skip to Main Content

BI 3223 Worldviews, Lipscomb University

Unit 6B

Asian Worldviews (part 2)

Collectivism vs Individualism

  • In the West we tell the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant works all summer, while the grasshopper plays and sings. When winter comes, the grasshopper comes to the ant for help, who tells him he should have prepared for hard times. In Asia they tell the story of the ant and the cicada. When winter comes, the ant invites the cicada in for warmth and food, as during the summer the cicada cheered the ant with its songs. Moral: in the west it’s every individual for himself; in Asia, everyone has a role in society, and takes care of others in time of need. The west emphasizes the value of independence, whereas the east values interdependence; strength and value derives from belonging to the group (Yamada 4).
  • Confucianism teaches that the person works not for self-benefit but for the entire family. Career advancement honors the family (Nisbett 15). “Japanese are dominated by a sense of responsibility to the various groups to which they belong, their country, their company and so on. Paradoxically, this helps to account for their drive and efficiency.” The individual works hard to bring honor and success to the group (Christopher 51).
  • A Japanese expression that reflects cultural prejudice against individuality: “The peg that stands out is pounded down” (Nisbett 48). Seeking group goals, coordinated action, and harmonious relations take precedence over achieving personal success.
  • When asked to describe oneself, Westerners tend to exaggerate their unique qualities which make them stand out. Asians more often describe themselves as they fit into the group (Nisbett 54).


  • Confucius taught that everyone belongs in a particular place in society: father/son, ruler/subject, husband/wife, elder/younger brother, friend/friend. Asians respect the superior place of age, experience, rank, maleness, family heritage. In contrast, wealth is not considered as important a factor in social status.
  • Asians are more comfortable in hierarchical relationships than Westerners, and want to know the social status of the other in order to respond correctly. They accept hierarchy and do not attempt to bring about a more equal system.
  • Japanese have many words for “I” depending on the relationship between the speaker and other(s), indicating higher or lower social status (Nisbett 51).
  • In China and Japan there are special words for “older brother,” “younger sister” and that difference is important in the family’s priorities.



  • Half of the land area of China is nearly uninhabitable. 75% of the population live on 15% of the land, mostly in the eastern area, in some places 2000 people per sq. mile (compare Northeastern USA, 400/sq mi.) (Starr 26) About ¾ (900 million) live in the country.
  • 90% are of the Han ethnic group, ¾ speak Mandarin. Other ethnic groups include Mongolian (in north), and Tibetan (in west).

Family obligation (xiao)

  • Xiao includes producing heirs for the family, and honoring dead ancestors.
  • The Chinese newspaper People’s Daily of August 25, 1993, reported that a ninety-year-old woman took her two sons to court for failing in their filial duty. Neither of her wealthy sons wanted to take care of her. The court’s intervention resulted in her favor, and the sons agreed to take full responsibility for her living and medical expenses. In China the law requires that parents have legal duties to rear their young children and grown children have legal duties to support their aged parents (Li).
  • Some popular sayings which emphasize the value of family: “An earlier generation plants trees under whose shade later generations rest.” “While you drink the water, you must not forget those who dug the well for you.”
  • The Chinese prioritize family over loyalty to the nation (Conrad 177).

Mianzi (Chinese for saving “face”)

  • Asian cultures place much emphasis on one’s social standing, public reputation, or “face.” A person can “gain face” by receiving an honor or respect, or “lose face” by being publicly humiliated.
  • As a gesture of good will, an American might tell an Asian person that he has toilet paper stuck to his shoe, but this would cause him public embarrassment, leading to loss of face. It would be better to let him discover this on his own, especially if everyone pretends not to have noticed.
  • Someone might give a thoughtful gift, carefully wrapped, to a friend, only to have her put it aside like it’s no big deal. This is done so she can open the gift in private and save face in case it’s something she can’t use. Also, if the gift is too expensive, she may lose face because she fears being unable to reciprocate later.
  • A person’s public image may be more important to him/her than private relationships. For example, the company Victoria’s Secret hasn’t done well in China, due to the fact that only a woman’s husband or lover would ever see her expensive lingerie in private; no one else would ever know. However, luxury bags (Louis Vuitton) are very popular as they are seen by many people in public, thus gaining positive reputation for the person’s ability to buy such merchandise (Conrad 212).
  • In the US, you can admit and apologize for your shortcomings and gain respect for your honesty. Americans are generally forgiving if someone takes responsibility for their problems. During his presidential run, George W. Bush spoke openly about overcoming his addiction to alcohol. This is something that no Chinese official would ever do it, as it would be a devastating loss of face and almost impossible to recover from.
  • During 1959-61, the Chinese suffered from terrible food shortages, with estimates of 30 million people dying of starvation. The Communist party, however, denied any problem, and in fact, exported rice to other countries, in order to save face and not admit their failure (Conrad 216).
  • Richard Conrad, an American who has lived most of his adult life in Asia, claims this is the reason why the Chinese are not good at team sports. In a soccer match, kicking the ball to a teammate who then scores a goal would mean losing face by not scoring the goal yourself. Chinese are excellent at individual sports in the Olympics, but not at team sports (203).

Population control

  • Population has tripled since the Communist takeover in 1949. Chairman Mao encouraged growth, producing more workers for the Party.
  • In the 1980s-90s the current leadership believed that the population was growing too fast to sustain as the country reached over one billion people. They passed a law allowing only one child per couple. Most families want boys, so girls are sometimes “aborted” (i.e. allowed to die at birth), put in orphanages, or sold to the sex trade. A baby girl is called a “small happiness” (Starr 184-9). One reason for preferring boys: in a country without much of a social net (social security, health insurance), elderly parents depend on a son to care for them. But a daughter is married off and joins another family.
  • In 2016 the law was changed to allow two children per couple. Population control has worked too well, and the population of younger people is declining while the elderly population has grown. (link)

Human rights

  • When we discuss human rights issues, we assume a set of universal values. But Western political systems are based on law and the rights of the individual, whereas China’s political views are rooted in the good of the collective over the individual (Starr 197). “The individual has obligations to the family, and the family has obligations to society. The ruler’s task is to ensure that these obligations are fulfilled.” Confucius believed that human nature was inherently good, and only needed the moral example of the benevolent ruler as guidance; if all went well, laws would be unnecessary (Starr 198).
  • When we complain about China’s human rights issues concerning political and civil liberties, China points back and asks us about human economic rights (guaranteeing sustenance and occupations) and social rights (goods and services provided by the state such as education, social security, health care). (Starr 204)
  • They consider our culture lacking as well, as we “tolerate” higher levels of disorder and violence in the name of freedom (Nisbett 199).
  • Christianity is not legally banned in China. According to the constitution, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief.” Beijing backed up that statement in 1997, saying that “In China, no one is to be punished due to their religious belief.” But human rights groups and Christians say that the reality is different. Chinese Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhists must worship in officially-sanctioned churches, mosques, and temples with no ties to western churches. Those who worship in house churches are subject to harassment and punishment. Belief must be private; evangelism is not allowed. (source) (further reading)



Manners and relationships

  • In Japan, amae describes a relationship where an inferior (worker, child) may ask a superior for a gift or promotion at an inappropriate time, as an expression of confidence that the relationship is close enough that the superior will allow it. Amae honors the superior by suggesting that he/she will be generous (Nisbett 73).
  • It’s important to know who is above and below you in status, which creates an awkward situation when first meeting someone, as there are different ways of speaking to superiors and inferiors.
  • Japanese dislike direct personal confrontation and, to avoid it, usually cooperate by consensus, especially between boss and workers (Christopher 53).
  • Japanese find it difficult to say no, because of their distaste for confrontation and public embarrassment. Instead they may resort to vagueness, suggesting that the topic needs further study. They may offer some concession in place of the request, trusting that will show their good will while refusing the request. Rather than saying “no” they may say, “That will be difficult” or “I must consider it” or “I’ll try my best [but it’s not likely to happen]” (Christopher 173, Yamada 46)
  • Tatemae means deliberately evasive speech, or contrary to what one really means, in order to avoid confrontation or offense; a gentle substitute for harsh criticism or refusal of a request, “socially sanctioned deceit” (March 21, 24). Example: instead of complaining to a neighbor in the next apartment about the piano playing late at night, one might say, “Your daughter must be very dedicated to her music, practicing so late.” The speaker assumes that the parent will take the hint without being told directly. Or someone visits a home until near dinner time; you ask, “Won’t you stay to eat?” A Japanese person would take the hint and say no. (Americans would say, “Sure! What are we having?”)
  • Japanese use a complicated code of nonverbal communication as well, which carries more weight than verbal. Rules of etiquette evolved over thousands of years, leading to predictable behavior that supports harmony (wa). Between Japanese, much communication lies unspoken, under the surface. A Taiwanese man said, “We were taught that Japanese are like ducks; calm on the surface but paddling madly underneath” (March 67).
  • Japanese mottos which reflect their skepticism towards direct speech: “The mouth is the source of calamity.” “If the bird had not sung, it would not have been shot.” For Americans, speaking up singles you out as an individual voice in the group, bringing attention to your ideas; for Japanese, silence lets you stay undistinguished from others in the group (Yamada 17, 18).
  • “Japanese generally take civil disputes to court only as a last resort. When they are confronted with a traffic collision, Japanese police will frequently work out a financial settlement between the two parties right on the spot.” An essential element of satisfying any legal disputes is the public acceptance of wrong by one party; often an apology means more than the monetary reward (Christopher 165-6).
  • The culture places great emphasis on doing favors, gifts, and developing mutual obligations (March 112). Even a small favor to a Japanese creates in their minds an obligation to repay in greater kind.


  • For Japanese companies, creating a loyal, family-like society of trust is as important as profit. Some companies don’t use time clocks, unions, or contracts but trust the employees to do what’s right. “Making a profit is important but it is not the ultimate aim. Character building is much more important.” Buddhist influence: “creative work is not just a means to an end [paycheck] but the realization of a way of life worth living” (March 98). Status with a company is more important than salary. These values are gradually changing as Japanese businesses become more Westernized.
  • Bosses have a paternalistic responsibility for their employees, while workers are obliged to be loyal to the company and put their work first, even above family (March 99).
  • Virtue of giri-ninjo, “duty and empathy” toward workers. Some businesses will risk bankruptcy rather than lay off loyal employees (Kristof 84).
  • Japanese seem to require order in all spheres of life and accept rules imposed by others (Nisbett 72).
  • There is no universal ethic, but whatever is good for the company, family, etc. To put one’s personal ethic before the company would be wrong (i.e. boss asks you to cheat on the books) (March 120)
  • Japanese will sometimes begin a job application by apologizing for not being worthy of the job in question (Nisbett 68).
  • Workers who go on strike in Japan will continue to work, but wear a black arm band to show their displeasure, not wanting their selfish demands to harm the country’s economy (Conrad 181).


  • In Japan only 1.1% of births are out of marriage, since 1960. In the US it’s 30%. This is due mostly to fear of shame, social pressure. (Kristof 177)
  • In many families, the father spends little time at home. The mother runs the accounts and gives the husband an allowance. One survey found 30% of fathers spent 15 minutes a day with children; another found 50% of children never saw their fathers during the week. (Kristof 177)
  • Children spend longer days in school, half-Saturdays, and only six weeks summer vacation. By the time of high school most Asian students have spent the equivalent of two more years in school than in US. (Kristof 187)

Changing Japan

  • Matsumoto presents several recent psychological studies to argue that many of the stereotypes about Japan no longer apply to the younger generation, called shin-jinrui (new humans) by older people. “Japanese culture is undergoing a major evolution, thereby creating a heterogeneous society with multiple cultures. … the cultural values held by many of the younger generation (under 35) are considerably different from those held by their elders” (Matsumoto 28).
  • Comparing individualism to collectivism, studies show young people in Japan and US similar in an emphasis on individualism, compared to the more traditional country of Korea which rates much higher today on collectivism (41). In 1996 70% of Japanese students rated themselves as individualists, compared to 32% of Japanese adults (45). Young Japanese are more likely to make decisions on their own rather than rely on advice from their family or work group. Their self-concept is less dependent on their relationship with others (49).
  • In business, older workers held the attitude of sacrifice and loyalty to the company, which offered them a lifetime of work. Raises were expected for those in seniority. Younger workers, however, expect raises to be on merit, earned by outstanding individual achievement. The number of companies offering lifetime employment dropped from 27% in 1990 to 10% in 1999 (76). Younger workers are more willing to leave a company if not satisfied (136).
  • Some companies are adapting to new times and encouraging more individual creativity and critical thinking. Previously independent thinking was not rewarded (143).
  • As for families, in the last few decades there has been a sharp change in attitudes. Fewer women believe that they should always defer to their husbands. In 1997 55% approved of women living a single lifestyle. Divorce rates have risen among young and older couples (80, 82).



Ch’en, Kenneth. Buddhism: the Light of Asia. 1968.

Ching, Julia. Chinese Religions. 1993.

Ching, Julia. Confucianism and Christianity: a Comparative Study. 1977.

Christopher, Robert C. The Japanese Mind. 1983.

Conrad, Richard. Culture Hacks: Deciphering Differences in American, Chinese, and Japanese Thinking. 2019.

de Bary, William. Asian Values and Human Rights. 1998.

Hein, Laura and Mark Selden, eds. Living With the Bomb. 1997.

Heinz, Carolyn. Asian Cultural Traditions. 1999.

Hoobler, Thomas and Dorothy. Confucianism. 1993.

Kaur Singh, Nikky-Guninder. Sikhism. 1993.

Kinsley, David. Hinduism. 1982.

Kristof, Nicholas, and Sheryl WuDunn. Thunder from the East. 2000.

LaFleur, William. Buddhism: a Cultural Perspective. 1988.

Lester, Robert. Buddhism: the Path to Nirvana. 1987.

Li, Chenyang. The Tao Encounters the West. 1999.

Littleton, C. Scott. Shinto : Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. 2002.

March, Robert. Reading the Japanese Mind. 1996.

Matsumoto, David. The New Japan: Debunking Seven Cultural Stereotypes. 2002.

Nisbett, Richard. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why. 2003.

Starr, John Bryan. Understanding China. 1997.

Yamada, Haru. Different Games, Different Rules: Why Americans and Japanese Misunderstand Each Other. 1997.


Back To Top