The Really BIG Questions: ?Are people the same everywhere?
?is there a fundamental core of humanity?
?are there human universals?
?what are the dimensions of variation, within and between cultures/societies? [viz: ?gender? ?modal personality?]
?is the wiring the same but the content different?
?is the content mapped differently? [viz: color terms]
?how do children learn to be Japanese/Korean/Chinese/American/etc.?

We see a gloriously long history of cultural misunderstanding, of ethnocentrism, of projections onto others of our own fears and ignorance and insecurities, of us vs them. In fact, it's easier to find examples of misunderstanding than of successful transcultural communication.

Consider this passage:

The Japanese language is characterized by ambiguity and diffuseness. In contrast but not exactly diametrically opposed to Japanese culture, American thought patterns are dominated by two key factors: dichotomy of their world view (propensity to respond to the world in binary terms, as in 'Yes' or 'No') and individualism, or the view that the individual is the primary or the most salient social unit in a society. The Japanese language espouses a view of the world in nonbinary terms. Likewise the Japanese language predisposes its speakers to pay attention to human relations or the entire social context rather than just to the self or the individual. One's own action is a result of what many other people did. American English, on the other hand, encourages its speakers to take responsibility for their actions...
Hayashi and Kuroda Japanese Culture in Comparative Perspective pg. 17 (DS821 .H375 1997)
I find this unsettling, but I'm having difficulty articulating why. It seems an appeal to Japanese uniqueness --and so to verge on the territory of the genre of "theories of Japaneseness" called Nihonjinron, discussed in various ways in these materials, harvested in September:
Complicit exoticism: Japan and its other (Koichi Iwabuchi)


Japanese Culture: a primer for newcomers

Resources and Mobilization & Learning at Mother’s Knee In White, The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children. New York: The Free Press, 1987. Pp 11-19, 95-109.


Although individual Japanese incline toward conformity, the nation as a whole believes itself to be utterly unique; there is no other place in any way like Japan. Hence we have a kind of "national individual­ism. " The insistence on Japan special and apart has deep historical and cultural underpinnings, beginning, as most tales of national identity do, with a creation myth. The Japanese version goes like this: Izanami and Izanagi, brother and sister deities, gave birth to the islands of Japan along with a number of other deities. Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, one of these gods, descended to the islands bringing the Three Imperial Regalia, symbols of power and legitimacy. And Ninigi's descendants became the first emperors.

The story of heaven-created islands dropped into the sea, Japan's myth of origin, is like many others which contend that a people and place were set into the world by divine intervention and thus bear the qualities of godhood. Some places of myth, like Mount Olympus in Greece, were to be the abodes and playgrounds of gods and marvelous human beings. Other places, like the Judeo-Christian paradise, were to be the scene of divine creativity and the moral testing of god-­created beings. Still others, like holy places in India, were sanctified by accident, when gods in battle dropped a trident or when the bodily parts of gods who were dismembered fell to earth.

Japan was presumed to be the locus of an eternal line of divine rulers, Ninigi's offspring, a line that persists to the present. Therefore, one of the elements of the sense of Japanese uniqueness is mytho­historical continuity, which is regarded as both means and end for the society as a whole.

The uniqueness of being Japanese, the fact that one cannot become Japanese (Japan was not created by immigrant gods), is part of ongoing scrutiny in Japan --the nihonjinron, or "what it means to be Japanese," debate. In 1985 the matter was institutionalized in the form of an Institute of Japanology in Kyoto, where scholars, social commentators, and "cultural persons" (bunkajin) are able to muse on the Japanese character and its place in the modern world. Having engaged academic and media attention for over a hundred years, nihonjinron is really an attempt to define Japanese culture in the face of threatening contact from other societies—a conscious effort to "know who we are" so as not to be swallowed up by Western influences. Indeed, during the Meiji period, nihonjinron developed the urgent tone of national security issues. While a sense of Japanese uniqueness is still intrinsic to the concern, the tone today is slightly less intense, and sometimes seems only a narcissistic parlor game. Still, as Hidetoshi Kato points out, "There is the inclination to emphasize that the Japanese are ‘unique' in developing nihonjinron. "

The Japanese sense of uniqueness and superiority

The Vocabulary of Control from New internationalist

Robert Fulford's column about Japanese identity (Globe and Mail, November 5, 1997)

Nihonjinron maintains that Japanese are in some respect or other a completely unique and/or superior race with a distinguishing congenital tendency to obedience, groupiness, self-efffacing industry, harmony, etc. Literally hundreds of Nihonjinron books and papers have appeared in the last 20 years, making it both a bizarre academic sub-specialty and a highly profitable publishing niche.
The notion that a culture has a psychological coherence was of great interest to anthropologists in the 1930s, but has few adherents these days. There are still efforts to refloat the interest, exemplified by Inkeles' National Character: a psycho-social perspective (GN506 .I55 1997):
We propose that character should be taken literally to mean the dispositions built into the peculiarities of the individuals who make up a society, and that national character be the sum of such qualities across the individuals who make up a national population. (pg. viii)

...relatively enduring personality characteristics, for example, character traits, modes of dealing with impulses and affects, conceptions of self... not phenotypic, behavior-descriptive terms. Rather, they are higher-level abstractions that refer to stable, generalized dispositions or modes of functioning and may take a great variety of concrete behavioral forms... defined conceptually as a determinant of behavior rather than concretely as a form of behavior... (pg. 14)

But how feasible is it to study or analyze personality configurations of individuals, or make "characterological inferences", and how feasible is it to create and apply a "standardized analytical scheme", especially across cultures?

If we go back to the "self identity" page, do you feel yourself to be "typical" of the group(s) to which you belong? To be "more like" others in that group than you are "like" people who don't belong?