Fiction is the reflection of a culture’s aspirations. In America, many stories focus on a single individual, the main character. Sometimes he is supported by others, but, by and large, the Hero of these stories is an island. Often, he is wholly formed, meaning that he has very little internal impediments to overcome. Perhaps he lacks a certain piece of information or a special object, but the Hero usually finds out that all he needed was always inside of him.
This speaks of the view of life the West holds, the view that a man is by himself, even when surrounded by friends. He is independent, self-sufficient, and is only found lacking because of an external situation. In his heart, he has all he needs.
The Japanese Hero is rather different. He tends to be the leader of the group, but dependent upon that group. Sometimes he is an outsider and soon discovers a group that he can belong to. When he wins, it is usually because someone helped him or showed him how. There are few times, if any, where the Hero wins by himself. He often faces his own short-comings, often leading to a tragedy, and must learn how to overcome them. His journey is often blocked by opponents stronger than he is. He succumbs to defeat before learning how to succeed.
Take for example a classic match-up that often pits comic book fans against manga (Japanese comic book) fans.
Superman is the last son of Krypton. When he came to Earth and was exposed to the light of our yellow sun, he began to develop amazing super powers; flight, heat vision, super speed, increased intelligence and strength, and last, but far beyond least, invulnerability. I say begins, because his powers only increase, as in the comics he lives for thousands of years and eventually becomes almost god-like. His only weakness is kypronite, a green rock from his home planet that strips him of his powers and could eventually kill him.
One of the interesting things to note is that Superman never had to train to develop his powers. They grew with him. They were innate and unbidden. He discovered his powers like a boy discovers his first chest hair.
He is also entirely complete. The one thing that holds him back is his fear of destroying Earth, so he developed certain psychological blocks in his mind that suppress his powers, but get him away from innocent lives and he feels safe using his abilities to their fullest. He has no need of a mentor, no one to show him how to use his powers. He can defeat any enemy that arises and needs no one’s help.
This is a very Western, especially American, way of thinking. Our Heroes, the ones we look up to, seem like supermen. As children, we don’t see our sports heroes grow from amateurs to professionals who dominate their fields. We don’t see Hollywood stars start on their high school stages before seeing them rise to the big screen. They appear, fully-formed and awe-inspiring. And that’s how we see ourselves, complete individuals, needing nothing and no one, but taking friends and possessions merely because we want them. In her book “Anthem,” Ayn Rand lays out a world in which collectivism is taken to the extreme. In this world, names have been replaced with numbers, the government tells people what jobs they will have, and friendships are discouraged since it is wrong to treat one person better than another. Their life is controlled, from birth to death, by the government. In this story, the main character refers to himself as “we,” until he finds a book that uses the word “I.” He learns from this book that he does not need anyone, he does not need to rely on a group. His life is for himself only and he only adds to it as he sees fit. He is fine by himself, whole and complete. Just like Superman.
On the other side of the ocean lives another alien. He also hails from a planet that was destroyed when he was a baby. He also came to Earth and was raised by a human. As he grew, he also discovered that he was faster and stronger than others. But, then he learned that there were normal humans who possessed abilities and executed feats he found impossible. His trademark attack, the Kamehameha Wave, was taught to him by his mentor, Master Roshi, his martial arts teacher and a human. In fact, anyone with sufficient training could do it. It only took time. Eventually, he surrounded himself with friends, some of them being his defeated enemies. He was often defeated by his opponents, before finding a place to train or a master who could instruct him how to grow stronger. He even died three or four times, and was resurrected by his friends using the wish-granting Dragonballs. He loved fighting and although he often did it to protect his friends and the Earth, he sometimes allowed an enemy to gain power so that he could fight them at their strongest. He even once stopped a fight just so that his son could learn what it was like to fight for Earth. He usually defeated his enemy, but it was almost always a group effort. Even his greatest enemy, the demon Majin Buu, was only defeated because his friend bought him enough time to charge his ultimate attack. Victories in Dragonball are shared within the group.
This is because, in Japan, the group is the most important thing, even beyond the individual. In Japanese schools, if a student is asked a question, he is often reluctant to answer, even if he knows it, for fear of sticking out. In fact, the saying “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” has a completely different meaning here. When an American hears that phrase, he instantly thinks it means that if something is wrong, you fix it. But, in Japan, it conjures the image of a person rising above the group. The student who raises his hand to answer is raising himself above the group, and that makes him wrong. Another example from years ago involves students in certain smaller towns that were made to die their hair blacker if it was a lighter color than everyone else’s. In Japan, the group is everything.
On the other hand, Japanese people take care of one another. Teachers will often bring little pieces of candy or snacks for everyone to share. Students develop incredibly close ties with one another. They are eager to help those within their own circle, simply because that is the expectation. Crime is generally low here because of their insistences that anything that disturbs the group is wrong. But, that has been achieved by sacrificing the individual to the group.
The American individual, while being free to express himself, has done away with any obligations to the group, which has created a society in which no one is beholden to another and selfishness abounds. On other hand, the Japanese individual is often crushed beneath the feet of the group, leading to high suicide rates and burn-outs in certain professions, but has also helped to keep crime down and relationships strong.
The answer to the social problems that arise in both countries is neither more freedom nor less freedom, but a recognition that the individual is part of the group, and that the actions of the individual can affect the group, which affects the individual. It is actually in the individual’s best interest to treat others well, so that they may also be treated well. It was called “The Golden Rule” for a very good reason.