Individualism's Face on Both Sides of the Globe

Public opinion on gender roles in the US and Japan suggests that egalitarianism doesn't necessarily increase happiness

On the campaign trail this year, President Clinton has been talking about school uniforms as a way to bring more discipline and better education to the schools. In Japan recently, there has been discussion of abandoning school uniforms so that students can express their individuality.

These anecdotes bolster a conclusion we have come to in our review of 50 years of public opinion data from the United States and Japan. As is often the case for those who study American politics and culture, Alexis de Tocqueville arrived there first. In his magisterial study of the young democracy, Tocqueville argued that the American experience should be studied for what it told us about aspects of everyone's future. He believed that the principles he saw in America - egalitarianism, individualism, and democracy - would eventually sweep the planet. He did not think that a vigorous assertion of these ideas would produce social betterment or greater happiness.

Japan and the United States are being propelled along the course he described, although they are at very different points. The call for school uniforms in America is a way to deal with the darker side of unfettered individualism; the desire to get rid of uniforms in Japan is an expression of a more insistent assertion of individualism. Looking at areas of social and family relations, and at relations between men and women, confirms Tocqueville's insights and prescience.

The idea that women and men are to be accorded full equality of status in the workplace and in other areas of social life is a natural element of the sociopolitical individualism Tocqueville described. That does not mean that highly individualist societies such as the US have always honored this commitment. After all it wasn't until 1871 that women were able to vote in any state in the US. But an individualist society finds it hard to deny fundamental claims for gender equality. Traditional societies like Japan have, by contrast, posited differences in men's and women's roles as a part of a natural and immutable (and often patriarchal) order.

Evolving gender relations

In the 50 years since World War II, Japanese society has moved quite far from the male dominance that historically distinguished the country's gender relations. Clearly, from the perspective of Japanese women, it has not moved far enough. Many traditional norms and assumptions bearing on gender roles remain at least partly in place in Japan. Put another way, gender relations have changed in both countries, but they are far more in flux in Japan than in the United States, where the patriarchal structure so common to traditional societies was never established. Many surveys, including one done by Roper Starch Worldwide in the United States and Dentsu Inc. in Japan, confirm both the progress and the distance yet to go. They also underscore the observation that a more complete expression of individualism can produce problems of its own.

Large majorities of women in the Roper/Dentsu survey say they have seen great improvements in women's economic position since 1970. This is true of salaries paid to women compared with men, and of the kinds of jobs and leadership positions open to them. Women in America, however, are far more positive about equal workplace opportunity. A majority of American women believe they stand an equal chance with the men with whom they work in salary (55%), responsibility (62%), and promotions (50%) - a conviction expressed by just 24%, 37%, and 18%, respectively, of Japanese women. A majority of American women believe men look at them as equals in the workplace; only 3 in 10 Japanese women feel this way. American women are farther along on the continuum Tocqueville described.

Japanese women are not as satisfied as their American counterparts with levels of workplace equality, but at the same time, they are more tolerant than American women of traditional ideas stressing women's primary responsibilities in the home and for the family.

Seven percent of American women compared with 37% of Japanese (in a National Opinion Research Center study) strongly agree with the statement that what women really want is a home and children. Women in Japan say they have almost total responsibility for household tasks, whereas American women report a more equal division of labor at home. The Japanese are much more of the view that when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along (15% of Americans, 57% of the Japanese).

Workplace conduct

A recent Japanese survey found that 70% of the Japanese wanted their son to have a university education, while only 35% felt a daughter should. Because women's place in the work force is still evolving in Japan, workplace conduct is less certain. Two-thirds of Japanese women in the Dentsu/Roper surveys, compared with only 26% in the United States, say they would be nervous about telling their boss they were expecting a baby.

Tocqueville believed more individualist and egalitarian social relations would be inevitable, but he did not think this would necessarily lead to happiness. His insight explains a startling finding in the Roper/Dentsu survey. While the majority of American women believe that there have been great strides in the position of most women in the workplace, they have more-negative assessments about implications for family life. Only 34% say the changes in the past two decades have improved things in terms of the kind of marriages women have; 45% believe things have gotten worse.

In contrast, in Japan, where less egalitarian norms still apply, women report improved conditions in their marriages. Fifty- nine percent say things have improved, while only 10% say they have gotten worse.

If the Japanese abandon school uniforms, it will be a sign of a desire to assert more individual autonomy. If Americans embrace them, it will be a manifestation of concern about unchecked individualism. The US and Japan represent very different stages as they move along the continuum of individualism.

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