Friday, September 2, 2011

On population and context

This post was originally an academic essay I wrote in my bachelor’s program at Madonna University, and I decided it would make a good post in the context of my blog’s intercultural focus. It’s also a response to some recent conversations I’ve had with people about why certain other nations don’t seem to have a lot of the problems the U.S. just can’t seem to make any lasting progress toward eliminating. Thus, it reads like a third-person essay instead of an opinion piece, and I decided to leave it that way rather than drastically change it just for the sake of tailoring it to my usual writing style.

The United States has always been critical of ethnocentrism in other nations, but the U.S. may be the most ethnocentric of them all. We have the tendency to think our ways are better, more culturally evolved, than other nations’, that our systems of government, religion, and even the ways we conduct our business and social lives would benefit everyone, if only they were willing to try them.

The biggest mistake we make in this is failing to consider the larger context that our, as well as other nations’, customs and governments rose out of. Our election-based bipartisan government, high value on freedom of speech with little regard to the con-sequences of unchecked self-expression, and our version of democracy would be appropriate for few other nations, given those nations’ histories, the efficacy of the social, business, and governmental systems they do have, and—perhaps one of the biggest factors in this day and age—their population density.

Japan’s population is about half that of America’s, and resides in a land area one-fifth the size of California. The other 80% of the country is mountainous and non-farmable. By contrast, most of the United States’ landmass is livable, and, though some areas are virtually unsettled and others densely packed, even New York is probably not as densely-populated as most of Japan.

With cultural emphases on group welfare and harmony over individualism and overconsumption, Japan seems to manage its population density quite well. “There is much greater emphasis on the group in Japan, and on not standing out or doing anything which will bring dishonor to the family or other social unit”. This emphasis helps keep Japan’s rate of crime fairly low, despite that high population density usually correlates with a higher prevalence of crime.

Also significant is the majority of crimes in Japan, about 70%, are non-violent, such as theft, whereas America has more of a problem with violent crime, such as murder, rape, and assault. This contrast is attributable part to Japan’s strict gun-control laws, which contrast with the U.S., “where special-interest groups promote the idea that people have the ‘right’ to whatever kinds of weapons they want in whatever quantity”. Because Americans don’t like to be “told what to do,” we tend to forget that every right entails responsibility. “[T]he concept of responsibility is more ingrained in the Japanese culture than it is in the U.S. culture.”

In America, growing population density has become a liability. Americans are stereotypically more “selfish” than the Japanese, seeing having to distribute resources amongst more people as a threat to individual prosperity. Those who foreshadow American population spiraling out of control see the increase in density bringing about social and probably economic chaos. While Japan’s population growth has stalled, and by some estimates is even slowly declining, America’s is reaching levels that Western individualists consider alarming.

America’s consumption and waste of natural resources are alarmingly out of proportion with its population, which represents only about 5% of the human race. This wastefulness is part of why America has more difficulty with increases in population density than Asian nations, who emphasize communal welfare, rather than the “right” of individuals to accumulate as much as they want, without thinking of who may be going without.

In his article “U.S. Population Growth No Cause for Celebration,” Lester Brown indicates the population growth of the U.S. is about 2.7 million per year, factoring in immigration and the two-to-one birth/death ratio. He posits that by 2043, there will be about 400 million Americans, a 25% increase from the estimated 300 million population of late 2006. Some estimates point to America’s population being close to or just over one billion people within the next few decades, but this still wouldn’t lead us to the population density of Japan.

Craig Huneke, Ashley Reynolds and other winners of an essay contest hosted by Negative Population Growth, an organization advocating for governmental policies to halt population growth and severely limit or even prohibit immigration, point  to  complete  depletion of  earth’s natural resources by  the middle of this century if America’s population growth is not halted and eventually reversed.

Advocates of government population control policies however miss much of the point regarding why America seems to have less and less of everything—jobs, food, land, etc. —to go around. Why America and its resources would be overtaxed at such a lower population density than Asian nations already support gives cause to consider how these nations can manage without falling apart, yet America cannot.

The American emphases on overconsumption and obsession with asserting individuality over community are probably doing more damage, at a faster rate, than our population growth.

An exploration of some of the ways the Japanese cope with living in such close quarters is essential to understanding why their nation in many ways appears to run much more smoothly than America, which appears to be falling apart, socially, politically, and certainly economically.

It’s difficult to directly compare Japanese customs and viewpoints with American ones, because for each aspect of one culture, there is not necessarily an equivalent or exact opposite in the other. In their article “The Experience of Family in Japan and the United States: Working with the Constraints Inherent in Cross-Cultural Research,” Bell et al state, “cross-cultural comparisons require that the same thing—the same concept or behavior with the same meaning—be identified in each culture” (Bell et al). Japan has many customs that Americans have no frame of reference for, and vice versa. For example, Americans value competition: competition sports, competition in business, and other forms of “one-upmanship.” However, there is no word for “competition” in Japanese. Historically the concept hasn’t been endorsed in any way there, at least not in the mainstream. So it can’t be said, “Americans value competition as such, and the Japanese value competition as such…”

Where one does find cultural equivalents is in the areas of human relations and adaptation, which are among the biggest contributors to balance or imbalance in social equilibrium. In the U.S., we’re used to scorning “conformity,” “tradition,” and “group mentality.” In Japan, these traits are necessary for survival, practical, and not considered signs of personal weakness or stubbornness to grow and develop. Debunking the individualistic myth that conformity equates with stagnation is the fact that while Americans are busy obsessing over how best to stand out and rise above everyone else, Japanese society has technologically and economically advanced at an impressive rate, which they accomplished as a group. The American cliché about “strength in numbers” certainly applies to Japan’s twentieth and twenty-first century successes as a nation.

Japan’s cultural emphasis on harmony and cooperation, both in business and family life, has kept its people from developing a high prevalence of the problems that usually come with high population density. If Japan had the emphases on individuality, self-expression, and the needs of the one outweighing the needs of the group that Americans and other Westerners pride themselves on, their civilization would probably self-destruct in a very short period of time.

Except when it comes to things that make some aspect of our lives more “convenient,” Americans do not like being expected to adapt. We see things as concrete, either-or, wrong or right. America is a land of extremes and immoderation, whereas in Japan there is “continuous adjustment to an ever-changing environment” (Condon). Americans are taught to “stand their ground,” while the Japanese find it far more practical to be flexible and accommodating, and see things as relative. “In this view, Japanese tend to be seen as less judgmental than Americans,” Bell et al state.

The Japanese are also “less likely to expect there to be a single truth. Truth and morality are socially relative; both must be considered in the context of relationship. This tendency is captured in the Japanese saying, ‘Even a thief may be 30 percent right.’” (Bell et al).

One way the Japanese cooperate on a large scale to ease their day-to-day interactions is wearing clothing specific to age, group, or other status. “Japan is a nation of uniforms,” John Condon states in With Respect to the Japanese, explaining there are specific outfits for students, people in different professions, even newlyweds and housewives (Condon). These clothing guidelines are not necessarily always adhered to, but for a people that value scarcity in speech more so than Westerners, it’s beneficial to look at people and know immediately who they are and where they fit, rather having to add that many more words to introductions.

In direct contrast, Americans seem to feel some ambiguity in their interactions with new people heightens the experience. This reflects our compulsion to assert our individual identity as much as possible, as though fearing it could easily be taken away if we seem to fit in too well. Many people, particularly youth, intentionally wear clothing that doesn’t represent who they feel they are for the sake of making a “statement,” challenging people to “not judge a book by its cover.” Most everyone knows a woman who has dressed in a short skirt and tight top and then complained why she got so many sexual advances from men that day. Many young people complain of being disregarded by potential employers, after walking in to apply wearing ragged jeans and faded tee-shirts.

Though it’s true we shouldn’t be quick to judge others based on what we perceive their status to be, contradictions in people’s self-representation are nonetheless cause for exasperation and confusion.

Given this tendency to expect others to not automatically assume we are who we appear to be without involved character investigation, it’s ironic that Americans criticize Japanese for being “roundabout” and indirect in their communication. Japanese people themselves admit their language is less direct than American English, but, when used in the clear contexts Japan has in its basic human relations, such as fewness of words, emphasis on cooperation, and clear identification of social and business roles with things as simple as dress, the Japanese are perhaps overall more direct than Americans.

If they were really as indirect as we accuse them of being, would Japanese society run as well and be as successful as it is, with minimal disruptions for resolving misunderstandings and conflict? The way the United States handles its growing population density and the way Asian nations—particularly Japan—handle theirs is telling of how efficient America’s culture really is when it comes to adapting to change.


Works Cited

Bell, Linda G., Hisako Dendo, and Yojiro Nakata. "The Experience of Family in Japan and the United States: Working with the Constraints Inherent in Cross-Cultural Research." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 35.3 (2003): 351-73. Social Sciences Full Text. H. W. Wilson. Madonna University Library, Livonia, MI. 9 Apr. 2009 <>.

Brown, Lester. “U.S. Population Growth No Cause For Celebration. Earth Policy Institute. 4 Oct. 2006. 9 Apr. 2009 <>.

“Crime in Japan.” Darkchilde’s Sanctuary on the Web. 9 Apr. 2009 <>.

Condon, John C. With Respect to the Japanese: A Guide For Americans. Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc., 1984.

Reynolds, Ashley. “Effects of Overpopulation.” Negative Population Growth. 9 Apr. 2009 <>.

Window illustration by Karla Joy Huber; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, colored pencil

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