‘Cowboy’ culture can be seen in some Japanese

May 25, 2007
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—The frontier experience has long been cited as a major reason for the individualism and independence that characterize American culture. Now a new line of research shows that the impact of this kind of “cowboy” experience also shows up in a very different culture—among settlers of Japan’s frontier.

On Friday (May 25) in Washington, DC, at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, University of Michigan psychologist Shinobu Kitayama presents evidence that Japanese who were born in Hokkaido have attitudes about independence that are similar to those of Americans and very different from those of their fellow Japanese, who tend to place more value on cooperation and inter-dependence. Hokkaido?the northernmost island of Japan?was settled primarily during the first half of the 20th Century by peasants and jobless ex-samurais.

“We looked at four groups of college students,” said Kitayama, who conducted the research with Keiko Ishii of Hokkaido University. “One group was from the United States, another was born in Hokkaido, a third group was born in mainland Japan but lived in Hokkaido and a fourth group was born and currently lived in mainland Japan.” Altogether, the researchers studied 682 individuals.

The researchers found that mainland Japanese reported that they were happiest in society and among others, while Americans and Hokkaido natives reported being happiest as a result of their own accomplishments and efforts.

Kitayama presents his findings in a session on Culture and Cognition that highlights research on the ways culture affects personality and basic cognitive processes. This research has established substantial cultural variations in thought patterns, emotions and motivation between East Asian and European American cultures. His work is part of a broader research program in progress at the U-M Culture and Cognition Program, which was started by U-M psychologist Richard Nisbett and which Kitayama now directs.

While much of the research in the field focuses on broad comparisons between “East” and “West,” Kitayama also investigates regional variations to explore the historical origins of independence in the West and inter-dependence in the East.

He found that Hokkaido Japanese are less social than either mainland Japanese or Americans. “Hokkaido Japanese reported a significantly smaller number of friends in their social networks than either mainland Japanese or Americans,” he said.

He also found that when asked to explain another person’s behavior, Hokkaido natives were as likely as Americans to say that the person’s disposition was more important the person’s situation. In contrast, Japanese who lived elsewhere in the nation were more likely to attribute another person’s behavior to the situation they were in.

Among the broad cultural differences identified by Kitayama and colleagues are that European-American cultures tend to enhance the personal self while East Asian cultures have a tendency toward self-criticism or effacement. Results of another study presented at the meeting and co-authored by Kitayama showed that North Americans who created symbolic drawings of themselves and their friends pictured themselves larger than the average size of their friends, a representation of their tendency to inflate their own importance. This effect did not occur with the Japanese tested.

In yet other presentations at the conference, Kitayama discusses related research comparing the independence of Americans, Germans and mainland Japanese. In this tri-cultural comparison, he found that the Japanese were happiest when engaging with others, while Americans were happiest when acting independently. Germans were slightly happier when engaging with others than when they were engaged in independent activities.

Established in 1948, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world’s oldest academic survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world’s largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR web site at www.isr.umich.edu for more information.

More on Prof. Kitayama