For a long time, it has been said that East Asian people including Japanese and Taiwanese are collectivistic while Western people like Americans are individualistic. Specifically, Asian people are likely to behave in a group, compared to Western people. However, the survey by Hofstede, Hofstede, and Minkov (2010) revealed that Japanese people were not as collectivistic as expected. Moreover, several scholars do not accept such a simple dichotomy between the two culture areas (East Asia vs. West) and suggest alternative frames. For example, Yuki (2003) empirically suggested that collectivism in East Asia and that in North America are different in terms of its nature, and that North Americans are also collectivistic. Besides, Yamawaki (2012) pointed out that there were variations of collectivism within the Japanese culture.
This essay sheds lights on collectivistic concepts individually within East Asia – Japan and Taiwan. Although people in East Asia are generally collectivistic, there should be differences within the culture area. Considering within-cultural variations even within Japan, as Yamawaki (2012) pointed out, we can naturally think that there are differences in the two countries. Importantly, we do not discuss the collectivism itself but instead discuss more concrete concepts of groups: 群れ (mure) in Japanese and 合群 (hequn) in Mandarin Chinese, because we do not use the terms for collectivism in daily conversation. We consider both differences and similarities between them.
The Japanese term mure generally refers to a group in English, especially for animals. When used for human beings, it means a group of people. Japanese people tend to form a group when they behave and then cooperate with each other within the group. In Japan, making a group has pros and cons: when we are in trouble, others in the group are likely to give us help. On the other hand, we are required to behave in the same way as others in the group and are deprived of our individuality.
The Mandarin Chinese term used in the Taiwanese society, “hequn” represents following the group rule in English. It can be used as a verb when asking people to cooperate with others or as an adjective describing strong conformity in a group. Previous studies have indicated that the hequn behaviors were founded mostly among young people’s groups, including close friends, club members, classmates, people who are sharing the same interest or even following the same cyber celebrity online. As for describing teenagers’ behaviors, people also use the word 跟風 (gen feng), which means “to follow the trends” in English. People sometimes have difficulties in rejecting to attend group activities (Yen and Chang 2015).
2.1 Functions and roles of mure
In the modern Japanese society, many people are not engaged in rice farming; however, the mure consciousness still remains. In general, Japanese people tend to form a group when they behave, and once included in the mure, they are expected to follow a specific rule – whether tacit or not. If someone in a group does not follow the rule, s/he is conspicuous in a bad way. Mure seems to play a role for people to be homogenous in the group.
The “mure consciousness” of Japanese people is probably related to people’s lifestyles in ancient days. Ancient Japanese people were engaged in rice farming, in which farmers were required to cooperate with each other. For example, rice farmers need to get rid of insect pests to produce safe rice. Since a rice field is large, people cannot do this alone, and therefore, they cooperate with each other. If someone refuses to do so, farmers cannot produce rice effectively. Cooperation is an archetype of mure.
2.2 Functions and roles of hequn
Similar to the “mure consciousness” Japanese people have, “hequn concept” was found in the ancient Taiwanese society, and it is believed that the concept was inherited from a rice-producing culture, too. Tracing back to the lifestyle in the past, since it required lots of time and labor force to plant rice, people tried to build strong bonds between relatives, neighbors, and those sharing the same religions or beliefs. The conformity of the group would guarantee adequate manpower, and eventually ensure the prosperity of the group.Although the number of people who are engaged in the primary industry declined, the hequn concept remains as a moral standard in the modern Taiwanese society. People are expected to be gregarious and to coordinate with others. Especially in school life, teachers tend to ask children to follow the school time schedules, obey social standards, or stand with peers for their group. This hequn concept may appear in weekly small contests or annual choir competitions between the classes that are commonly held in the Taiwanese education system (Farmer, Tierney, and Kung-Mcintyre 2003).
3.1 Cases of 群れ
We do not often talk about Japanese collectivism and mure in daily conversation; if we talk about mure in daily conversation, it probably means a group for animals. However, mureru, the verb form of mure, is often used especially on online news in a critical way. When I searched on Google with the words 日本人 (nihonjin; Japanese) and 群れる(mureru; to form a group), we can find many articles written by laymen who are not academic researchers. For example, we can reach the articles like 日本人はなぜ外国に行って群れる？ (nihonjin wa naze gaikoku ni itte mureru?; Why do Japanese form a group in foreign countries? ) and 日本人よ、群れるのはもうやめよう！(nihonjin yo, mureru nowa mou yameyou!; Japanese, let’s stop forming a group!). Many online articles seem to be written with the strong longing for Western individualism.
As Yamada (2017) wrote, it is advantageous for Japanese people to form a group (i.e., mureru) in many respects. For example, when Japanese people study abroad, the community at the place will help us a lot. However, in the Japanese society, mure consciousness sometimes plays a role to deprive people of uniqueness, as pointed out in the next section. A typical example of Japanese people without individuality can be observed in the process of job hunting (就職活動; shuushoku katsudou in Japanese). Applicants, who are usually junior students in university, wear black suits and shoes; stop dying hair; have the same hair style, etc. It is even ironic that recruiters ask applicants, who look the same actually, to develop individuality. It is reasonable for people to long for individualistic society and to discuss mure consciousness critically on the Internet.
3.2 Cases of hequn
As mentioned in the previous part, “hequn concept” is considered as a moral standard nowadays. Teachers encourage children to obey the group rules and follow the schedule that is assigned by them. It also leads children to think that being a team player is good and increases the willingness to act as their peers, and eventually makes them feel safety and confident.
While children attending school, they hang out or buy the same popular stuff together (Tseng and Lee 2013). School teachers also encourage students to build the centripetal force in the class. Then, students come to respect the majority and cooperate with others in the school. If someone does not follow the rule in the primary group, or do something that may harm the conformity of the group, s/he would be criticized for lacking of “hequn consciousness”, and the peer pressure would lead him/her to stop the harmful behavior. The hequn concept here is considered as a watchword teacher and school system used to maintain the group order, and it ensures that students feel accepted in the group by respecting the hequn concept.
But as teenagers grow up, young adults are considered as grown individuals. If they can fully take responsibility for their choices and feel confident about it, no one would ask them to simply follow the trends nowadays. In other words, people do not ask to be hequn, but to learn about respecting others’ choices and personalities. That seems to be why the younger generation in Taiwan is sometimes thought to be less enduring than the elder generation. However, the main reason is that we are taught to find what we love in life, try different jobs, to develop multiple interests. Having a gap year or taking vacation are the examples of not being a hequn person, but knowing about themselves.
4. Related Expressions
4.1 Japanese Expressions
Japanese mure consciousness sometimes makes an appearance in a bad way. In this section, we present the most popular phrases.
The first one is 出る杭は打たれる (deru kui wa utareru). It literally means that the stake that sticks out gets hammered in, and the whole phrase means that when people are conspicuous (medatsu in Japanese) in the group, they are asked to be assimilated in the group. In other words, people are expected not to develop their individuality once in the group. For example, in a company in Japan, a new (and young) member tends to be disliked by bosses when s/he gives a proposal. There is a tacit rule that inexperienced workers should not suggest plans and should follow what the bosses say. Of course, this example is related to Confusian philosophy prevalent in the Japanese society. However, due to the custom, young workers are deprived of the opportunities to reflect their opinions on their company.
The second example is 同調圧力 (docho atsuryoku; peer pressure), which is pressure to conform to the behavior of the majority. In general, people are required to behave in the same way with others. Importantly, even if the majority does something wrong, we are expected to behave in the same way as the majority. For example, when I finish today’s tasks, but colleagues do not finish their tasks and keep working, I should not go home; I should pretend to have tasks. As another example, during the pandemic of COVID-19, docho atsuryoku is remarkable. According to a survey by Doshisha University, most of Japanese people wear masks not because they do not want to be infected but because they see others wearing masks (Nakayachi et al. 2020).
Furthermore, people called jishuku keisatsu (Lit. self-control police) and masuku keisatsu (Lit. mask police) appeared early in the pandemic. Jishuku keisatsu slandered people who did not follow the request from the local government excessively and masuku keisatsu slandered people who did not wear masks. Obviously, slandering should not be allowed even when people do not follow (tacit) rules. Docho atsuryoku is a typical example where mure consciousness excessively appears in a bad way.
4.2 Mandarin Chinese Expressions
As mure in Japanese has several related expressions, the hequn concept also has several expressions related to the original term.
The first example is 跟風 (genfung), also known as 跟流行 (genliuixing), which refers to follow the trends. It mostly indicates the behavior that happens in the younger generation. Such as buying or eating some popular stuff and foods, watching trendy YouTuber channels, or playing famous games would be considered as a genfung behavior.
Although the concept about hequn is considered to be positive and fits the moral standard, there is a term 害群之馬 (haiqunzhima) which indicates a harmful part or person of the whole group. This metaphor has a similar meaning with the English idiom “One rotten or bad apple spoils the (whole) barrel.” The original term came from the book Zhuang Zi written by the thinker Zhuang Zi, who advocated natural inaction and freedom and tended to rule without doing anything in politics. The idiom of 害馬 (haima) which stands for harming horses originally referred to anything that would harm horses. Later on, the idiom 害群之馬 (haiqunzhima) evolved from this and is used as a metaphor for someone who harms the group/public and considered to be removed.
During the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19, people are forced to reconsider the specific borderline between asking others not to be a haiqunzhima and witch-hunting the confirmed patient. Keeping personal tiny condition, obeying the new public rule of wearing masks and keep social distance can concur with the previous ones. The way to stop media and public from chasing and harming patients’ privacy excessively is the lesson Taiwanese society should learn from in such a severe situation (Lim 2020).
Mandarin Chinese has another proverb “鶴立雞群 (helijiqun)”, which has a similar meaning but different compared to the Japanese idiom “出る杭は打たれる.” It represents “one crane standing in a group of chickens,” which explains the talented is outstanding in a group. This phrase is used as an accomplishment, describing the capability someone has more than others among their peers or group.
In the body part of this paper, we presented several concepts which were related to mure or hechuan in two countries within Eastern Asia – namely, Japan and Taiwan. In a conclusion, we discuss the differences and similarities between the two concepts and their related features.
First, we discuss the similarity between the two concepts. As we discussed in Chapter 2, mure and hequn control people’s behavior in a good or a bad way. For example, docho atsuryoku in the Japanese society asks people to wear masks. In the Taiwanese society, students are expected to be hequn, as a team player rather than an outsider in the group. In other words, both mure and hequn play roles as a social standard, which is one of the commonalities between the two concepts. It is because the two concepts come from the same origin, rice-producing culture. However, they followed different paths – probably due to different nationalities, which generate several differences in the two societies.
Then, we discuss a few differences between the two concepts. First, the most significant difference would be the impression of mure and hequn. While mure in the Japanese society has an unfavorable impression, hequn is used as an accomplishment of self-cultivation which has a positive meaning.
The second difference that we propose is that mure-consciousness is pervasive among the whole generations in Japan while hequn is observed especially among young people in Taiwan. In Japan, mure plays a role to keep harmony (i.e., wa in Japanese) by controlling people’s behavior and consciousness is common to all generations – whether young or old. In contrast, hequn in Taiwan functions as a trend-maker among young people. They seem to feel safe under hequn.
Finally, the last difference is observed in the two related phrases: 出る杭は打たれる (deru kui wa utareru) in Japanese and 害群之馬(haiqunzhima) in Mandarin Chinese. As we discussed their meanings in Part 4, the Japanese phrase means that those who are conspicuous, or who do not follow general rules in the group, are expected to behave in the same way as other members in the group. In other words, Japanese people are expected to assimilate. In contrast, the Mandarin Chinese expression used in Taiwan implies that those who do not follow rules in the group should be removed from the group. That is, Japanese people tend to lose their individuality but can remain in the group while Taiwanese people think who are harmful to the group should turn into outsiders to maintain the group’s order.
Although we discussed the similarities and differences between the two concepts about “group” under different cultural backgrounds, it is not our proposal to discriminate them between good and bad, but to bring some insights, and hope to extend the knowledge about cross-cultural communication eventually.
6. Discussion Questions/Topics
- If you have an Asian cultural background, are there any moral rules in your culture which encourage you to be a team player? If so, do you think that the rule originates from Confucianism?
- If you are from Western culture: What do you think about mure or hequn culture in Japan and Taiwan? Do you think that this kind of standard/activity exists in your culture (back to your school days)?
 In general, this “classic” idea is supported by psychological experiments. However, some scholars doubt how valid it is to test our behavior in the laboratory. For example, Takahashi (2018) was skeptical about the methodology to test the hypothesis that Japanese are collectivistic.
 目立つ (medatsu) generally refers to “conspicuous” in English. Similar to English, medatsu can be used in a good and bad meaning.
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