How to become Japanese: A Guide for North Americans

Kate Partridge

North Americans who have lived in Japan for any length of time soon come to realize that, in spite of superficial similarities, the Japanese culture is quite different from their own, and that there is practically nothing that an individual North American can do to change this culture. The “shikata ga nai” (it can’t be helped) philosophy comes as a shock to those North Americans who were raised to believe that if one just rolls up one’s sleeves and gets to work, all kinds of change can be realized: “…the all-American hero can never accept the world for what it is: it can always be better; that is what he originally came to America for.” (Buruma, p.184)

A tremendous amount of the stress of acculturation for North Americans in Japan arises from the interpersonal tension between their self-assertive and individualized selves and the self-effacing and collectively-minded Japanese. Although an ideal stress-reducing solution would be for the Japanese all to start behaving assertively, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. I thought it would be an interesting exercise, therefore, to review some of the psychological changes that a North American might undergo in the process of becoming “Japanized” (when in Rome, etc.). In doing so; I will be referring to the model of “self-assertiveness” that our North American friend very likely has been using heretofore as a guide to “ideal” behavior, and that she will have discovered simply does not work in Japan.

The main elements of the assertiveness model express the Westerner’s deep belief in the value of the individual creative self; in the paramount desirability of direct action to control the environment; and in the need for emotional honesty and expressiveness, which results from a sort of hydraulic model of the emotions (i.e., suppressed feelings put pressure on the system and leak out or cause damage in unexpected ways). One of the desired effects of assertive behavior is an increase in self-esteem.

On every level of the assertiveness model, it seems that the Japanese take an opposite position. It is no wonder that the North American visitor or resident in Japan sometimes has an exhausting struggle it is difficult enough to uphold and maintain one’s own cultural ideal of courageous self-expression and action, without at the same time having to deal with the fact that, in-the Japanese environment, this ideal may be all dressed up, but it certainly has no place to go. Leaving aside the question of whether or not the Japanese would desire such an outcome, how would a North American have to change in order to become a functioning and psychologically fully-integrated member of the Japanese interactive web?



The most fundamental change our friend would have to make is in his sense of identity. The North American sense of self has the person as the center of gravity in the psychological field, with, in a healthy psyche, a very clear differentiation between self and other, and between self and the group. • In contrast, the Japanese sense of self and identity are organized around the group or groups to which he belongs (see Figure 1). The psychological center of gravity is embedded in the Other—what the Other is feeling, thinking, doing and there is often an almost symbiotic lack of differentiation between self and other that would be regarded with horror by North American psychiatrists.

This fundamental characteristic of the Japanese has been described from different angles by many different writers. For example, Benedict contrasts the tendency of the Japanese to experience shame as a result of a negative reaction from the group, with the tendency of the Westerner to experience guilt generated within the individual by an internalized absolute standard. Nakane, in stressing the vertical structure of a Japanese society that is quite preoccupied with status, frequently mentions the minimization of individual autonomy in the face of total group-consciousness; she states that in identifying himself, a Japanese will refer to his position in a social “frame” rather than to his individual attributes. Lebra discusses what she calls the social relativism of the Japanese— social preoccupation combined with an interactional philosophy — and describes in detail various aspects of the Japanese group consciousness: “belongingness” (collectivism, conformity and total commitment to the group), the role of empathy in maintaining group consensus, and the socially-valued network of dependency relationships that stands in such contrast to the ideal of independence that is paid lip-service in North America.

The point is that Japanese are simply not trained or encouraged to pay much attention to individual, personal experience, feelings and ideas, and as a result, are usually not very articulate when asked to express these. In addition, the Japanese learn not to act in any way that puts their own individual self expression in the foreground, against the background of the group. The group must always remain in the foreground. Our North American friend, who undoubtedly has himself firmly in the foreground and can probably talk for hours about himself and his experience, would have to shift his psychological center of gravity from his self to the other/group as the source of identity, motivation, gratification and security. After years of being trained to trust oneself as the primary and only truly reliable source of security in the existential struggle, such a shift might require tremendous courage. At the same time, all the training that our friend received-in expressing who he is, what he thinks, how he feels and how he sees the situation will go for naught, and this will be so even if he expresses himself in a truly assertive way, that is to say, in a way that does not dominate, humiliate or degrade the other person in any way (to do so would be aggressiveness, not assertiveness).

A fundamental and important characteristic of the assertive model is that it reflects an underlying respect both for one’s own needs, feelings and ideas, and for the needs, feelings and ideas of the other person. Behavior that reflects only respect for oneself but not for the other is called aggressiveness. Non-assertiveness arises when one respects only the other person but not oneself. This definition of assertiveness focuses on underlying psychological realities rather than the superficial expression of these realities in behavior. Although the surface behavior of assertiveness is highly culture-specific, it seems likely that both North Americans and Japanese could share a capacity for self respect. Lebra points out that Japanese do value individuality and autonomy, but that this individuality can be discovered and maintained only in isolation from the group, as in introspection. Individuality and social interaction are mutually exclusive. In contrast, North Americans develop ways to integrate individuality and social interaction, and even offer Assertiveness Training courses for just this purpose.



Once our North American friend has managed to disentangle her sense of identity from her self, and attach it stickily to the group, the next challenge will be to adjust her way of controlling the environment. This will be a real challenge, since it will involve adopting strategies that will initially leave her feeling weak, vulnerable and helpless.

She will have been trained to attempt as much direct control as possible over the existing physical, social or other realities in order to make these fit her own perceptions, goals or wishes. This is what Weisz, Rothbaum and Blackburn, in an important article published in 1984, refer to as “primary control”. North Americans strive to gain primary control in order to express and enhance their sense of individuality and personal autonomy. By definition, North American “assertiveness” is a quintessential manifestation of primary control in the service of the individual. Classic examples of self-defining assertive behavior include such positive acts as asking one’s boss directly for a promotion or raise, or introducing oneself to an attractive stranger, or negative acts, such as saying “no” to unreasonable demands on one’s energy, time or money.

In contrast, the Japanese value forms of control that are perceived as weakness, or at least as relinquished control, by North Americans. ‘Weisz et al. refer to these forms as “secondary control”, in which a person tries to become aligned with existing reality and to change the psychological impact that this reality has on him. There are different types of secondary control. One is “vicarious secondary control” which is gained by aligning and identifying oneself with powerful others (people, groups or institutions). This form of control is closely related to the collectivism or “belongingness” (Lebra) of the Japanese. Weisz et al. give an interesting example of a Japanese child-rearing method that reflects this. Japanese children can be punished by being locked outside the house so as to deny their contact with the family; alignment with the group is highly valued, and the potential for individuation that exists with separation from the group viewed negatively. In contrast, in North America, children may be punished by “grounding” them inside the house: alignment with the group means punishment and a loss of control, while separation means autonomy and gaining control.

“Predictive secondary control” is a way of gaining control of the psychological impact of an event, by being able to predict exactly what will happen, even if you have no direct control over it. Weisz et al. argue that the complex Japanese system of social rules, etiquette and ritual (for example, the meishi syndrome) allows the person to minimize uncertainty and gain a sense of predictive secondary control, by subordinating himself to these rules so that he knows exactly what others expect him to do, and exactly how others will respond.

A delightful example of predictive secondary control is the Japanese government’s habit of announcing in the media the “official date” of the beginning of various seasons of the year, such as the official beginning of the rainy season, or of the cherry blossom season. By doing so, they manage to give the impression that the government does, indeed, have control over the weather. (For some reason, it is equally delightful when the weather doesn’t knuckle under.)

“Illusory secondary control”
is an example of what North American psychologists call “external locus of control”, an undesirable state in which the person attributes the cause of events to sources outside oneself. This is in contrast to “internals”, who, in North America, have been found to possess high degrees of basic self-trust and self-esteem, and to show higher levels of cognitive achievement than externals.

In Japan, illusory secondary control is demonstrated by a strong tendency to accommodate to fate and accept it, to try to get into the rhythm of the ebb and flow of fate, and to be at peace with what fate I. has given one. Of course the term “illusory” reflects the North American bias against accepting existing realities peacefully, but in fact it is a highly adaptive strategy when one can, in reality, expect to have very little primary control.

In fact, as Kashiwagi points out, the Japanese do rate effort very highly, but at the same time they also recognize the importance of luck and do not see effort and luck as mutually exclusive. The goal is to be willing to accept unforeseen consequences given that one has done one’s best. Kashiwagi also points out that luck is considered an internal factor: being “lucky” is sometimes seen as a personal trait, like having a high level of ability.

A final form of secondary control discussed by Weisz et al. is “interpretive secondary control”, which arises when a person tries to get a sense of control by finding a greater reason or purpose for things that happen, so as to derive meaning from and accept existing realities (in this way it is an extension of illusory secondary control). For example, Morita therapy, an indigenous Japanese form of psychotherapy, aims to help the patient accept his symptoms as a natural part of himself, rather than trying to change these symptoms, which would be the goal of many (but not all) Western psychotherapies.

Azuma points out that the primary-secondary dichotomy described by Weisz et al. is in itself quite North American, with its presentation of primary control in the foreground and secondary control in the background. Azuma suggests that the Japanese would, instead, seek to differentiate between many different types of secondary control (in the same way that Eskimos have many different words for “snow”). He describes several different kinds of interpretive secondary control, which he refers to as “yielding”. For example, a mature form of yielding is demonstrated when the person gives way because he has enough tolerance, flexibility and self-control to curb his own assertive drives in order to protect the harmony of the group. The ability to yield in good grace is more highly valued than the ability to assert.

Kojima makes the point that as well as using secondary control methods, the Japanese do also attempt primary control methods, but when they do, it is more likely to be in a socially accepted indirect manner, rather than in an unacceptable direct one. For example, the Japanese will often ask a third person to give advice to someone, rather than doing it directly themselves. A wonderfully convoluted example is the case of the person who yields (interpretive secondary control) for the purposes of impressing his superiors in order to gain their support ill the future (i.e., a subtle exertion of primary control by modifying existing realities).

The high value that the Japanese place on indirectness as an aspect of politeness is in complete contrast to the high value on directness that is part of the assertive model for North Americans, who will often refer to indirectness as dishonesty, or “passive aggression”. A related contrast is between the appropriate body language of the North American and the Japanese. The assertive expression of feelings and behavior is characterized by non-verbal and body language that reinforces the strength of the words: good eye contact, strong and non-hesitant voice tone, confident body posture (chin up, shoulders back), and a facial expression that is congruent with the message being given. For Japanese, on the other hand, politeness requires an almost completely opposite set of non­ verbal grammar rules: restrained eye-contact, a very hesitant voice 1 tone, and a face that expresses humility (see Mizutani & Mizutani).


Now that our North American friend has managed to anchor his sense of self within the group, and is successfully dealing with his world using vicarious, predictive, illusory and interpretive secondary control strategies, and has become skilled at indirect primary control manipulations, he should have very little trouble in learning to swallow his feelings and communicating silently and empathetically. For the rest of us North Americans, however, dealing with and communicating our feelings in the Japanese way will be pretty difficult (Britons and Northern Europeans may have less trouble).

Much North American individual and marital psychotherapy is based on the assumption that an awareness of one’s real feelings, and emotional honesty in certain appropriate situations, are highly desirable and therapeutic. We believe that emotions, especially negative emotions, that are suppressed or repressed, will “fester” in the psyche and cause various discomforts as well as psychological and psychosomatic disorders. We have research data to back up this idea, and even some major diseases, including cancer, are thought to have as contributing factors the suppression of negative emotion. In addition, we have a high regard for honesty and the expression of emotion, as well as of fact. As a result, an important aspect of the assertive model is the expression of negative feelings in ways that are designed to be as unaggressive as possible (for example: “I feel hurt and angry when you do that”, instead of “You are a lousy son of a bitch!”). Equally important is the expression of positive feelings of affection and love, as well as compliments and positive feedback for things that have been well done.

The model of relationship that emerges from this is clearly one that is highly suitable (though not exclusively) for two people on an equal level with each other, whether they be a married couple, a pair of friends, or two business colleagues. The honest and open expression of positive and negative feelings is seen as a desirable way to create trust and closeness in the North American relationship, which is very often, but not always, a relationship between equals.

In contrast, Nakane and others have written about the interlocking system of “superiors” (sempai) and “inferiors” (kohai) that provides the vertical structure of Japanese society. In general, the Japanese do not have a well-developed language, either verbal or behavioral, for status-neutral, horizontal relationships with equals. Our North American friend would have to become used to the absence of a sense of equality, and skilled at “differentiat[ing] ranks infinitesimally”, with the “slightest difference in age, graduation time, the time of entry into a company, and so on” making one person higher than another (Lebra, p.72). Even within a married couple, the language of the man is likely to express higher status than that of the woman (although this is changing).

Assertiveness, and the assertive expression of feeling, become extremely complicated in such circumstances, even assuming they were desirable modes of action. In addition, there is a powerful sanction against the open expression of feelings (and opinions) in Japan, since they are manifestations of the individual and assuch are likely to disrupt the social harmony. Resignation (akirame) and perseverance, endurance (gaman suru) and suffering are offered as alternative values that will encourage the sufferer to swallow personal emotions, gracefully give way to group consensus, and avoid being a nail that sticks up. (A squeaky wheel in Japan is also likely to be hammered down.)

This is not to say that there is no communication of emotion. However, this communication is meant to be done in silence, through empathy (omoiyari). “The ideal in omoiyari is for Ego to enter Alter’s heart (kokoro), and to absorb all information about Alter’s feelings (honne) without being told verbally” (Lebra, p.38). Compare this with one of the basic rules in North American encounter groups and assertiveness training: you are responsible for telling others how you are feeling; we cannot read your mind.

Far from having moral strictures against emotional dishonesty, theJapanese pragmatically accept the need for a separation of one’s honest personal feelings, called honne, and the public presentation of an (often false) front, called tatemae. The trick is in being able to read the other’s honne, while keeping to the tatemae. Artificiality can be appreciated for its own sake in Japan.


There are many other comparisons that could be made between the North American model of assertiveness, and the Japanese model of restraint and resignation, and arguments can be made for both sides. However, final mention will be made of only one more important difference, a difference that has major repercussions on how the Japanese feel about themselves, within the narrow boundaries of their own country, and that also has echoes in the way the Japanese conduct themselves in the international arena.

North Americans believe that high self-esteem is a positive and emotionally healthy condition that, research shows, is related to high performance in all aspects of life. Therefore, they consider that giving positive feedback to another person is a valuable way both of building self-esteem in the other person (particularly if this person is a child), and encouraging the other to continue doing something that one appreciates. In contrast, the Japanese regard high self­ esteem as an ugly manifestation of individualism, and most parents work actively to prevent their children from feeling satisfied with themselves or their work. The Japanese have a tradition of withholding positive feedback from each other; I’ve met many adults who cannot remember ever receiving, or giving, a compliment. (By the way, refusal to recognize the value of positive feedback also contributes to the tremendous lack of effective dog training in Japan.)

In fact, there is clear evidence that Japanese children and adults have lower self-esteem than other cultural groups, including other Asian cultures (see Kashiwagi). Kashiwagi argues that these results reflect only a reluctance on the part of Japanese subjects to endorse positive statements about themselves, because of their ingrained modesty. However, it is impossible to believe that a lifetime of “putting oneself down,” and of receiving no positive feedback about one’s self, does not result in a depression-inducing low level of self esteem. In fact, depression is an extremely common form of stress­ induced disorder in Japan, euphemistically diagnosed as an “ulcer” for the purposes of taking medical leave from work.

It may be that as our North American friend adjusts to life in Japan, reorganizes her sense of identity, begins to gain a sense of control by aligning herself to existing reality, and learns to send and receive emotional signals through telepathy- oops, sorry, empathy-she will find her inner self enriched and strengthened in many ways, in spite of the cramps and pains she will also feel. But let us hope she can stubbornly hold on to and practise at least two of her remaining North American arts. The first of these is her ability to like and appreciate herself in a way that provides buoyancy and resilience in her daily life. The second is the art of giving positive feedback, and it is a gift that North Americans should not be ashamed of offering openly and sincerely to their Japanese hosts. The Japanese need to learn to like themselves, and we need them to learn it too.



Azuma, H., “Secondary Control as a Heterogeneous Category”, American Psychologist, 39 (1984).

Benedict, R.,  The Chrysanthemum  and  the Sword,Tuttle, 1946. Buruma, I., A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture. Penguin, 1984.

Kashiwagi, K., in H. Stevenson, H. Azuma & K. Hakuta (Eds.), Child Development and Education in Japan, New York: W. H. Freeman, 1986.

Kojima, H., “A Significant Stride Toward the Comparative Study of Control”, American Psychologist, 39 (1984).

Lebra, T. S., Japanese Patterns of Behavior, Hawaii, 1976.

Mizutani, O. & N., How To Be Polite In Japanese, Japan Times, 1987. Nakane, C., Japanese Society, Penguin, 1973.

Weisz, J. R., Rothbaum, F. M. & Blackburn, T. C., “Standing Out & Standing In: The Psychology of Control in Japan”, American Psychologist, 39 (1984).

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Kate Partridge

Author's Bio

This article by Kate Partridge Ph.D. appeared in an early issue of KJ. Kate is a Canadian clinical psychologist married to a Japanese. After a time living and practicing in Japan she moved back to Ontario.