My Oz Moment: An American on Collectivist Culture

By: Vanessa Phillips

February 19, 2018

Incredibly jet-lagged, I made my way to my first full day of class in Tokyo. Professor Joseph Shaules of Keio University kept me fully attentive during his class on cross-cultural understanding of Japan despite my lack of sleep. One of the first things he brought to the class’ attention was the existence of Oz moments. When coming into an unfamiliar environment, anything could trigger an "Oz moment." An Oz moment is an instance when you see something that makes you think to yourself, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”

For Professor Shaules, the vending machines which are dotted along Tokyo’s streets on every corner were the catalyst for an Oz moment. These vending machines are so foreign to an American eye. Of course we have vending machines, but in Tokyo the vending machines all have hot and cold drinks, there is far more selection, and each one has a recycling bin or trash can next to it to ensure proper trash disposal. Why does this have a significant impact on anyone? Well, it’s not so much the existence of the vending machines as it is the implications they contain about the society that created them. 

My greatest Oz moment has come in the form of the relationships that are forming so quickly here, both with local students and others from abroad in my program. My time in Japan is short, but from the first day, I felt the very structure of the program was intentional in setting us up to make fast friends. Anyone who has ever gone to a new school can relate to the anxiety that makes one wonder, “Who will I eat with? Who will I talk to?” I thought these questions would be among my primary concerns here. I was wrong. I was placed into a group of five students with whom I spend most of everyday here with. We get along better than almost any other group team I have worked in before. Observing the group as a whole, I find similar relationships occurring in and outside groups among everyone.

It is well-known that in Japan there is a culture of collectivism. This fact stands out in my mind when I consider why making friends here has been particularly easy. The program was designed by a Japanese university, and the majority of the students are East Asian. Notably, when class is over for the day, people do not rush out of the classroom off to do their own thing. Everyone mills around, talking to one another about the parts of Tokyo they want to explore or the food they want to eat. The Japanese students especially take their time to hangout with all the international students, showing us around and teaching us Japanese phrases. There is a pervasive mentality that we are responsible for one another. When we go out, everyone collectively waits on one another; no one gets lost or left behind. The culture I have experienced in America is that the individual is responsible for his- or herself—often groups will split or people will leave in those same situations.

One of our most fascinating activities was to visit an elementary school a short walk from our university. From a young age, Japanese students are consciously trained to invest in their group’s wellbeing. The structure in place at public elementary schools in Japan is such that the students themselves, even as young as the first-graders I observed, serve each other freshly-made lunch. They also have cleaning time where everyone is hard at work, sweeping, wiping, and playing all around. They are careful with their dishes and trash, down to prepping their milk boxes for recycling before they are picked up by a classmate.

The level of care that everyone shows for one another takes me by surprise. I am not going to idolize collectivist culture, which has its own downsides. However, in this instance, I feel like the pre-orientation to be considerate of the well-being and interests of the group that comes with collectivism in a society works particularly well. Among my peers in the short time I have begun to know them, I feel comfortable. I believe that my Oz moment has made my time in Japan all the more memorable. On a macro scale, especially with the current political climate in the United States, I feel Americans could learn from the Japanese about investing more in our collective interests as a society.

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My Oz Moment: An American on Collectivist Culture