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Hokkaido: cultural differences within the US and Japan

Tuesday November 28th, 2017

Stereotypes are useful: people recognize what you talk about when you refer to the Germans as rigid, to the Indians as flexible and to the Americans as superficial. Yet at the same time these stereotypes can (and should) be rejected. Some Germans are very flexible. Many well-educated Indian professionals work very goal-oriented and stick to their plan. And start a discussion with an American about politics in their country, and there’s nothing superficial about their answers!

Cultural variations within the US

 

Another good reason to reject stereotypes are the huge variations that can be found within one culture. Already in The Netherlands – a very small country when compared to China or Brazil – there are significant cultural differences between some of the regions. People rightly point out in workshops that the differences within the US or India are so big that any generalization will easily be proven wrong.

Zooming in on the United States, the differences within the country are big. Silicon Valley in California has a huge Hispanic population and is probably the most multicultural state in the US. The 3 million people in Southern Texas have a strong sense of pride, and are known to be friendly and relaxed. The east Coast is associated with international business and politics. But which East Coast? There are substantial differences between the Bronx and Manhattan already. Differences that can not only be contributed to the wealth of the inhabitants.

Where do differences within one culture come from? Evidence is increasing that genetic factors are of little relevance. However, subcultures seem to be formed through learned behavior over a time span of one generation. Circumstances determine which behaviors people adopt in their community, and these behaviors can become characteristic for a subculture that clearly is different from the norm. A fascinating article by David Robson recently on BBC World (How East and West think in profoundly different ways) illustrated this.

In the US for example (predominantly individualistic) we see stronger individualistic tendencies in the states that once were at the forefront of the expansion and exploration of the West. The pioneers who explored new land and led the move to the West required an independent spirit and had to fight for their own survival. Montana scores higher on individualism than most other US States.

Hokkaido vs. mainland Japan

This is where Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, comes in. Located far north, the weather patterns are tough here. The island is isolated from the rest of Japan by water (Honshu is just 55km to the south, the two islands separated by a small yet rough sea). The cultural differences are substantial between Hokkaido and Honshu. The Hokkaido inhabitants are described as “more individualistic, prouder of success, and less connected to the people around them”. Compared to mainland Japan, “people in Hokkaido tend to place a higher value on independence and personal achievement and emotions such as pride, and they were less concerned about the views of others.” These are clearly individualistic traits, likely driven by the Japanese settlers in Hokkaido who needed the same spirit as the explorers who led the discovery of the American West.

In contrast, the rest of Japan has strong collectivist tendencies. People live strongly interconnected with the people around them, resulting in more diplomatic and less confrontational conversation, and strong hierarchical patterns that govern the interactions between different levels of power. People here have a more holistic way of looking at the world, focusing on things in relation to their context and to others.

The behaviors on the northernmost island of Japan are different to the mainland as the Hokkaido inhabitants adapted to the specifics of their situation. Not much genetics is involved: the behaviors are learned from others, in the specific context in which these behaviors are developed.

The research described in Robson’s article is fascinating, as it should help us explore why certain displays of individualism/collectivism are stronger in one part of a country than in others. Similar research in The Netherlands could help us to better understand how a different mindset in the Northern part of our country developed, compared to (more collectivist) tendencies in the South. But more fascinating – for businesses – is it to understand in which parts of the developing economies (China, India) the spirit is more individualistic (and consequently more suitable for exploration, expansion and entrepreneurial behavior). More to come!

 

This blog is based on the article ‘How East and West think in profoundly different ways’ by David Robson, BBC World

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