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Essay on Cultural Differences between Japan and the United States

As reported by the Central Intelligence Agency (2009), in 2008 Japanese GDP per capita was estimated around $34,200. As the same figures in the US are more than 33% higher ($47,000), it seems safe to assume that productivity of the American workers is significantly higher compared to their Japanese peers. Is such conclusion really justified?

An American reader, being accustomed to the $ sign, may assume that $34,200 represent a sum in US dollar. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind that the $ sign is also used to denote 26 other currencies, which are named “dollar,” as well as eight circulating types of peso. In the United States, $34,200 can be enough to buy a sedan, while in Zimbabwe it is not enough to buy even bread.

Reducing a nation’s economic performance to its culture – a wide array of elements such as local customs, religion, language and moral norms – “is ridiculous, but to analyze a country’s economic performance without reference to its culture is equally ridiculous” (Friedman, 2006, p. 410). And most importantly, trying to evaluate a foreign culture through the assumption that your own culture is superior is not only fundamentally wrong (as in the first paragraph), but may also underlie global isolation, cultural imperialism and superfluous conflicts. This paper compares in brief several aspects of difference between Japan and the United States, while trying to bypass the ethnocentric approach that characterizes the works of too many economists and political scientists (ibid.).

Managers from both countries often complain about another side’s cultural views of conflict and negotiation within the framework of competition. For example, the tendency of American managers to use competing tactics can be perceived as outlandish by their Japanese peers and competitors. The latter will try to avoid conflicts through compromise and collaboration (Robbins & Judge, 2007). Empirical studies show that American negotiators are more likely than Japanese bargainers to make a first offer. Both parties, however, do not say “no” as often as Brazilians (ibid.).

While all Japanese students study English, most Americans find Japanese exotic and very few bother to learn the language. This may be due to the predominance of English in international relations; nevertheless, Kublin (1995) provides two anecdotes, which may explain this cultural gap. When Akia Morita, former chairman of Sony, was asked “What is the most important language in the world?” his immediate response was “The language of the customer.” (ibid., p. 99) The American approach can be demonstrated with a following joke:

Question: What do you call someone who can speak two languages?
Answer: Bilingual.

Question: What do you call someone who can speak three languages?
Answer: Trilingual.

Question: What do you call someone who can speak only one language?
Answer: American.
(ibid., p. 100)

In a recent survey of personal values in four nations, Ralston, Holt, Terpstra & Kai-Cheng (1997) compare several main values among American and Japanese managers. Their results, which sometimes seem coherent with the conventional perception regarding those differences, suggest that Americans give more weight than Japanese to forces such as individualism, power, achievement, openness-to-change and hedonism; the Japanese, on the other hand, favor universalism, tradition and conformity. These results, however, should be viewed in the light of the other cultures. China, for example, is stronger than Japan in its affiliation to conformity and Russian managers are as keen to accept changes as Americans.

Generalization may not be the best way to handle cultural comparisons. Cultural elements are seldom the property of a whole nation, which encompasses more than a few subcultures of different natures. However, this paper generalizes the two societies and gives general remarks on others, as it aims to give an example of a neutral cultural comparison in spite of being written by an American author. Furthermore, I tried to take a critical stand on both cultures instead of giving plain descriptions, as neither the two nations discussed nor any other culture offer a holistic and utterly correct cultural makeup.


  • Central Intelligence Agency. (2009). The World Factbook. Retrieved July 9, 2009 from
  • Friedman, T. R. (2006). The World is Flat: The Globalized World in the Twenty-First Century. London: Penguin Books.
  • Kublin, M. (1995). International Negotiating: a Primer for American Business Professionals. Binghamaton: Haworth Press
  • Ralston, D. A. Holt, D. H., Terpstra, R. H. & Kai-Cheng, Y. (1997). The impact of national culture and economic ideology on managerial work values: a study of the United States, Russia, Japan, and China. Journal of Internation Business Studies, 27, pp. 177–207.
  • Robbins, S. P. & Judge, T. A. (2007). Essentials of Organizational Behavior. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.
July 8, 2012Tags: , ,