Posted on November 17, 2016
By Jiajia Zou, Yoshiko Ugawa
When generalizing about the differences between the East and the West, one of the contrasting elements that comes to mind is collectivism versus individualism. Japan is a country that is known for valuing the family and the company as important social units. However, isolation has recently gained attention as a worsening social problem. How do we reconcile Japan’s group mentality with the problem of isolation? CR Factory helps us with this question in their latest research focusing on ‘tsunagari’ (social connectivity) and ‘community’. This is the first article in a two-part series summarizing the research conducted by CR Factory. This article includes an interview with CR Factory’s representative. Part two of the series will report on the results of the research.
“Through the community building process, a paradigm shift occurs in which people who used to depend on support from others become the givers in a group.”
Q. What were the motivations behind the research?
Driven by my belief in the importance of tsunagari (‘social connectivity’) and community, I set up a Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) in 2005. It was founded upon my own experience during my days as a college student, when social connectivity and community led me to discover my raison d’être. I wanted to share these values with people in society, and thus I set up the NPO. However, at that point, it was still only an instinctive belief that I was passionate about yet unable to explain in concrete terms.
I decided to begin this project because I saw the need and felt the desire to articulate a concrete and objective explanation backed by research, something I could not achieve back when my NPO was first founded. This report is the result of thorough research using resources including National Libraries, more than 20 books’ worth of knowledge on the topic, and also consultation with Professor Ishida Mitsunori from Waseda University, author of Koritsu No Shakaigaku (“Sociology behind Isolation”).
For example, in the case of alleviating problems related to children or domestic violence, the final solution will always involve a community. After immediate care by specialists, treatment will proceed to peer mentoring where affected persons engage in mutual assistance. A paradigm shift occurs in which people who used to depend on support from others become the givers in a group. This process can then evolve into community building.
Going a step further, community building extends to integrate beneficiaries into a residential community, and this is similarly true for relief efforts at disaster sites, as well as every field in which nonprofits are active. Problems like isolated deaths, child abuse and homelessness also share the same roots, and thus have similar solutions.
A sense of belonging is directly linked to the health of an individual. Being able to instill a sense of belonging is important for organizational management as well. Once that is established, morale and commitment will naturally follow. The critical question is how such an environment can be created.
The importance of ‘social connectivity and community’ is not something I have come to understand recently, but rather, an instinctive belief that I have held for 20 years . Japanese society has become materially wealthy, but at the same time, problems such as suicide, isolated deaths and depression have risen. I think these are effects of the weakening of social connectivity and community. I was eager to back up my own instinctive judgment with evidence, but proving a correlation was not easy. However, as Professor Hiroi Yoshinori from Chiba University has explained when he refers to “community as the solution to social problems”, social connectivity and community is the most comprehensible and effective way of tackling the roots of problems which Japan, as a “kadai senshin koku” (“a country on the frontlines in tackling emerging social issues”), is hesitant to confront.
Q. From the perspective of foreigners, Japan seems like a paradox of a close-knit yet isolated society. Why do you think this is so?
If we look simply at data, Japanese people generally exhibit a high level of trust, with little self-centeredness. Living in “wa no kuni” (“a country of harmony”), we are a people who value cooperativeness. However, despite these desirable qualities, Japan is also one of the top ten countries in terms of suicide rates.
Q. We look good on the surface, but in actual fact the level of isolation is really high. In contrast, Europeans, who are known to champion individualism, actually rank lower than Japanese in terms of isolation.
It is hard to offer a convincing explanation for this, but in Japan, after the period of high economic growth, there was a drastic transition of social factors affecting individuals; for example, the transition from village communities, local regions and multi-generational families to urban life, nuclear families and companies.
Through the period of high economic growth, a massive urban migration has caused changes in basic social structures; as a result, despite the reduction in social connections, reliance on the nuclear family has swelled. Compared to other countries, Japan’s confrontation with this phenomenon is stark. Against this background, Japan’s decreasing marriage rate and increased social isolation amongst widows and widowers have had a strong negative impact, depriving individuals of a social unit to share their burdens.
Q. It seems like “individual choice” plays a part as well. How do you see this affecting social connectivity and community?
With respect to social connectivity, “freedom” and “choice” are some of today’s buzzwords. The younger generation has a tendency to move away from the inconvenience and burdens associated with village life and multi-generational families, and to minimize ties with the region as well as commitments at the workplace. In the past, social ties and workplace obligations, as well as regional and familial bonds, were mandatory regardless of one’s preferences. However, such social connectivity and community have receded. This is what Professor Ishida refers to as “liberation and deprivation”. The 1990s were characterized by a loss of geographical ties, blood ties and social ties (regional, familial, workplace), and it can also be seen as a period of deprivation.
While this period marked a liberation from past quandaries, it also signaled the end of such assurances and promises as lifetime employment and seniority wage. Simultaneously, “social connectivity and community” were no longer guaranteed. As a result, the active search to fill this void led to popular terms like “asa-katsu” (“early morning activities before work”), “riajū” (“enriched social life,” an implied contrast to a reclusive life) and “share house”. For example, it used to be that the community advanced its’ members’ marriage prospects, but now each person must take the initiative to search for partners. Those who excel in communication skills have become the winners of this competition in socializing. Although people are no longer impeded by the troubles of the past, they have been thrown into a time in which community and social connectivity depend on one’s own desires and skills.
Q. In other words, what people could naturally obtain in the past now requires conscious choices to be made?
Freedom and choice have become prerequisites and perpetual conditions. Such is the result of the flow of time and change, which one cannot defy. To see it from a different perspective, these new and different ideas of community also mean that society is overflowing with an array of choices, and I think that accessibility to these choices is one solution to the problems.
Q. It seems strange that the country famed for longevity and high levels of trust is facing a weakening of social connectivity.
As shown in the research data, one’s life expectancy is most strongly affected by one’s social capital and not medical insurance or lifestyle. Also, isolation has a more negative effect on health than smoking.
This report shows that although average life expectancy is high in Japan, “social connectivity and community” have weakened, and as a result, the life expectancy in Japan is already falling. Moreover, there is a possibility for this trend to continue should the problems with community persist.
Q. Are there any plans for your organization in light of these issues?
We have been collaborating with the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study (JAGES) Project in efforts to promote group activities, and we have reached 30 areas currently. The focus is now on expanding these to as many areas as possible. We monitor progress by keeping track of regional and individual health performance for at least three years from the commencement of the activity. The strength of my organization is the inclusion of residents in promoting the projects regionally. We will be expecting funding from the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare under their program that supports new initiatives. As we would like to appeal to a greater audience, we will consider holding seminars as well.
Q. Any final words you would like to share with our readers?
As of now, Japanese society is too fixated on financial aims. As we grapple with a shrinking population, finances can no longer be a sole consideration in promoting happiness and health. It is important that “social connectivity” is considered as well. Let me offer an example. It has been shown in sociological studies that whether parents are acquainted with other parents or not affects the children’s willingness to learn. Does this not prove the importance of social capital vis-à-vis economic capital? There is also a research which shows a lack of consideration for citizens’ health and happiness in economic and financial policies. As social connectivity and happiness are hard to measure, the impact of social connectivity on individual happiness eludes quantitative justification, unlike economic considerations. However, even though the relationship between social connectivity and happiness may take time to study, it is a deeply intriguing and potentially rewarding topic.
Writer: Jiajia Zhou
Interviewer: Yoshiko Ugawa (JNPOC)
Special Thanks: Kunihiro Shiraishi
CR Factory (http://www.crfactory.com/) aims to foster close-knit communities in which individuals can form both emotional and physical attachments, thereby contributing to the creation of a society where everyone’s lives will be enriched by companionship and a sense of belonging.
Through the provision of workshops, seminars and consultations, CR Factory commits itself to practice hand-in-hand support to client NPOs, enabling clients, through experience, to learn the basics of organizational management and strengthen human resource development.