Friday 29 May 2020

Community Spirit, Charity, and Seken in the time of Corona: Comparing Japan and the UK

One of the dominant stereotypes of Japan is that it is a collectivist society and group orientation is the dominant cultural pattern which shapes behaviour. However, one thing I have noticed during the current pandemic is a distinct lack of solidarity and community in this country, in stark contrast to the UK. From 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore who raised millions for the National Health Service (NHS) by walking laps around his garden to the weekly nationwide clap for carers, there seems to be a real sense of togetherness and unity - not to mention a lot of (black) humour - in these tough times, something distinctly lacking in "groupist" Japan. So what's going on?

Yoshiki's Foundation America Website © 2018

In a recent article, the Japan Times tries to address this puzzle, namely why, even in these times of acute need, there is no culture of giving to charity. The article gives some examples of Japanese celebrities dipping into their pockets, though it is noteworthy that the most public and generous of these - X-Japan rock-star Yoshiki - has lived in the US for almost 30 years. The new Emperor and Empress did donate to a children's and a disaster charity on the occasion of their enthronement but this was all very low-key (reflecting the need to be humble about giving). The most visible recent project I have noticed in Japan is the collaboration of 76 artists from talent agency Johnny's (ジャニーズ) who produced a charity single to provide masks and PPE for medical instutitons (check out the channel here). But there is little news on this or details of how much they have raised (in stark contrast to the media attention around, say, Arianna Grande and Justin Bieber's charity single).

In terms of individual donations, at certain periods in the year you will see charity collections in town centres such as the "red feather" end of year collection for local community and welfare groups (interestingly an American priest was apparently central in the creation of these charity drives). The Ashinaga group which collects money for orphaned young people is also quite visible. However, aside from popping a ¥100 coin in a collection box on the street or in a convenience store, individual charity donations are limited. The World Giving Index 2018 ranked Japan at 128 (out of 144), with only 18% saying they had donated to charity in the previous month. In terms of actual figures, the Japan Fundraising Association gives a figure of ¥775.6 billion for individual giving in 2016 (0.14% of GDP) in contrast to 0.54% of GDP in the UK. In Japan, corporate, not individual donations, make up the bulk of donations; the figure below shows the stark contrast between Japan and the UK.
Christianity is commonly used to explain this discepancy, but the UK can hardly be called a particularly Christian society (at least compared to the US). As well as religion, the expectation in Japan that the government is responsible for providing public services (and general trust in and reliance on the government) is often cited as a reason. An even more surprising finding from the World Giving Index is that in Japan only 23% said they had helped a stranger (or someone they didn't know who needed help) in the last month, 142nd out of 144 (the UK figure was 63%). Of course this doesn't mean that Japanese are unkind: as any foreign tourist holding a map will tell you, people will often stop and try to help despite speaking little or no English.

Ruth Benedict, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, offers an intriguing explanation. She writes that Japanese are "extremely wary" of getting entangled in on (恩) by which she means becoming indebted to or imposing a burden of obligation on someone for doing them a favour - what is called "returning the
on." The logic goes that by helping the old lady who has fallen down, they are imposing an unconscionable burden on the person they helped since that person will be weighed down with a sense of debt they can never repay. The foreign tourist, on the other hand, blithely unaware of the intricacies of obligation and debt, can be helped without fear. This loosely dovetails with the explanation of Prof. Shusaku Sasaki, quoted in the Japan Times article mentioned earlier, who posits that being seen as giving for selfish rather than altruistic reasons is one reason Japanese avoid openly giving to charity: helping others is best done anonymously and invisibly to avoid social problems and misunderstandings (one example is the Tiger Mask donation phenomenon described here). Of course, the lack of a proper tax deduction system and tax breaks may in the end be a better explanation than any of this!

In the time of coronavirus, let me offer one final sociological explanation for the lack of charity - both giving and helping - in Japan: the notion of seken (世間). Seken is something like public community: Professor Naoki Sato translates it as "dynamics that occur when Japanese people unite as a group" and describes it as a kind of peer pressure to conform. The result is voluntary regulation of behaviour - under the hard stare of other's eyes - to avoid criticism, shaming, and ostracism. The force of this social pressure explains how self-restraint (jishuku) which, in lieu of the ability to impose a European-style legal lockdown, has been the cornerstone of Japan's undeniably successful COVID-19 counter-measures. I have experienced this personally, with withering looks and even shouts of "mask" when simply walking the dog (maskless) in the fresh air (I of course wear a mask when entering shops or taking trains). The downside of seken though is that it pushes people to keep their head-down to avoid bothering or antagonising others. This disinclination to stand-out, even through positive behaviour such as donating to charity, organising support for health workers, or helping the proverbial old-lady, might be another explanation for the lack of solidarity, togetherness, and unity in Japan.

Soon, every citizen - foreign residents included - will be able to receive a ¥100,000 (£750/$930) payment as part of the government's coronavirus economic response package (see details here). There are plenty of people in Japan - including a number of my students - who are really struggling at the moment so giving money to everyone, regardless of income, seems to me nothing short of ridiculous. This writer for one will be giving the money to charity - I just won't be telling any of my Japanese friends or neighbours in case they think I'm "showing off" (kakkō tsukeru) to get praise and attention. Just hope none of them actually read this blog!

UPDATE: These were the four charities I split my ¥100,000 between: how about helping one or two of them out? (Big Issue, Florence, Katariba, and Plan International)