The Duke University Magazine had a special issue devoted to the perception of freedom. An article by Deanna Elstrom, who founded a Tokyo-based brand insights strategy agency, compares and contrasts the concept of freedom between America and Japan.
In Japan, it is incumbent upon individuals be sensitive to the needs of others. This requires complying with rules that can be inconvenient, and even silly, but are understood to be for the common good. From the advent of the pandemic, even though it was not required, nearly everyone in public places donned masks. From early in the pandemic, people obediently followed government requests to limit travel and stay home. Though these recommendations were inconvenient, a sense of mutual cooperation continued to prevail.
Japanese culture is rooted in a collectivist orientation, given its rice-farming history, requiring farmers to sharing water resources. So, importance is placed on maintaining harmonious relationships. If you act selfishly, your water supply and your livelihood can be compromised.
To function effectively within Japanese society, one must be sensitive to what others want, need and feel. Individuals are encouraged to practice self-restraint and avoid imposing on others. Politeness and concern for others seems to be ingrained in their DNA.
From their earliest years, Japanese preschools and kindergartens teach their children the importance of cooperation and to not trouble others. Children are taught to clean up after themselves and each other, and in school serve and clean up lunch. The value of being useful is nurtured.
Japanese society too has its share of challenges. Yet, daily life in Japan offers freedoms that can only be found in a society that places a high importance on the group as well as the individual. It is the freedom from the fear of being killed in a drive-by or a school shooting that gives the Japanese the freedom to relax and feel secure knowing that the great majority of citizens obey the rules.
Here, on the other hand, we have a lot more freedom to do as we like, with dire consequences sometimes. Americans seem to favor individual rights over collective rights. In times of collective crises like World War II, collective rights have taken precedence, but only temporarily. In a nation where “rugged individualism” is infused in its DNA, individual rights eventually take precedence. We witness it in debates over gun control, education, climate change and health care.
The pandemic has made this issue ever more relevant and urgent. In many countries, citizens understood that masking and staying home were public-health necessities. Yet across much of the U.S., some individuals refused to comply with mask mandates or to get vaccinated, claiming to confront government overreach in the name of individual freedom. They don’t seem to be concerned about putting the health care system under tremendous stress and endangering the lives of health care workers and others around them.
So, let’s compare how the countries performed during the pandemic, using the starkest statistic: death. In Japan, with a population of 125 million, just over 30,000 people died of COVID. (By itself, Florida had 2.5 times more deaths than Japan.) In the U.S., with a population of 330 million, more than 1 million have died of COVID. Had the U.S. mirrored Japan’s death rate, our toll would be just 80,000 — not more than 1 million.
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Murad Antia, now retired, taught finance at the Muma College of Business, University of South Florida in Tampa.