As Japan has shown, and China will too, the west’s values are not necessarily universal

Not so long ago, Japan was the height of fashion. Then came the post-bubble recession and it rapidly faded into the background, condemned as yesterday’s story. The same happened to the Asian tigers: until 1997 they were the flavour of the month, but with the Asian financial crisis they sank into relative obscurity. No doubt the same fate will befall China in due course, though perhaps a little less dramatically because of its sheer size and import.

These vagaries tell us nothing about east Asia, but describe the fickleness of western attitudes towards the region’s transformation. A combination of curiosity and a fear of the unknown fuel a swelling interest, and then, when it appears that it was a false alarm, old attitudes of western-centric hubris reassert themselves: the Asian tigers were victims of a crony culture and Japan was simply too Japanese.

During Japan’s crisis, western – mainly American – witch doctors advised that the only solution was to abandon Japanese customs like lifetime employment and adopt more Anglo-Saxon practices such as shareholder value. The age-old western habit of believing that its arrangements – of the neo-liberal variety, in this instance – are always best proved as strong as ever: it is in our genes. The fact that the US was at the time in the early stages of its own bubble might have suggested a little humility was in order. In the event, Japan largely ignored the advice and has emerged from its long, post-bubble recession looking remarkably like it did before the crisis.

Japan has long been part of the advanced world. It was the only non-western country to begin its industrialisation in the 19th century, following the Meiji Restoration in 1867. It has the second largest economy and enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world. By any standards, it is a fully paid-up member of the exclusive club of advanced nations. Yet Japan is quite unlike any western society. In terms of the hardware of modernity – cars, computers, technology, motorways and the rest – Japan is, unsurprisingly, largely familiar. However, in terms of social relations – the way in which society works, the values that imbue it – it is profoundly different.

Even a casual observer who cannot understand Japanese will almost immediately notice the differences: the absence of antisocial behaviour, the courtesy displayed by the Japanese towards each other, the extraordinary efficiency and orderliness that characterise the stuff of everyday life, from public transport to shopping. For those of a more statistical persuasion, it is reflected in what are, by western standards, extremely low crime rates. Not least, it finds expression in the success of Japanese companies. This has wrongly been attributed to an organisational system, namely just-in-time production, which, it was believed, could be imitated and applied with equal effect elsewhere. But the roots of the success of a company such as Toyota lie much deeper: in the social relations that typify Japanese society and that allow a very different kind of participation by the workforce in comparison with the west. As a result, non-Japanese companies have found it extremely difficult to copy these ideas with anything like the same degree of success.

So how do we explain the differences between Japan and the west? The heart of the matter lies in their different ethos. Individualism animates the west, now more than ever. In contrast, the organising principle of Japanese society is a sense of group identity, a feeling of being part of a much wider community. Compared with western societies, Japan is a dense lattice-work of responsibilities and obligations within the family, the workplace, the school and the community. As Deepak Lal argues in his book Unintended Consequences, the Japanese sense of self is quite distinct from the western notion of individualism. As a result, people behave in very different ways and have very different expectations, and their behaviour is informed by very different values. This finds expression in a multitude of ways.

Following the recent train crash in which 106 people died, the president of the operating company, JR West, was forced to resign: this is the normal and expected response of a company boss when things go seriously wrong. Income differentials within large corporations are much less than in their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, because it is group cohesion rather than individual ego that is most valued. Even during the depth of the recession, the jobless figure never rose much above 5%: it was regarded as wrong to solve a crisis by creating large-scale unemployment. Even those who do the more menial tasks – shop assistants, security staff, station attendants and canteen workers – display a pride in their work and a courtesy that is in striking contrast to the surly and resentful attitude prevalent in Britain and other western societies.

In a survey conducted by the Japanese firm Dentsu, 68% of Americans and 60% of Britons identified with “a society in which everyone can freely compete according to his/her will and abilities” compared with just 22% of Japanese. In the same survey, only 15% of Japanese agreed with the proposition that “it’s all right to break the rules, depending on the circumstances”, compared with 37% of Americans and 39% of Britons. This finds rather bizarre expression – to an Englishman at least – in the way pedestrians invariably wait for the pedestrian lights to turn to green even when there is not the slightest sign of an approaching vehicle. Even the preferred choice of car reflects the differing ethos: whereas in the US and Britain, the fashionable car of choice is a 4×4 – the very embodiment of a “bugger you and the environment” individualism – the equivalent in Japan is the tiny micro-car, much smaller than a Ford Ka – a genre that is neither made nor marketed in the UK.

The differences are legion, and not always for the better. Japan, for example, is still blighted by a rigid and traditional sexual division of labour. In a survey on the gender gap published last week by the World Economic Forum, Japan came 38th out of 58 countries, an extraordinarily low ranking for a developed nation. Or take democracy, that hallowed and allegedly universal principle of our age. Japan has universal suffrage, but the idea of alternating parties in government is almost entirely alien. Real power is exercised by factions within the ruling Liberal Democrats rather than by the other political parties, which, as a consequence, are largely marginal. We should not be surprised: in a society based on group culture rather than individualism, “democracy” is bound to be a very different kind of animal.

Far from conforming to the western model then, Japan remains profoundly different. And so it has always been. After the Meiji Restoration it deliberately sought to engineer a modernisation that was distinctively Japanese, drawing from its own traditions as well as borrowing from the west. Globalisation notwithstanding, this is still strikingly the case. Indeed, Japan remains unusually and determinedly impervious to many of the pressures of globalisation. The lesson here, perhaps, is that we should expect the same to be true, in some degree or another, of the Asian tigers – and ultimately China too. That is not to say they will end up looking anything like Japan: China and Japan, for example, are in many respects chalk and cheese. But they will certainly be very different from the west because, like Japan, they come from very different histories and cultures.