A blog about thinking spiritually and culturally outside the box... Buddhist and interfaith commentary about developing a more enlightened and humane society by finding the middle-path between our many spiritual, cultural, and social extremes. It is my wish and my intention that what you read here will help you see things differently in positive ways to help restore the sacred to your relationships in and with the world around you, in whatever form the sacred takes for you. ~ Namaste
Friday, September 2, 2011
On population and context
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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. Truthout.org. 4 Oct. 2006. 9
Apr. 2009 <http://www.truthout.org/article/lester-brown-us-population-growth-no-cause-celebration>.
“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.,
Reynolds, Ashley. “Effects of
Overpopulation.” Negative Population Growth. 9 Apr. 2009
<http://www.npg.org/winningessays.html>. _____ Window illustration by Karla Joy Huber; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, colored pencil