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B.A., The University of Alberta, 1989

M.A., The University of British Columbia, 1993





We accept this thesis as conforming

to the required standards








September 1996

Steven J. Heine, 1996

A great deal of research indicates that North Americans are motivated to possess, enhance, and maintain positive self views. The cross-cultural generalizability of these motivations is addressed by examining a culture characterized by an interdependent view of self: Japanese. An anthropological and social psychological review suggests that many elements of Japanese culture are incongruent with needs for positive self-views. It is maintained that Japanese culture discourages people to think highly of themselves, in large part because positive self-views conflict with fulfillment of interdependent cultural goals. Five studies were conducted to test the notion that Japanese have a less pronounced need for positive self-regard than do North Americans. Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that Japanese are less likely than Canadians to enhance their groups. Study 3 shows that the absence of self-enhancing biases is linked to larger actual-ideal discrepancies for Japanese. Study 4, employing a hidden behavioral measure, provides additional albeit somewhat limited evidence for self-enhancing tendencies among Canadians and for self-effacing tendencies among Japanese. Finally, Study 5 demonstrates an absence of dissonance reduction and self-affirmational tendencies among Japanese. The results of the 5 studies are discussed within the context of the role of positive vs. negative self-feelings in Japanese culture.




Table of Contents




List of Tables

1. Means and Standard Deviations for the Main Dependent Measures in

Study 1


2. Mean Estimates and Standard Deviations for Individual Traits in

Study 1


12. Means and Standard Deviations for Main Dependent Variables in

Study 4 Separated by Correct or Incorrect Decisions.


List of Figures

1. Rosenberg Self-Esteem and Cultural Group


2. Spread of alternatives as a Function of Culture and Personality Test

Feedback in Study 5.


3. Spread of Alternatives as a Function of Culture and Self-Esteem in

Study 5.



I could not have written this dissertation without the guidance and assistance of a large number of people. First, I would like to thank the members of my committee, Jennifer Campbell, Ray Corteen, Dan Perlman, John Pinel, and Jim Russell for their time and thoughtful advice. I am especially indebted to my advisor, Darrin Lehman, for his ideas, continual guidance, and support in this and many other projects. I would also like to express my sincere gratitude towards Lim Bon, Roger Buehler, Tsukasa Hashimoto, Cathy McFarland, Shuji Mori, Katsuhiro Ohashi, Toshitake Takata, and Gillian Watson for their generous assistance in collecting the data in this dissertation. I would like to thank Jonathon Brown, Millie Creighton, Yumi Endo, Shinobu Kitayama, David Mandel, Takahiko Masuda, and Hisaya Matsumoto for the valuable discussions that I had with them, and for their comments on earlier portions of this manuscript. Thanks also to Dawn Brandlmayr, Maho Harada, Liz Ng, Steve Race, Akio Tanaka, and Jennifer Young for all their help in countless tasks associated with this project. I would also like to thank Otohiko Okugawa and the Sociology Department at Ritsumeikan University for taking such good care of me during my stay in Kyoto. A special thanks also goes to the Japan Foundation for their generous funding of this research. Last, I am especially grateful to my wife, Nariko Takayanagi, for her invaluable help with translations, ideas, and various tasks, and for her support during each and every phase of this project.

Studies 1 and 2 has been accepted for publication in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The manuscript, entitled “The cultural construction of self-enhancement: An examination of group-serving biases,” was authored by S. J. Heine and D. R. Lehman. Study 3 is currently under review at Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The manuscript, entitled “Culture, self-discrepancies, and self-satisfaction,” was authored by S. J. Heine and D. R. Lehman. Study 5 has been accepted for publication in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The manuscript, entitled “Culture, dissonance, and self-affirmation,” was authored by S. J. Heine and D. R. Lehman. All writing and analyses for the above studies were conducted by the author of this dissertation, under the supervision of D. R. Lehman.

Culture and the Need for Positive Regard: The Japanese Case
One of the most common assumptions in research on the self is that the majority of people have a need to view themselves positively (e.g., Baumeister, 1993). Although the assumption of this need appears across research topics (e.g., self-esteem, self-serving biases, self-evaluation maintenance), the vast majority of research hinging on this assumption has been conducted in North America. No doubt, we have a solid understanding of self-evaluation for the average North American: He or she possesses a positive self-view (e.g., Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989; Diener & Diener, 1995b), tends to enhance the positivity of his or her self-view (e.g., Greenwald, 1980; Taylor & Brown, 1988), and actively seeks information that allows the maintenance of this positive self-view (e.g., Steele, 1988; Tesser, 1988). Quite clearly, the normative view of self in North America can be described as “biased” or “skewed” in terms of its valence. Its center of gravity lies distinctly above the theoretical mid-point of the self-evaluation spectrum (Baumeister et al., 1989).

Significantly less research on self-views has been conducted outside of North America, particularly within Eastern cultures (Diener & Diener, 1995a). Yet the available evidence indicates that those from Eastern cultures do not have similarly skewed distributions of self-views. The suggestion, then, is that tendencies to possess, enhance, and maintain positive self-views are not basic to humankind, but may be culturally constructed.

This dissertation reviews literatures relevant to two cultures: North American and Japanese. Similar to other psychological phenomena that have been shown to be influenced or shaped by culture (for a review see Markus & Kitayama, 1991b), I argue that self-evaluations do not exist within a cultural vacuum. I will suggest that whereas the achievement of North American cultural goals is fostered by the maintenance of a positive self-view, fulfilling Japanese cultural tasks is not aided by feelings of positive self-regard. To the contrary, such feelings may impede the fulfillment of Japanese cultural goals.

Culture and Self

The enormous body of research on the self-concept conducted at North American universities reflects our deep fascination with the self. The self-concept, however, being forever bound to the historical and cultural context within which it is examined (Sampson, 1977), remains a resistant target of objective study. Gergen (1973) argued that much of social psychological research is an historical undertaking, with the processes under study best understood as the psychological counterparts to cultural norms. Indeed, Baumeister (1987) noted that the self-concept as we know it today is a relatively recent historical construction, emerging in Western Europe roughly around the 16th century. The point here is that the self cannot be treated as though it exists independent of a social context—its various forms have developed to their present states through peculiar sets of historical and cultural antecedents.

It is perhaps most accurate, then, to view the vast amount of “self” research amassed over the past few decades largely as a reflection of contemporary middle-class North American culture. Indeed, Markus, Kitayama, and Heiman (1996) remind us that it is not uncommon for critics to refer to psychology as “Anglo-American Area Studies.” Unfortunately, because the cultural specificity of social psychological theories is rarely noted, often the implicit assumption is that these theories reflect pancultural psychological processes. To this end, Hogan (1975) suggested that “much American psychology can be plausibly described as theoretically egocentric” (p. 534). For the most part, the extent to which our theories generalize to other times or cultures still remain empirical questions.

The notion that the self is shaped by its cultural context has recently enjoyed a resurgence in social psychology. For example, in their influential paper, Markus and Kitayama (1991b) posited that because cultures differ from each other in fundamental ways, so must the self-concepts of people raised in those cultures. One important way in which cultures differ is the extent to which they emphasize two tasks relevant to everyday life: independence (i.e., tasks related to agency and autonomy) and interdependence (i.e., tasks related to communion and affiliation; Bakan, 1966; Kashima, Yamaguchi, Kim, Choi, Gelfand, & Yuki, 1995). Cultures in which the former process is primary are said to foster an independent construal of self, whereas cultures in which the latter process is dominant are said to foster an interdependent construal of self.

The independent construal of self is the predominant sense of self in Western, and especially North American middle-class cultures (Markus & Kitayama, 1991b; Sampson, 1977; Triandis, 1989). It is characterized by a bounded and autonomous sense of self that is distinct from others and the environment (Geertz, 1974/1984). This sense of self is constructed primarily upon a foundation of internal attributes, such as an individual’s abilities, traits, attitudes, and characteristics, and is made meaningful in reference to these attributes. The primary cultural task within these cultures is to discover, actualize, and confirm these internal self-attributes (Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 1994) thereby asserting one’s individuality and autonomy, and highlighting one’s separateness from the social world (Sampson, 1977).

In contrast, within Asian, particularly Japanese, as well as Latin American, African, and Southern European cultures, there is a culturally shared belief in the interdependence of the self with others (Hamaguchi, 1985; Kondo, 1987; Markus & Kitayama, 1991b; Triandis, 1989). The self is not considered to be separate and autonomous, and it is only within the contextual fabric of individuals’ social relationships, roles, and duties that the interdependent self gains meaning. The principal cultural task in these cultures is for individuals to achieve a sense of belongingness with their respective groups. The maintenance of this interdependence requires individuals to constrain and tame their internal desires or wishes, which, if left unchecked, could potentially threaten the ever-important interpersonal harmony (Kitayama et al., 1994).

These culturally-sanctioned views of self are perpetuated within cultures by collectively shared social assumptions and practices which appear as subjectively “natural” ways of acting and interacting with others. Behavior that conforms to cultural standards is rewarded and authenticated by various cultural beliefs, institutions, and practices, thereby maintaining the culture’s habitual or predominant mode of existence (Kitayama, Markus, & Lieberman, 1995; Markus & Kitayama, 1994).

However, as the psychological literature on agency and communion demonstrates, orientations of independence and interdependence are not strictly restricted to individuals from “Western” and “Eastern” cultures, respectively (e.g., Bakan, 1966; Kashima et al., 1995). For example, interdependent orientations among North Americans, and independent orientations among Japanese, are not exceedingly rare. These orientations, however, should be construed as secondary as they are not encouraged within the cultural system (Kitayama et al., 1994). Successful or poor performance with respect to these secondary tasks will neither be rewarded nor sanctioned to the same extent as performance of the primary cultural tasks. In fact, in some situations, these secondary tasks may be in direct conflict with the principal orientations of the cultures and may even be actively opposed. Recent research in terror management shows that these secondary cultural values are rejected after individuals have reflected upon their own mortality (Heine & Lehman, 1996c). Normative construals of selves are maintained within cultures by the validation or authentication of primary cultural tasks and a relative lack of elaboration of secondary cultural tasks. These differential elaborations of cultural tasks lead to dissimilar views of selves between cultures.

Markus and Kitayama (1991b) maintain that divergent cultural views of self lead to cultural differences in psychological processes that involve the self. Cultures characteristic of the independent construal of self should show evidence of motivations, cognitions, and emotions that affirm the independence and autonomy of the self. On the other hand, psychological processes within cultures representative of the interdependent construal of self should affirm the interrelatedness and belongingness of the self. Much of the cultural psychological literature (see, e.g., Cousins, 1989; Heine & Lehman, 1995a; Markus & Kitayama, 1991a; Weisz, Rothbaum, & Blackburn, 1984) has focused on differences between cultures in such processes.

The extent to which individuals possess positive self-views is one psychological process that could potentially vary between cultures. A difference between cultures in the positivity of self-views would be expected to the extent that the cultures differed in characteristics that were associated with tendencies to elaborate or enhance positive self-evaluations. In the following section, I discuss how the need for positive self-regard differentially relates to the primary cultural tasks of North American and Japanese cultures.

The Role of Positive Self-Views Within North American and Japanese Cultures

The above discussion of cultural influences on the self-concept suggests the existence of cultural mandates that direct individuals to act in accordance with culturally sanctioned ideals. Individuals are rewarded when their behavior conforms to their respective cultural mandates in that their modes of existence are authenticated by their cultures (D’Andrade, 1984). They have received a cultural stamp of approval indicating that they are “good” or “normal” individuals (Heine & Lehman, 1996c; Solomon, Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1991). In contrast, behavior that fails to follow the cultural mandate may remain cognitively unelaborated or negatively sanctioned indicating that the individual has not met the cultural criteria of selfhood.

In North America, for example, the primary cultural mandate is for individuals to be adequate, competent, and self-sufficient (e.g., Sampson, 1977). North Americans who perceive themselves as falling short of this criterion thus remain “invalidated” by their culture and are likely to experience a certain degree of psychological discomfort. This suggests that North Americans should be motivated to view themselves especially positively, creating the sense or illusion of their autonomy. The more positively North Americans can perceive themselves, the closer they will approximate the cultural ideals of adequacy and competency. The construction of the typical North American’s identity as a meaningful cultural entity, then, hinges on the identification and confirmation of positive internal attributes of the self (Markus et al., in press). The elaboration of positive self-attributes and the denial or neglect of negative attributes (or the employment of any other deceptive cognitive maneuvers that can bolster a positive self-view) are rewarded by a cultural validation of the individual. North Americans who are able to maintain a high level of positive self-regard can continue to feel authenticated by their culture.

In contrast, the primary cultural mandate in Japan is for individuals to achieve a sense of interpersonal harmony and connection with others (e.g., Bachnik, 1992; De Vos, 1985). The Japanese self is defined as a relational entity that is made meaningful in reference to the pertinent social relationship to which the self is part (Hamaguchi, 1985; Nakamura, 1964). Therefore the construction of the typical Japanese individual’s identity as a meaningful cultural entity involves the validation of the individual’s social relationships by constantly seeking to identify and confirm shared expectations and norms. The need for identifying positive internal attributes of the self, even when present and demonstrable, does not aid individuals in adhering to the Japanese cultural mandates. Possessing, let alone enhancing or maintaining, a positive evaluation of the individual self that is disconnected from the social context ought not be a primary concern for Japanese. That is, a positive self-view is not implicated in the construction and symbolical affirmation of the identity as an active, mutually validating, and validated cultural agent (Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, in press; Nisbett, Kitayama, & Markus, 1996). In fact, as I argue in the following section, negative views of the self may serve Japanese better in approaching their cultural criteria of selfhood.

Japanese Culture and Positive Self-Regard

Perhaps some readers versed in North American social psychological literature will find the notion that positive self-regard is of little importance to Japanese difficult to understand. Indeed, it is a possibility that stands in direct conflict to much of what is basic within Western cultural values. Because cultural psychologists view the self as a product of culture, they argue that it is only within the context of the cultural environment that we can gain a true understanding of the self and related processes (e.g., Greenfield, in press; Markus et al., 1996; Miller, 1994; Nisbett et al., 1996; Shweder, 1990). In an attempt to make this proposed absence of a need for positive self-regard among Japanese more understandable, in the next section, I provide an anthropological, sociological, and cultural psychological review of elements of Japanese culture that are relevant to self-evaluations. Moreover, I explain how these aspects of Japanese culture can be seen to shape and influence how Japanese view themselves.


Critical to any analysis of Japanese culture is the concept of amae (e.g., Kumagai & Kumagai, 1985). Amae is the emotion term, unique to Japanese, that refers to an individual’s indulgence upon another’s favors. Amae is the freedom to maintain the subjective experience of one’s dependence on another. That amae is viewed as integral to everyday life in Japan highlights the importance of mutual dependence or interdependence in the culture. The Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi (1973), who introduced the Western world to the concept of amae, describes it as the mortar that holds Japanese society together. It reinforces the solidarity of the group.

To the extent that amae is linked to the Japanese cultural mandate, we would expect that Japanese would be motivated to emphasize and elaborate their dependency on significant others, and conversely, that they would be reluctant to enhance feelings of their independence. The more that Japanese individuals focus on their ability to take care of themselves, the less they should be able to achieve a sense of mutual dependence with others. We would expect, then, that Japanese would avoid feeling that they have become too capable by themselves (cf. De Vos & Wagatsuma, 1973; Miyamoto, 1994). For example, Nakane (1970) argued that it is important for leaders in Japan to maintain a sense of dependency on their subordinates:

“It is not essential for the superior, including the man right at the top, to be intelligent. In fact, it is better if he is not outstandingly brilliant. If his mind is too sharp and he is excessively capable in his work the men below him lose a part of their essential function and may become alienated from him. To counterbalance the dependence on the leader on the part of his followers, it is always hoped that the leader, in his turn, will be dependent on his men” (p. 65).

This phenomenon is not restricted to the corporate world, but extends across all aspects of Japanese life. Even the emperor, the ultimate symbol of the Japanese, maintains the air that he would be helpless without the Imperial house to take care of him (Doi, 1973). The solidarity of the Japanese nation thus appears to be reinforced by the mutual dependence of everyone, right up to the emperor. In fact, it appears that the people with the highest status in Japan are the most dependent upon others. Doi (1973) maintains that it is those individuals who best embody the sense of dependency characteristic of amae that are most qualified to perch on top of the hierarchy.

Achievement for the group, not the individual

Success in many aspects of Japanese life may be seen more for what one accomplishes together with or for one’s group than what one accomplishes as an individual. Achievement that can be attributed to a single individual highlights the uniqueness of that individual and can be seen to diminish the success of the group (De Vos, 1985). Group solidarity is best maintained when every member is perceived to be contributing to the group’s success. Individual success, then, is purchased at the formidable price of reduced group solidarity. This suggests that outstanding individual achievement may have negative consequences in Japan. In support of this suggestion, Kitayama et al. (1994) found that Japanese exhibited a positive correlation between the experience of positive interpersonally-disengaged emotions (i.e., emotions that only implicate the individual, such as pride) and negative interpersonally-engaged emotions (i.e., emotions that implicate the relation between the individual and others, such as shame). They argue that this is an indication that success in tasks of independence in Japan is accompanied by negative emotions (also see Johnson, 1993) because it is detrimental to the maintenance of interdependence (incidentally, the reverse pattern was obtained with U.S. participants). Maintaining a sense of connection and harmony with others implies that individuals should not become too successful by themselves.

Individual achievement in Japan receives little reinforcement from existing social structures. Nakane (1970) noted that “In Japan, in contrast to other societies, the provisions for recognition of merit are weak, and institutionalization of the social order has been effected largely by means of seniority” (p. 29). This orientation is apparent in the Japanese education system. Throughout the period of mandatory education (i.e., until completion of junior high school), individual children do not have to meet any specified criteria of achievement in order to be promoted to the next grade. Rather, all children are promoted together (Hendry, 1987; Rohlen, 1983). Tailoring education to an individual child’s academic needs apparently is viewed as less important than maintaining the solidarity of the group. In contrast to the explicit goal of many North American schools to develop each child’s individual potential (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992), Japanese schools strive to bring each child towards consensual standards of what good children are supposed to be (Lewis, 1995; Rohlen, 1983; White & Levine, 1986).

As well, Japan’s famous “lifetime employment” system, although undergoing considerable restructuring in this “post-bubble” era, provides a lucid example of how individual merit is superseded in Japanese organizations by interpersonal factors such as loyalty. For the most part, salary and promotions in large Japanese companies are contingent upon the time that one has spent with a company rather than being based on one’s performance (e.g., Christopher, 1983; Miyamoto, 1994). Hence, loyalty towards one’s company, as opposed to individual achievement, is primarily what is rewarded.

This lack of emphasis on individual achievement in Japan does not mean that achievement itself is foreign to Japanese. Indeed the accomplishments of Japan, particularly since World War II, are most impressive--perhaps even unprecedented in scale. However, the nature of this achievement is distinctively different from what is encouraged in the West. Achievement is seen to reflect upon one’s group, rather than upon the individual (De Vos, 1973a; Roland, 1988). The young man who passes the entrance examination into a top notch Japanese university elevates his family’s status. The hard work of a saleswoman to attract more clients helps her company to profit and expand. Achievement is a means by which an individual contributes to his or her group, not a means to elevate the individual above the group. The concrete results of achievement in North America and Japan may appear on the surface to be quite similar, but they seem to be based on distinctly different motivations and to serve different ends (De Vos, 1973a).

That Japanese society does not focus upon, nor explicitly reward, individual achievement suggests that individual merit remains culturally unauthenticated. Japanese individuals have few encounters with their individual performance being evaluated; indeed, the very process of assessing the merit of an individual is a rather unfamiliar undertaking to them. Because evaluations of the individual are less meaningful and relevant to their self-concepts, Japanese are less likely to dwell on their self-evaluations than do North Americans.


Another idiosyncratic characteristic of Japanese is the strong emphasis placed on self-discipline (Bachnik, 1992; Nitobe, 1969/1905; White & Levine, 1986). With the paramount cultural task being the achievement of interpersonal harmony, individuals must be able to restrain internal attributes that could potentially interfere with the cohesion of the group (Hamaguchi, 1985). Restraint of the individual thus serves to deepen interpersonal harmony and cultivates the interdependent self (Bachnik, 1992).

The emphasis on self-discipline is reflected in a variety of Japanese words. For example, doryoku, gaman, and ganbaru have much more positive connotations than their English equivalents of effort, endurance, and perseverance. For example, in one national survey doryoku was chosen as the “most liked” word by those polled (cited in Whiting, 1990). Effort directed at improving oneself to meet consensual standards of performance is critical for functioning effectively in Japanese society. Gaman (to endure or bear hardships) in particular has an important role in Japanese life (e.g., Benedict, 1946; Johnson, 1993; Nitobe, 1969/1905). De Vos (1973a) states that “the virtues of endurance and perseverance, the capacity to put off pleasure and to endure suffering, characterize Japanese culture to a degree not paralleled elsewhere” (p. 195). Such an emphasis on suffering is evident in popular Japanese culture as well. In contrast to the typical ending of a Hollywood movie, where the hero succeeds in falling in love or in catching the bad guy, Japanese stories tend to eschew happy endings and focus on the suffering and losses of their heroes. As Buruma (1984) put it, “one really has to suffer to be popular in Japan” (p. 31).

Many Japanese parents and educators view gaman as a primary means for the development of children. Such parents and educators believe that personal hardships remove self-centeredness so that a deeper awareness for the group can be cultivated (White & Levine, 1986). Japanese moral education (dotoku), the vehicle by which the cultural mandate is officially transmitted within schools, stresses the importance of gaman. The most common theme in dotoku books is perseverance in the face of adversity. Lanham (1979) noted that whereas North American educators strive to teach children self-confidence (a value essential for following an individualistic cultural mandate), Japanese children are taught the importance of discipline, perseverance, and hard work. In fact, she found that North American teachers were reluctant to give students tasks that were especially effortful and challenging because they felt that this might hinder the development of children’s self-confidence.

The importance of gaman is also reflected in Buddhism (Minami, 1971), one of the two major religions in Japan. Individual suffering is viewed as an inevitable and essential part of life. To overly dwell on feeling good about oneself, thereby distancing oneself from the feeling of suffering tends to be viewed as somewhat immoral (Benedict, 1946). Accordingly, suffering in Japan is seen as critical for both development of the self and for spiritual development. The importance of individual suffering in Japan would thus be likely to discourage people from basking in positive feelings.


A self-critical orientation is commonly described as a defining characteristic of Japanese (De Vos, 1985; Kashiwagi, 1986; Kitayama et al., in press; Roland, 1988; White, 1987). Japanese tend to view themselves as incomplete (ki ga sumanai) and to feel unsatisfied with their performance (Doi, 1973). A survey by the Prime Minister’s Office (1979) revealed that Japanese are considerably less content about their abilities than are North Americans. One question, for example, asked if students felt they were doing well in school. The vast majority (93%) of North Americans were happy with their performance, in contrast to only a minority (37%) of Japanese. Similarly, Stevenson, Lee, and Stigler (1986) found that parents from the U.S. were far more satisfied than Japanese or Chinese parents with their children’s mathematics performance despite the fact that Japanese and Chinese children consistently outperformed American children.

Chronically viewing oneself as incomplete carries the implication that one must continue to work hard to make up for one’s self-perceived deficits. Effort and hard work are natural consequences of the feeling that one hasn’t done enough. This outlook can be seen to propel the incessant drive of Japanese toward role perfectionism, and it could play an important role in their industriousness (Befu, 1986; De Vos, 1973b; Doi, 1973). Japanese artisans and craftsmen, for example, are famous for devoting their lifetime to perfecting their crafts. This never-ending drive towards improving one’s skills characterizes Japanese attitudes towards physical training as well. Former San Francisco Giant, Chris Arnold, had the following to say after playing baseball in Osaka for the Kintetsu Buffaloes:

“I’ll tell you the big difference between Japan and the U.S. In the U.S. we believe that a player has a certain amount of natural ability and with practice he reaches a certain peak point, but after that no amount of practice will make him better--because after a certain point your ability reaches its limits. But the Japanese believe there is no peak point. They don’t recognize limits” (cited in Whiting, 1990).

Japanese try to meet the highest possible standards associated with their roles (Befu, 1986); their lives are, in a sense, devoted to improving themselves. Accordingly, feeling satisfied about oneself could reduce the perceived need to continue one’s efforts and could signal others that one is not doing his or her utmost to work towards the consensual standards of excellence.

Because the primary cultural goal in Japan is to maintain interpersonal harmony, any information indicating that an individual is not doing his or her part is crucial for that individual to remedy the situation and contribute more fully to the group (Roland, 1988). As a result, Japanese feel that they need to be particularly vigilant of, and sensitive to, information indicating their shortcomings or their incompleteness—areas upon which they must work harder to improve (Kitayama et al., 1995, in press; White, 1987). From a young age, Japanese are taught to reflect upon their weaknesses (hansei suru) and to focus upon how they can improve themselves (Johnson, 1993; Roland, 1988). In contrast to Western caretakers who tend to draw attention to children’s positive features by praising, encouraging, and complimenting them; Japanese caretakers are more likely to draw children’s attention to potentially negative features that may have to be corrected for the child to fit in properly with others (Markus et al., in press). This self-critical stance is institutionalized in the education system (White & Levine, 1986) and serves to continually remind children of how important it is to ensure that one does not interfere with the success of the group. Moreover, this critical orientation generalizes beyond the individual to criticisms of others (Kitayama & Karasawa, 1996; Okugawa, 1992), their institutions (De Vos, 1985), and their country (Christopher, 1983; Lipset, 1996).

External Frame of Reference

Another aspect of Japanese culture that is important for understanding the role of self-evaluations is their consensual or external frame of reference (see Nakamura, 1964). Relative to the behavior of North Americans, Japanese behavior is less determined by individuals’ internal attributes (e.g., attitudes, personal desires, motives) and more by cues from their social environment (De Vos & Wagatsuma, 1973; Heine, Lehman, Okugawa, & Campbell, 1992; Lebra, 1994; Markus & Kitayama, 1991a). Japanese, then, seem particularly sensitive to social information that indicates appropriate ways to behave.

This external frame of reference leads Japanese to have a heightened awareness of their audience (e.g., Johnson, 1993; Kuwayama, 1992; Lebra, 1983; Roland, 1988). In this way, rather than being seen as subjects, they are more aptly viewed as imagined objects in the eyes of others (Hamaguchi, 1985). This dependence on the attitudes and expectations of others makes Japanese highly sensitive to insults and negative sanctions from others (De Vos & Caudill, 1973; De Vos & Wagatsuma, 1973; Smith, 1983). Hence Japanese tend to publicly present a formally impeccable self. The individual is protected by layers of insulating rituals, such as codes of formal communication, highly conventionalized forms of greetings, rules for posture, gesture, etc., all which serve to prevent the exposure of the individual self to others (Lebra, 1983). Effort is made to appease an audience, or an internalized awareness of an audience, as this is what ultimately evaluates the individual. Thus, considerations of self-worth are not simply a matter of being satisfied with oneself—one must endeavor for others to be satisfied with oneself (e.g., Roland, 1988; Spence, 1985). The securing of others’ approval requires Japanese to continually make efforts towards improving themselves.

In contrast, the behavior and attitudes of North Americans are largely determined by internal attributes and are less influenced by consensual or external factors (Markus & Kitayama, 1991a). This can be seen to generalize to their attitudes about themselves. Because the ultimate judge in North American self-evaluations is the individual, people are relatively resistant to the opinions of others. Although constrained by the objective evidence at hand (e.g., Brown & Smart, 1991; Kunda, 1987; Schlenker, 1975), North Americans are often in the privileged position of deciding for themselves how they are doing. Consequently, they are able to think that they are more competent and more adequate than they really are without encountering many negative consequences for holding these “positive illusions” (Taylor, 1989). For example, Myers’ (1987) observation that 25% of U.S. college students believe that they are in the top 1% of the population with respect to the ability of getting along well with others is a reflection of how such overly positive beliefs can exist unchallenged. Westerners have developed a number of cognitive maneuvers that allow them to deceive themselves into believing that they more closely approximate their cultural ideals than in fact they do (Greenwald, 1980). As long as North Americans can convince themselves of their competence, they have made progress towards their cultural mandate (see Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1982). This may be one of the underlying reasons why self-deceptive strategies are associated with mental health in North America (Taylor & Brown, 1988).

The process by which Japanese strive to secure a favorable evaluation from others appears to be diametrically opposite to North Americans’ tendencies for self-enhancement. The Japanese individual is not in the position to set standards for her or him, rather, Japanese must be aware of the consensual standards of excellence within a given context. They must critically assess themselves to determine what they are missing and then seek to eliminate the perceived deficit. It is crucial that they develop the skills to attend to and elaborate their shortcomings with respect to the pertinent social standards. Information indicating how one has fallen short of the consensual standards is used to improve one’s actions and behaviors, to affirm one’s sense of belongingness, and to promote harmony within the group (Kitayama et al., in press; Nisbett et al., in press).

In Japanese culture, where the standards of excellence are externally and consensually defined, it is critical for individuals to strive to conform to the average. Kumon (1982) characterized the Japanese way of competition as yokonarabi (to line up sideways), where the emphasis is not on surpassing others (which seems to be a strong motivation in North America; see Taylor & Brown, 1988), but on not falling behind others. Japanese must work towards eliminating negative features from their selves so that they can approach these consensual standards of selfhood. It follows, then, that a sense of well-being would be likely to stem not so much from a positive evaluation of the self, but rather from the ability to actively respond to and eliminate deficits from the socially shared, consensual standards of excellence (Nisbett et al., 1996). Hence, the absence of negative features may be crucial for Japanese well-being. In support of this Kitayama and Karasawa (1995) report evidence that Japanese appraisals of not having various negative qualities show a clear relation with their subjective well-being and physical health, whereas they found no such relation with Japanese individuals’ appraisals of their positive qualities.

Shame and Apologies

In her classic ethnographic account of the Japanese, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict (1946) characterized Japan as a “shame culture” in contrast to the “guilt cultures” of the West. Although the extreme nature of her assertion has been questioned by a number of researchers (e.g., De Vos, 1973b; Sakuta, 1967), most are in agreement that shame occupies a privileged position for Japanese (e.g., Creighton, 1990; Doi, 1973).

Lebra (1983) offers two reasons for the pervasiveness of shame in Japanese culture. First, she argues that because Japanese cultural norms are especially well-defined and clearly prescribe normatively appropriate ways of behaving (see Heine et al., 1992), violations are readily recognized and sanctioned. Second, she contends that Japanese spend much of their lives in the presence of significant audiences, thereby making them acutely aware of any unwanted attention. Shame naturally arises for Japanese when they are unable to perform to the standards necessary to maintain harmonious interactions within the group (Creighton, 1990). Shame serves as a social barometer indicating when the individual is in some way interfering with the ever-important group solidarity. Hence, the Japanese predisposition towards shame reflects the importance of being sensitive to information indicating how the individual is not doing enough for the group (Kitayama et al., 1995).

The effort expended toward ensuring that the individual is not interfering with the harmony of the group can also be seen in the importance of apologies in Japan. A recent article in The New York Times called Japan “the most apologetic country in the world” (Kristof, 1995, June 12). Empirical studies (e.g., Barnlund & Yoshioka, 1990) confirm that apologies are more common in Japan than in North America; they abound in daily conversation and play an integral role in the Japanese judicial system (Bayley, 1976; Wagatsuma & Rosett, 1986). In many situations, social customs require apologies, even when the individual is not directly responsible, and failure to apologize in these situations can be met with harsh sanctions (Barnlund & Yoshioka, 1990). Cultural conventions, therefore, force Japanese to take on a self-denigrating and submissive stance through apologies (Wagatsuma & Rosett, 1986).

Apologies reflect the critical self-evaluative nature of the Japanese. Barnlund and Yoshioka (1990) view apologies in Japan as symptoms of inadequacy. They are public admissions of an individual’s faults. Wagatsuma and Rosett (1986) explain the relative lack of apologies by North Americans in terms of the high value that North Americans place on self-esteem--self-denigrating acts such as apologies are simply too costly psychologically. The habit of accepting fault, even in situations where responsibility is clearly absent, runs directly counter to self-enhancing orientations. Apologies reflect the Japanese concern of being an imposition on others; they serve to minimize the individual, allowing for the proverbial nail to get pounded back down.

Secondary Locus of Control

A number of cross-cultural studies have revealed that Japanese have quite different perceptions of control than North Americans (Bond & Tornatzky, 1973; Heine & Lehman, 1995a, 1996b; Mahler, 1974; Parsons & Schneider, 1974). Rothbaum, Weisz, and Snyder (1982) argue that there are two broad ways in which individuals can gain perceptions of self-control. The first is by acting upon the world to change it so that it becomes more consistent with their desires--this is called primary control. The second is by aligning their desires with the existing realities--this is called secondary control. In other words, primary control refers to efforts to change the world and secondary control refers to efforts to change the self. Weisz et al. (1984) argue that primary control is more characteristic of North American control strategies, whereas secondary control better characterizes Japanese control strategies.

There are many aspects of Japanese life that reflect an orientation to secondary control. First is a strong belief in fatalism (Mahler, 1974; Parsons & Schneider, 1974). There is a sense in Japan that bad things cannot be avoided and that one must learn to accept things the way they are (Minami, 1971). In contrast to the North American slogan “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Japanese are often heard to say “There is no way” (shikata ga nai). Japanese society is also structured to render individuals relatively less potent in achieving anything that runs counter to the mainstream; the highly bureaucratized nature of group activities and the consensual basis on which most decisions are made provides little voice to the individual. Nor is there much tolerance for stubborn dissenters (e.g., Benedict, 1946; Miyamoto, 1994). As the external environment is perceived as being rather impervious to individuals’ actions, sense of control is exerted by adjusting oneself to function within the system and by learning to be content with one’s lot (Nakamura, 1964; Weisz et al., 1984).

An orientation to secondary control is also apparent in indigenous Japanese psychiatric therapies. Therapies can provide an interesting glimpse of cultural mandates because they are methods that are used to steer patients toward culturally normative ways of existing. The most famous Japanese psychiatric therapy is Morita therapy. The goal of this therapy is for patients to achieve a state of aru ga mama, that is, to learn to accept reality the way it is (e.g., Ishiyama, 1990; Lebra, 1976; Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984). This includes the complete acceptance of oneself, with all one’s weaknesses. Morita therapy is based on the view that no individual is perfect and that a lack of self-confidence is shared by all. Realizing that it is normal to see oneself as imperfect is seen as the key to mental health (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984; Weisz et al., 1984; cf. Taylor & Brown, 1988). A second indigenous therapy, Naikan therapy, aids people in achieving mental health by forcing them to focus on how much they have received from others throughout their lives. Patients are required to self-reflect intensively for several days until they are aware of how dependent they are on the good will of others. They learn to accept their dependence and obligations toward others (Murase, 1986; Weisz et al., 1984). Both of these therapies highlight the secondary control orientation of the Japanese. They require individuals to focus on the acceptance of themselves and of their relations. Although in the West accepting reality without a fight is considered to be a weakness and a sign of a submissive personality, it enables Japanese to move forward (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1984). In her visit to an ethics retreat, Kondo (1987) observed that Japanese “selves had to be mortified to ‘fit in’ with society; there was no attempt to transform that society or its structures” (p. 268). The normative way of existence for Japanese can thus be seen as acceptance or accommodation, not resistance.

These orientations of control extend to the ways in which individuals evaluate themselves. For North Americans, primary control strategies suggest that their desires hold ascendancy over the status quo. They strive to align the world with their desires. Hence, if there is something about themselves that they do not like, individuals are behooved to try to change it. They may quit their job, move across the country, go on a diet, get a divorce, go see a therapist—anything to make their lives more positive. If an individual fails to achieve her or his desires, it is the individual who is perceived as responsible for the failure. Achieving the Western cultural mandate of independence requires that individuals feel that they are in control of their own destinies. In contrast, when Japanese do not like something about themselves, they are more likely to discipline themselves to learn to live with it. Negative thoughts about oneself are not to be dispelled but are to be accepted and learned from.

Emotional Restraint

The experience of emotions is conditioned and shaped by culturally-sanctioned socialization processes suggesting that many cultural differences may exist in this realm as well (Kitayama et al., 1994). For example, in North American culture, where the self is viewed to be largely constructed on a foundation of internal attributes, emotions are allowed to gain autonomy. Emotional experience can be seen as an important aspect of identity for the independent self. Hence, in the West the evaluative connotation of emotional experience can be seen to reflect the inner core of the self. Feeling good about oneself suggests that one is realizing the cultural mandate. In contrast, the experience of certain negative emotions can indicate that one is failing to be a competent and adequate individual. North Americans thus are likely to be highly motivated to increase and enhance subjectively positive feelings and to decrease and reinterpret subjectively negative feelings (Kitayama et al., 1994).

In contrast, when the cultural mandate is to maintain a sense of connection and harmony with others emotional experience is potentially a disruptive force. It is critical for individuals to act in accordance with the wishes of the group, not on the basis of their own feelings. Hence, in Japan emotions are not allowed to attain autonomy. Affect is viewed as something to be controlled, subdued, or diluted (Lanham, 1988; Lebra, 1976; Nitobe, 1969/1905). This is clearly evident in Japanese melodramas, where the most poignant scenes are those in which the actor quashes obviously potent emotions (Buruma, 1984). In Japan, the expression of extreme emotion is inconsistent with both the interdependent self and the individual’s abilities to approximate the cultural ideals. Emotional experience is seen as something either to be accepted as is or to be moderated and restrained (Kitayama et al., 1994). Accordingly, in Japan there is likely to be little motivation to enhance positive feelings or to avoid negative feelings.

These hypothesized tendencies for North Americans to enhance their positive emotional experiences and for Japanese to accept or moderate their emotional experiences suggest that North Americans should experience relatively more positive emotions than Japanese. In a study by Kitayama et al. (1994), which clearly demonstrated this cultural difference, both U.S. and Japanese students were asked to report the frequency with which they experienced a broad range of emotions. Whereas those from the U.S. reported experiencing a far greater proportion of positive than negative emotions (see also Brandstatter, 1991 for similar findings with Europeans), Japanese reported experiencing about the same amount of positive and negative emotions. Echoing this observed cultural difference, Diener and Diener (1995a) suggested that “life satisfaction may be based more on positive feelings in individualistic nations, for example, feelings about the self. Conversely, in collectivist nations life satisfaction might be influenced by a more prevalent negative focus” (p. 662).

Differences in the cultural construction of attitudes towards positive feelings are also evident in cross-cultural studies of child-rearing. Caudill and Weinstein (1969) found a high positive correlation between the frequency of American mother’s chatting with their babies and their infant’s “happy vocals,” whereas there was no correlation between the mothers’ chatting and the babies’ “unhappy vocals.” The American mother thus appears to elicit and reinforce her baby’s happy vocalizations. In contrast, Japanese mothers’ chatting was shown to be significantly correlated with their babies’ unhappy vocals and not with their happy vocals. Caudill and Weinstein argued that the Japanese mothers’ chatting served to soothe their babies, rather than to reinforce their happy vocalizations. Moreover, they demonstrated that as early as 3 months of age American babies made more happy vocals, and fewer unhappy vocals, than did Japanese. That this difference is observable at such an early age underscores the strong influence that culture exerts on shaping our emotional experiences.1

The stark differences between Japanese and North Americans’ outlook toward a positive life-orientation were clearly articulated by the Japanese scholar, Shozo Ogiya, after his first trip to the U.S.:

The scene was repeated many tens of times, and every time the first and last words of greeting were: “Mr. Ogiya, are you enjoying your American tour,” “Well, Mr. Ogiya, I hope you enjoy your plane trip from here.” At first, whenever I heard the word enjoy I was struck by a feeling of strangeness. In our daily lives the word enjoy has a special position. With its meaning of “finding pleasure in” or perhaps of “being merry about” this word—at least to those of my generation has nuances that smack of the immoral...There are unemployed in America. In England and Italy there are crowds of the poor. What I mean to say is that in these countries the word enjoy has firmly put down roots into people’s lives whether they have money or not. It is so to speak a basic principle of their attitude toward living—this is the point I’m trying to make...Since returning to Japan I’ve been tremendously bothered by this word. The thought often has occurred to me, haven’t we possibly mistaken the purpose of daily living—or of existence? (quoted in Plath, 1964; p. 68).

This hesitation toward enjoyment is so firmly entrenched in Japanese culture that efforts to change this orientation are actually having to come from the government. Companies are being pressured to encourage their employees to take their vacation days. Yet, when many Japanese are not at work, they are hard-pressed to find something to do with their time. As Rohlen (1983) concludes, “Japan has become a country that needs to encourage its citizens to enjoy themselves” (p. 165).

Cultural differences in positive emotional experiences are evident with respect to happiness. Being happy is a basic value for North Americans. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, declares that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right of its citizens. Failing to be happy in North America implies that one has somehow failed to realize the cultural mandate. Hence, it is not surprising that North Americans report being exceptionally happy. Smith’s (1979) review of national surveys from the 1940s to the 1970s showed that the percentage of Americans reporting happiness was always above 80%. Diener and Diener (1995a), in their analysis of Michalos’ (1991) global study of college students in 31 countries, found that U.S. students reported the second highest life satisfaction scores--Finnish students were first. Moreover, Diener, Suh, Smith, and Shao (1995b) identified a substantial correlation between subjective well-being and Gross National Product (GNP) in Michalos’ data and reported that the U.S. had higher overall levels of happiness and of life satisfaction than would be predicted on the basis of its per capita income.

In contrast, the pursuit of happiness appears to be somewhat of an immoral doctrine to the Japanese (Benedict, 1946). The Japanese social psychologist Hiroshi Minami (1971) suggested “It seems that feelings about happiness in life are for some reason diluted among the Japanese. The reason that the word ‘happiness’ is not used daily is not only because the Japanese masses are not blessed with happiness in daily life but because they have cultivated a habit of hesitation toward happiness” (p. 34). In contrast, Minami argues that “a view of unhappiness or hardship that is unique to the Japanese has become a sort of psychological tradition” (p. 49).

This hesitation towards happiness can be seen to be rooted in the philosophical and spiritual traditions of Japan (see Nakamura, 1964). A key characteristic of Japanese thought is a sense of balance. The good is always counterbalanced by the bad, and happiness is always offset by sadness. Moreover, Buddhism emphasizes the transience of all things, especially of positive feelings (Minami, 1971). Japanese believe that their happy experiences will soon come to an end, and they tend to be concerned that they will have to “pay” for their happiness later on to restore the sense of balance (Lebra, 1976). Japanese are thus very hesitant to focus or dwell on positive feelings, and they view such tendencies to do so as somewhat immoral (Benedict, 1946). Perhaps the demonstration by Kitayama et al. (1994) that Japanese report experiencing as many good feelings as bad reflects this sense of balance in their emotional experience.

The cautious attitude of the Japanese towards happiness appears to extend to other Asian cultures. For example, Feather (1986) found happiness to be a less important value in China than in Australia. Diener et al. (1995b) noted that people from Asian countries (e.g., Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and South Korea) had lower subjective well-being and happiness scores than would be predicted from their per capita income. Their analysis of the data ruled out several potential artifactual reasons for the low scores of Asians: for example, general negative response biases, efforts to appear humble, and cultural norms governing the expression of emotions. Diener et al. concluded that Asians exhibit such low satisfaction and happiness scores because feeling and expressing positive affect is less desirable within Eastern cultures than it is in the West. Asian cultures thus do not appear to cultivate the need to experience positive feelings about the self.

In a follow-up study, Diener, Diener, and Diener (1995a) examined data from 55 nations and found that, after controlling for other predictors (such as GNP, human rights, equality), the only variable that consistently correlated with subjective well-being was individualism. They concluded that “a feeling of autonomy may be important in achieving subjective well-being” (p. 863). Feeling good about oneself, then, appears intimately linked with feelings of independence.


The above review elaborated how various aspects of Japanese culture related to the construction of a need to feel good about oneself differ from those in Western culture. In contrast to North American culture, Japanese culture does not appear to encourage its people to seek out, enhance, and elaborate their positive characteristics. Japanese cultural mandates contain various interpersonal scripts that lead individuals to adopt a self-critical orientation. Achieving the cultural tasks of interdependence requires Japanese individuals to continually make efforts so that they can better approximate the culturally defined standards within a given context. To put it succinctly, whereas North American culture encourages individuals to focus on the ways in which they are good, Japanese culture focuses individuals’ awareness on how they can strive to become better.

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