Another Angle on American Individualism

Published February 12, 2018

Samuel J. Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, recently experienced this phenomenon. As he documents in his article Seeing American Individualism from Japan, Abrams has found a renewed sense of hope for America after his recent trip to Japan.

While abroad, Abrams noticed a stark contrast in Japanese and American culture concerning a wide range of topics. But something in particular stood out to Abrams: notions of individualism, hard work, and opportunity are more emphasized and held in higher esteem in the United States compared to Japan. According to Abrams

Despite the understandable anger and frustration with our current chaotic political system, a recent trip to Japan gave me incredible optimism about our nation’s future. Having a moment to leave our political milieu and spend time in a place with a very different outlook made it clear to me just how fortunate it is to be an American even with our current paralysis.

As Americans, we celebrate the drive and power of the self and the value of hard work. I found it hard to locate a strong sense of agency and self-determination among the Japanese, and it appeared that the individual was lost. This reality stands in stark contrast to the strong self of possibility and individualism that many Americans continue to possess.

Notwithstanding his personal observations, Samuel Abrams sought a more unbiased method to determine if his inclinations were correct. Abrams began conducting research because as he states

Observations and intuitions, however, are not proof.

So I turned to the most recent comparative World Values Survey to investigate my impressions more deeply. What became immediately clear is that the answers to the survey questions on hard work and agency strongly and cleanly confirmed my ideas about mobility and outlook in the United States vis-à-vis Japan.

Since the nation’s founding, rugged individualism has been an economic and social driving force, a sacred American institution. From the pioneers who ventured westward to the entrepreneurs who built Silicon Valley, individualism has bred ingenuity and innovation. Abrams wondered if Americans still ascribe to this fundamental American ideal. In other words, do Americans still believe in the power of the individual?

One question in the Values Survey is regularly asked, “Some people feel they have completely free choice and control over their lives, while other people feel that what they do has no real effect on what happens to them.” This measure captures one’s sense of individual agency and the data shows that 79% of Americans believe that they have some control over their lives — this over twice the 37% rate among those in Japan.

Another set of questions exist in the Values Survey which again reveal substantial Japanese-American differences. Respondents are presented with a battery of statements about an individual and are asked to state how closely each statement represents their personal outlook or situation.

For instance, respondents were prompted with “Adventure and taking risks are important to this person; to have an exciting life.” Only 9% of Japanese agreed with this idea compared to 35% of Americans — a huge difference and one which suggests that the Japanese are deeply risk averse. Similarly, respondents were asked about the idea, “It is important to this person to think up new ideas and be creative; to do things one’s own way.” This is another variant on the question of one’s proclivity to focus on the collective or the individual. Once again, a substantial difference emerged with 40% of Japanese believing in individuality and creativity compared to a far greater 67% of Americans.

Finally, the idea of hard work and upward mobility was appreciably different comparatively and surfaced in a few key questions. Respondents, for example, are given a list of qualities that children can be encouraged to learn at home and hard work was one quality. Among the Japanese, 36% selected hard work as a key quality among their children while 66% of Americans did. When asked about the idea that, “In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life” compared to luck and connections, 50% of those in Japan compared to 65% of Americans believed that hard work begets more success than simple luck. Similarly, in response to the idea that, “competition is good. It stimulates people to work hard and develop new ideas” when placed against the idea that competition is harmful and brings out the worst in people, 64% of Japanese compared to 72% of Americans were supportive of competition. This difference, while not as large as the other measures, adds up to a clear picture that Americans are more enthusiastic about the value and the return on their hard work and this attributes leads to innovation and experimentation which is in the blood of American culture.

After assessing the data he collected and taking into account his observations while in Japan, Samuel Abrams came to the realization that there is reason for optimism and hope in the future of America. Despite the naysayers claims that the American work ethic is in steep decline and most Americans reject hard work in favor of handouts, the data and his mind’s eye convinced Abrams that this might not necessarily be the case. As he dug deeper, he found

The data makes it unambiguously clear that non-trivial differences exist between Americans and Japanese with respect to their sense of opportunity and individuality. This is not to pass judgement on either system in any way. In fact, the survey data also shows that 90% of respondents in both nations assert that they are “rather” or “very happy” with their lives and well over three-quarters of those in both countries assert that they are satisfied with their lives with the US being about 9 points higher at 85%.

My point is quite simple — Americans value hard work and the upward mobility that comes from their labors. Our strong individualistic worldview promotes agency and self-determination and that makes America a hopeful nation which people from around the world explicitly seek out. Political polarization, Congressional deadlock and an unpopular President cannot change this ethos. Visiting a place where such individualism is simply less potent and dreams of upward mobility are not ever present, I returned home with a deeper appreciation of our ethos and the cultural attribute which actually makes America great. I could not have been happier to have been so powerfully reminded of the agency that we continue to have in the US and am grateful that a short sojourn to Japan make this so clear.