyamoto in 2002. They found that when students were asked why they chose a particular Aerobics class, Americans were likelier to say because the schedule was convenient for them. Japanese were more likely to say it was an appropriate level and were more likely to say they would try to keep up, whereas Americans were more likely to find a routine suited for them. Americans are also more likely to recall times they influenced others rather than adjusted to others. Japanese had the opposite effect.

And what about you? Is it easier to come up with examples when you influenced someone else or adjusted to others?

Japanese are more likely to persist after failure.

Heine and his colleagues did an experiment with Japanese and Canadian participants to come into the laboratory where they privately received false feedback that they had done either very well or very poorly on a creativity test. The results indicated that "Canadians are more likely to persist longer on a task if they think they are talented at it compared to when they think they are poor at it. In contrast, Japanese persist longer on a task if they think they are poor at it compared to when they think they are talented at it" (Heine).

This has a lot to do with the fact that the Japanese have high self-improvement motivation, are more interested in saving face (looking good when people evaluate you), and have an incremental theory of self (the belief that we can change). The best example is the bar exam. In Japan, only 2.5% of people pass the bar exam yearly, whereas two-thirds of those taking the American bar exam pass it yearly (National Conference of Bar Examiners, 2010). The exam makers believe that people need to work on improving their scores (an incremental theory in self).

Ikue also talks about this with the word "Kaizen." Kaizen is a strategy where employees at all company levels work together proactively to achieve regular, incremental improvements to the manufacturing process. (Lean Production).

Westerners Value Objects more once they own them.

Heine explains that the endowment effect is the tendency for people to value objects more once they own them and have endowed them with their own positive qualities. The endowment effect is significantly more substantial in Western samples and East Asian ones (Maddux et al., 2010). However, this research wasn't in Japan, so I hope the Without Borders community can comment and tell me if you think it's true for Japan.

It's not just vampires and nurses; Japanese people care about your blood type, too.

When I read that Japanese people often surprise Westerners by asking about their blood type, as the four blood types are perceived to underlie reliable differences in personality in Japan, I thought this can't be that common. Wrong. Ikue confirmed this in the second part of our interview (SPOILER ALERT!). She mentioned that TV stations and magazines would announce daily predictions based on blood type and that she listened to these predictions religiously. She was around 12 years old when she received her first blood test, and until that time, she thought she was blood type A, which she describes as honest, quiet, modest, a good person overall, and typically Japanese. Turned out, Ikue didn't have A-type blood, but B, and boy, was she disappointed. Type B means that you're more outgoing, which doesn't seem like a bad thing, at least from my Western perspective.

Now, I'm a thirty-year-old who still calls his mother to ask, "Mama, Wat is mijn bloedgroep?" Mama, what is my blood type? I wonder what that says about me.

Japanese companies offer lifetime employment.

I mean, I've heard of tenured professors and union workers who have a 'difficult time getting fired' to put it one way, but a company offering lifetime employment? If I owned a business, there is no way in hell I would offer lifetime employment to a Westerner because, like me, I know that they're likely to jump ship the second they find something better.

Interestingly, I've noticed a correlation between how collectivistic a place is and how likely workers are to stick to one job. Now, a correlation is not causation, but based on my anecdotal experience, my friends in Canada change jobs like underwear. My friends in Spain only change jobs if they're not government employees/funcionarios (the cushiest jobs imaginable). And my Asian friends commit and never bitch about their work unless they're more than four beers deep. On the flip side, maybe I'd have been more loyal as well if the businesses I worked for didn't try to avoid taxes by recycling through part-time contractors like water bottles.

Japanese people sleep the least.

Japanese and Korean people report sleeping about an hour less than French adults (OECD, 2009), but even more interesting is how much fewer infants and toddlers sleep. Japanese infants sleep about 1.5 hours less than North American infants (Mindell et al., 2010). On a graph of infant sleep, Japan was the lowest at just over 11.5 hours, and New Zealand was the highest at just under13.5 hours.

Japanese egalitarian gender attitudes are on the rise but still lower than In the West.

I had to find a few different graphs because the one in my textbook came from 1990, but countries like Netherlands and Finland often have the highest egalitarian gender attitudes. In contrast, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, and Japan represent more traditional gender attitudes. Now, in my interview, I also use the phrase "traditional gender attitudes" to remain unbiased, but to be honest, it sounds too friendly to me. A better phrase would be "suppressive gender norms," and Ikue's opinion wasn't much different. Ikue agreed that Canada is more progressive regarding women's rights, but the information from my textbook was dated. Ikue found that more women are discovering they don't need—or even can't—rely on a man.

Mental Health

Culture influences how antidepressants work

Published studies that have explored the relations between genes and psychological variables across cultures commonly find opposite effects of genes across cultures. For example, a variant that leads to better responses to antidepressants among Caucasians leads to worse responses among Japanese and Koreans (Kim et al., 2000; Smeraldi et al., 1998; Yoshida et a., 2002).

This makes me think, do illicit drugs (that really shouldn't be) like Magic Mushrooms, Marijuana, LSD, Mescaline, and MDMA respond differently depending on your ethnicity and culture?

Culture influences which mental disorders we are subject to.

Hikikomori, which translates loosely as "pull away" or social withdrawal, has been defined as a condition in which people have spent at least 6 months in an asocial state, not participating in education or employment, having no intimate relationships with anyone outside of the immediate family, with onset before the late 20s, and for which psychiatric disorders cannot explain the primary symptom of withdrawal. (Saito, 1998). However, Ikue's definition was slightly more straightforward: Hikikomori = Hermit.

As explained in my textbook and later confirmed by Ikue's anecdotes, there is tremendous pressure for people in Japan to meet expectations and fit in. Parents coddling their kids and the decline in birth rates have allowed children to have their own bedrooms to lock themselves up in. Now, my parents would have kicked in the door if I had spent 6 months in an antisocial state, but these direct responses don't vibe with the Japanese and could make matters worse, leading to suicide (Heine, 2016).

Another disorder found in Japan is taijin kyoufushou (TKS). This term translates loosely as a phobia of confronting others. The symptoms of TKS are quite distinct from a social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder tend to be preoccupied with anxieties about how they will make fools out of themselves in social situations and how everyone will publicly discover their faults. In contrast, TKS involves several physical symptoms, many psychosomatic, such as extensive blushing, tightened body odour, sweating, and a penetrating gaze. If you want to learn more about this, check out Cousins, 1990.

Japan has different types of therapies, even in prisons.

Morita therapy involves resting in your bed, light manual activities, heavy manual labour, reading Mortise literature, and life training, and it's all combined with meditation and therapist sessions. The goal is not to change the client's symptoms but to change the person's perspective to come to see the symptoms as part of who they are. On the other hand, Naikan therapy seeks to provide clients with insight into their past. In particular, it encourages people to appreciate how indebted they are to the kindnesses of significant others. The therapy has been used to treat depression, addiction, and sociopathy—it's used in a majority of Japanese prisons (Reynolds, 1980).

What's important to keep in mind about all this is that culture influences the ways you should be treated. Westerners especially need to keep an eye on this because we tend to be all like, "Don't you worry! Your white knight in shining armour is here. Let me teach you my way, which is, of course, the best way." Whether this is old-school colonialism and telling people what religion to follow) or new-school colonialism (indebting countries to control them—okay, China's the best at that now), helping out after natural disasters (see my interview about Sri Lanka with Renuka), telling people how to solve mental health issues, or getting the world to fall in love with Justin Bieber.


A Gerrit Berckheyde painting from the Dutch Golden Age.

You can buy this one by clicking here.

As you can see, culture influences how we view the world. Analytic thinking, which is more common in the West, is characterized by a focus on objects and their attributes. Objects are perceived as existing independently from their contexts; they are understood in terms of their component parts.

Holistic thinking, which is more common in the east, is characterized by an orientation to the context as a whole. It represents an associative way of thinking, which gives attention to the relations among objects and among the objects and surrounding context. (Heine, 2016). This influences how we paint horizons. The horizons in Eastern paintings start at a higher level, and we focus on the painting as a whole. The higher horizons show relations and connections between more objects.

Analytic thinkers tend to focus on the objects and their attributes more than the context, which you'll also notice in the painting. Another study found that when looking at a picture, Americans focus more on the centre figure than the Japanese do, especially after the first second has passed. Conversely, the Japanese spend a relatively larger amount of time focusing on parts of the background (Masuda, Ellsworth et al., 2008).

Behaviour & Emotions

Japanese baseball is played by the same rules but is a totally different game.

I don't know shit about baseball. I mean, I played kickball when I was six, but that's the extent of it. However, Heine got me interested in the sport. He writes, "Japanese baseball involves far more plays in which the individual makes a sacrifice for the team's benefit, such as the sacrifice bunt, and teams work to prevent members of the other team from losing face, such as avoiding three-pitch strikeouts or extremely lopsided victories." He also explains that "Japanese training camp is held in the frigid winter; players are typically on the field for 7 hours, run approximately 10 miles a day, and then return to the dormitory for strategy sessions and indoor workouts." Warren Cromartie, a former Montreal Expos and Tokyo Giants player, described Japanese training camps as "It makes boot camp look like a church social."

I realize this food for thought could have gone under beliefs and values. Again, it ties into the Japanese work ethic and the incremental theory of self. There's a relationship between emotions, feelings and behaviours, so before we keep going, let's define them quickly because properly writing about emotions, feelings, and behaviours would take up a whole new essay.

While emotions are associated with bodily reactions that are activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain, feelings are the conscious experience of emotional reactions. And behaviour is an action, activity, or process which can be observed and measured. Alright, now that's out of the way, let's continue.

Japanese people don't get up all in yo' biznaz

In Venezuela, the typical conversation distance is 32 inches. In the United States, it is 35 inches, and in Japan, it is 40 inches. (Sussan & Rosenfeld). There's not much else to be said about that aside from the fact this information is from 1982. Has it changed since then? What do you think?

Japanese people get more embarrassed.

Japanese score higher than Americans on a measure of embarrassability (Singles, Bond, Lai, & Sharkey, 1999). Why? Is it because the Japanese take baths together with their parents until they reach puberty that they become more habitually embarrassed? Is it because American schools encourage children to express their own opinions, so they become less embarrassed? (Heine, 2016). We already know that Japanese people have a more interdependent view of themselves, and interdependence scores significantly correlate with people's embarassibility. However, this is just a correlation, so we don't know all the variables. What do you think some of the causes are?

American emotions are more intense.

One theory is that people from a more homogenous society don't need to exaggerate their emotions because they belong to the same cultural background and understand how others feel with more subtle cues. Those from a more heterogeneous society must express their emotions more dramatically because how the hell are you supposed to know what a person is emotionally experiencing if you don't know anything about their background?

Ikue hints at this in our interview when she talks about Sasurru culture, which she describes as "Basically, people don't need to finish each other's sentences because we feel each other, we read each other, and that's ingrained in society."

Japanese people experience different emotions.

Whether or not there are six universal emotions (anger, surprise, disgust, enjoyment, fear, and sadness) is a whole other discussion. I believe that our words and vocabulary help us to access our emotions and reflect our culture. One emotion that we don't have a word for in English is Amae. Amae is supposed to capture the pleasant feelings one experiences when allowed to emphasize his or her dependence on another. It often involves tendencies to behave inappropriately toward a close other as a gesture to demonstrate how secure the relationship is (Niiya, Ellsworth, & Yamaguchi, 2006).

I don't know if I've ever experienced true Amae, but I can say that the closer you are to me, the more of my inappropriate behaviour you've seen. If I do something inappropriate around someone I don't know well, I might feel ashamed. If I do something inappropriate with someone I don't know well, they usually become a friend. And if I do something inappropriate with a friend, I usually–well, that's just normal behaviour for us. Doing something taboo with someone makes me feel closer to that person. Is that Amae? Probably not, but I can't think of an English, Spanish or Flemish word to describe the feeling either. Can you? What are some of the words in your language you can't directly translate into English?

Japanese people don't trust strangers as much.

Yamagishi and colleagues' research finds that Americans tend to have higher levels of general trust toward strangers than the Japanese do (Yamagashi & Yamanashi). This research came from 1994, so I don't know if it's still true today. After talking to Ikue, it seems that Japanese people are quite open to foreigners. The research also indicates that people from more interdependent cultures see members of their in-group as a part of themselves and trust them but don't trust people from the out-group as easily. Ikue also pointed out that this is changing and that more people are eager to learn English in Japan because they accept foreigners and out-group.

Japan causes lower self-esteem.

After living in Canada for 7 months, the Japanese show a significant increase in self-esteem, whereas after living in Japan for 7 months, the Canadians show a significant decrease in self-esteem (Heine & Lehman, 2004). As stated in the research and by Ikue, exposure to culture influences your self-esteem. Ikue mentions her self-esteem also went up in Canada because you don't have the constant pressure to be perfect, and you can focus on the things that make you feel good about yourself.

In my interview with Ikue, I mention that nobody gives a shit about self-esteem outside of North America. Within the North American definition of self-esteem, this is true, but it depends on how we look at self-esteem.

The following information is from The Social Self Lecture with Ara Norenzayan.

Three faces of Self-Esteem:

Self-esteem as self-enhancement: seeing oneself in a positive light, exaggerating one's favourable attributes, minimizing unfavourable ones (common in the West).

Self-esteem as self-improvement: seeing flaws in self and improving on them (common in East Asia).

Self-esteem as self-acceptance: valuing oneself (including one's shortcomings) without conditions attached (found in many wisdom traditions around the world).

Self-enhancement Strategies (These are most pronounced in Western individualistic cultures):

  • Strategic downward social comparison
  • Unrealistic optimism
  • Exaggerated sense of control
  • Better than average effect

Self-esteem as self-improvement

  • Focus on flaws in self to improve on them (self-criticism)
  • Self-esteem drawn from continuous self-improvement
  • Common among people influenced by Confucian cultural traditions


  • A healthier, more genuine form of self-esteem
  • Unconditional positive regard: unconditional acceptance of oneself (Rogers, Maslow)
  • Encouraged in many wisdom traditions – secular humanism, Zen, Sufi, Christian & Hindu mysticism

As you can see, it's not that self-esteem doesn't exist outside of the West; it's just looked at differently. To bring it back to my experience, many Asian students come to my class with a smile from cheek to cheek. They are happy when I give them good feedback, but they also enjoy it when I tell them how to improve. On the other hand, many Western kids start to complain the second something is too difficult for them. The Western approach to education, where everyone gets a medal, has not made kids feel any better about themselves. In fact, from my experience, Asian children are much happier in school. They find it harder to boast and brag about themselves, but I can see their modest pride and joy whenever they complete a task successfully.

Alright, that's the end of my Japanese Food for Thought. I didn't go into depth on all these phenomena because I'd like love to hear what you all think in the comments. And I highly recommend Heine's Cultural Psychology book for those who want to learn more.

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