Instituitions Versus People: A Japanese Perspective

We have 3 kids who we are teaching to speak Japanese. We also have Japanese TV by satellite at home.

This means that we show the kids the popular children’s shows from NHK (Nihon Housou Kyoukai — Like the BBC but Japanese). Some of these shows have been around for decades. My wife was watching these shows like “Okaas-san to issyou” (Together With Mom) when she was a youngster in the 70’s and we got to talking about it.

Here in the United States, we have long-running shows too. We have Captain Kangaroo, and Mr. Rogers for instance. I observed that these shows, which ran for decades were built around the personality of the host. The show was the man. Look at Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Ed Sullivan.

In Japan, this is not the case at all. The people in the long-running shows are in some sense interchangeable abstractions of people, who will come and go over time with no effect on the show itself. This can be summarized that “The institution is important and enduring. The people are transient and inconsequential in the sweep of time, so don’t dwell on them.” I think that this is emblematic of may aspects of Japanese culture. There are not many ‘cults of personality’ in Japan like we have here, but there are ‘cults of institution’.

Looking for instance at corporations, it is very unusual to have a Japanese company identified with a CEO. It is not so unusual in the US. Remember Lee Iacocca? Henry Ford? Thomas Edison? Walt Disney? They are institutions in and of themselves in some sense. In Japan, it is very difficult to find similar identification of personality to company. Honda Sochiro, and Akio Morita (Sony) may be close to exceptions to this because they were the founders of enduring institutions. These days the CEOs that come close to being institutions in and of themselves, or are even famous in their own right in Japan are basically two. And they are both foreigners:

Howard Stringer of Sony (a ‘3’ on the famous scale) and Carlos Ghosn of Nissan (a ‘7’ on the famous scale).

This is in my opinion a parallel to Japanese history. Looking back at the Tokugawa Shogunate, the founding Tokugawa Ieyasu was famous. A household name even today. Most subsequent shoguns are lost to the recall of the common man now. Ever hear of Iesato? Iemochi? Didn’t think so. These men simply wore the hat of the founder and were carried by the institution, and are thus lost to memory. Most Americans would recognize the names of all former presidents. Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt (both of them). The institution of presidentwas the man during their time, and people remember them for it.

Let’s look at the institution of the Emperor of Japan. This too is not about the man. It is about the institution and nothing else. When people think “Emperor” they don’t think “Hey that guy is great, I can’t wait to hear how he is going to shake things up.” No way. People think “I revere the sheer weight of history, and the embodiment of the spirit of Japan that he represents, and I will lower my gaze.”

We even see a genetic bias towards institution over individual. In many cases, a family without an heir will adopt a son from another family to carry on the institution of the family – while no trace of the genetic (real, palpable…by Western standards CRITICAL) lineage will remain in such a case. This does not seem to be so much of a concern. The adopted son will carry the family name forward and the institution is preserved.

The West tends to focus more on the individual –in so many ways. Japan tends to focus on the institution and its permenance, with a nod to the fact that the people will come and serve and go. Seeing the kids shows, and realizing that neither I nor any of the viewers could name any of the individuals on the show even if we had a gun to our heads made me think about it and write this blog post.



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Kevin Ready

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