A technique of cooperation

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Jun 1 2008, 03:42am hrs
The clich is that the Japanese are more cooperative than Westerners but I dont quite believe that as stated. For instance early twentieth century Japanese labor history is rife with conflict and the Japanese Communist Party considered starting trouble as late as the 1960s. Today in new or surprising situations many Japanese will simply giggle or get nervous or do nothing rather than helping to solve the problem. When cooperation breaks down it seems to break down altogether.

In my alternative mental model the Japanese have specialized in the use of explicit focal points. They reaffirm these focal points repeatedly, to an extreme, by the use of rituals, particular forms of relational address, and almost absurd degrees of politeness and apology. When the focal point is explicit the cooperation works very very well.

But precisely because the Japanese are so good at using explicit focal points, the culture seems ill-suited to improvising or dealing with implicit or shifting focal points. When the focal point becomes unclear or is placed in danger, they are not very good at finding a new one on the spot. That is why the Japanese are either extremely ordered and cooperative in their behavior or extremely ineffective and chaotic. Of course since a new or unexpected situation creates a dilemma, there are social pressures to avoid such states of affairs. That dynamic strengthens the explicit focal points further, but makes it harder to change focal points in the longer run.

The idea of a society investing in a particular technique of cooperation is a powerful one. This hypothesis may also help explain why the Japanese travel abroad so often in groups. Its not just a lack of language skills but the group leader also supplies codes of conduct for unfamiliar situations.