My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 75, May 1, 2014: “Tackling Japan’s ‘Empathy Deficit’ Towards Outsiders”

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Hi Blog. Thanks everyone for putting this in the Top Ten Trending at the JT Online once again this month!  Debito


By Dr. ARUDOU, Debito
May 1, 2014
Version with links to sources follows:

In 2006, then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech about people’s “empathy deficit.” He described empathy as “the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town.”

“When you think like this,” he continued, “when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.”

I agree. Enormous social problems arise when people don’t understand (or rather, don’t try to understand) what’s going on in other people’s minds. I was mindful of that during my Ph.D. fieldwork, when I interviewed dozens of “Japanese Only” businesses. I always asked for (and got, often in great detail) the reasoning behind their exclusionism. I never agreed with their stopgap solutions (shutting out people they thought were “foreign” because they didn’t look “Japanese” enough), but I gained some sympathy for what they were going through.

But sympathy is not the same as empathy, and that is one reason why discrimination against foreigners and minorities is so hard to combat in Japan. Japanese society is good at sympathy, but empathy? Less so…

Of course, Japanese people have great sympathy for human suffering worldwide. Look through the media (particularly material from human-rights NGOs) and you’ll see plenty of pictures of starving or impoverished people abroad. The government has also been extremely generous with overseas development assistance, and is one of UNICEF’s biggest donors and promoters.

But “sympathy” has for hundreds of years meant a feeling of sorrow or pity for others. That’s very different from the ability to understand and share another’s feelings — empathy, which only evolved into a widely understood concept during the 20th century. That is not to say that empathetic behavior is anything new, of course: Many societies have a long history of axioms and examples (“walk a mile in his shoes,” “do unto others,” Buddha and Christ surrendering their worldly possessions for a higher calling, etc.) encouraging altruistic behavior. In his best-seller “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven Pinker devoted a whole chapter to how empathy has recently fostered human-rights revolutions worldwide.

However, there remains a marked lack of empathy in Japan towards outsiders, especially minorities and foreigners. Why? I would argue it’s because few Japanese ever leave their carefully constructed comfort zones to become minorities or foreigners themselves.

If you think about it, concerns about security, safety and comfort basically dominate all levels of Japanese existence — especially if it involves leaving the Japanese existence entirely. Even though going overseas is the only way Japanese will ever walk in the shoes of a foreigner, many still spend their short jaunts within group buses on package tours, experiencing a foreign land from a controlled environment geared to Japanese comfort levels.

I do sympathize. Why would anyone pay all that money for a quickie trip and suffer the discomfort of unpredictability? Being a member of a rich, developed country with a high expectation of quality, service and social order should have taken care of all that.

Who wants to deal with all those scary foreign languages and potential criminal behaviors lurking beyond the hotel stoop, anyway? It could spoil a stress-free vacation.

But there’s a deeper disconnect going on here. I’ve written before about Japanese society’s overwhelming conceit with social power maintenance, and power plays a part in this discussion too.

You see, sympathy is in fact about power. People worthy of sorrow or pity have to appeal to people in a position to give that sympathy. Sympathizers have the power to decide to be charitable or merciful.

On the other hand, empathizers have to give up their power. They have to live situations like somebody else, feel their discomforts and disadvantages, walk in their shoes.

But we won’t. We’re rich. We’ve earned the right to stay in our own shoes.

So never mind empathy. Sympathy’s simpler, for if anyone needs our help, we’ll send money — if they’re within our ambit of concern. It’ll still have no real impact on our lives — or, more importantly, no real impact on our perceptions of their lives.

Now let’s seal off the attitudinal loop from foreigners in particular: Hey, if you don’t like living in Japan as a disadvantaged foreigner, you shouldn’t have come here in the first place. We don’t go to your country as a guest and tell you what to do in your house, do we?

And now let’s close it further with selective empathy: Ever wondered why many Japanese get so het up when their compatriots get discriminated against overseas? Such as in 1962, when Japan successfully lobbied apartheid South Africa to make Japanese into “honorary whites”? Or in 2010, when the British government threatened to put caps on special visas for Japanese (and other non-EU nationalities), and Japanese firms threatened an investment boycott? Or when even normally stoic Emperor Hirohito in 1946 expressed rare public outrage at racism towards Japanese in California?

Probably not, because one can understand the feelings of fellow Japanese in this situation. Empathy, however, generally doesn’t go outside the tribe: Japan can discriminate against foreigners, but woe betide the foreigners if they do it to Japanese!

Again, I do sympathize, since a lack of empathy is by design. The government has long portrayed foreigners as Japan’s opponents — agents of crime, terrorism, disease and land grabs.

The end result is that even the most well-intentioned people in Japan, who do protest clear examples of racial discrimination (e.g., the “Japanese only” signs at businesses, the racist street demos saying “Kill all Koreans,” the “Japanese only” banner by Urawa Reds soccer fans), use a different subtext.

They denounce racism as “Nihon no haji,” decrying the shame (haji) that xenophobia brings upon Japan on the international stage: It makes Japan, and by extension themselves as Japanese, look bad.

Shame is a very effective message — thank you for it — but the more empathetic tack would be to argue that foreigners are people too; that they live in Japan just like any Japanese; that they deserve to live in Japan as residents, patronize bathhouses and restaurants as customers, attend soccer matches as fans, like anyone else; that foreigners deserve exactly the same human rights and access to public goods as any other Japanese.

But equal treatment is rarely part of the debate. Instead people argue, “If they want to be treated the same, they should naturalize,” as if that fixes everything. Trust me, it doesn’t.

Again, empathy is key. If more people had it, they would advocate for Japanese society to “do unto foreigners,” because they would understand how foreigners feel, as Obama argued, and wouldn’t wish that treatment upon anyone.

Japan, let’s work on that empathy deficit. Less dōjō (sympathy), more kyōkan (empathy). Broaden your ambit beyond the tribe and you just might realize that power is not “zero-sum,” i.e., that giving more power to foreigners in Japan does not mean less power for you. In fact, it makes things better for everyone, as it gives more people more opportunity to fulfill their lifetime potential in society.

Now, who wouldn’t empathize with that?

Debito Arudou, who has just received his Ph.D. in International Studies from Meiji Gakuin University, is editing his dissertation on racial discrimination in Japan into a book. Your comments and story ideas:


I have gone through several databases, including ProQuest, and searched through the full archives of about ten academic peer-reviewed journals on tourism, and there really isn’t much related rigorous sociological/anthropological in recent years on this, it would seem. What I could track down published within the past five or so years:

From: Generalized pattern in competition among tourism destinations
Dawes, John; Romaniuk, Jenni; Mansfield, Annabel. International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research3.1 (2009): 33-53.

Establishes that Japanese tourists take shorter holidays and more picky about their destinations of the four groups selected:
“This suggests Japanese tourists travel to a smaller range of destinations than USA, UK and Singaporean Tourists. This result might be due to greater loyalty to single destinations or due to taking fewer holidays overall.”

Cross-cultural tourist behaviour: a replication and extension involving Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance dimension
Litvin, Stephen W; Crotts, John C; Hefner, Frank L. The International Journal of Tourism Research6.1 (Jan/Feb 2004): 29-37.

This one tells what we already know about Japanese avoidance of uncertainty and risk, replicates older results:
ABSTRACT: Hofstede’s five cross-cultural dimensions have been broadly applied in the literature. Money and Crotts recently applied the dimension of uncertainty avoidance to a matched sample comprised of low uncertainty avoidance German and high uncertainty avoidance Japanese tourists, finding their behaviors consistent with those behaviors predicted by Hofstede. This study both replicates and extends their research across a representative sample of first time leisure visitors to the USA representing 58 nations. It was found that visitors from high uncertainty avoidance cultures exhibited behaviors consistent with those of the Japanese in the Money and Crotts research, whereas visitors from low-uncertainty avoidance cultures behaved similarly to their German subjects. Such findings, across a broad sample population, validate the original research through a more rigorous test of its propositions, provide increased confidence regarding their generalizability, and further contribute to our understanding of the influence of national culture on tourist behavior.

(sourced from, date unknown)
Package tours 48.2%
Individually arranged 37.1% (increasing)
Group travel 6.2%
“In the past they liked to travel in relatively large groups, but by the mid-1990s the young were increasingly traveling in smaller groups or on their own and had come to resemble Western tourists. Individual Japanese tourists became less interested in purchasing pre-arranged tours…” (2008)
“Japanese tourists are the most distinctive…”
“Koreans and Japanese are the least active and reserved in social situations (probably due to their collectivistic and high-uncertainty-avoidance characteristics)… Japanese are the most adventurous in food preferences, and they plan their trips rigidly and meticulously, but choose short trips.” (1997)
endnote ends

27 comments on “My Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column 75, May 1, 2014: “Tackling Japan’s ‘Empathy Deficit’ Towards Outsiders”

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Looking at the utter garbage that spouts from the cake-holes of the majority of public figures holding official office in Japan, I would say that rather than an ’empathy deficit’, Japan suffers from a humanity deficit.

    — Seeing people as fellow humans is a fundamental part of empathy. Hand in glove.

  • I thought this was an excellent article. How many times have I heard this:
    ” “If they want to be treated the same, they should naturalize,” as if that fixes everything. Trust me, it doesn’t.”

    Ive been told this time and time again when I encounter an “issue” in Japan: “moto nihongo shabette” or I should become Japanese, and all my problems would vanish.

    Having an interest in why Japan is what it is, I have begin to study some of the more complicated reasons such as the Bushido code etc. I think the lack of empathy has its roots in that era. An elite class were empowered as benevolent protectors, and in return subjects gave their loyality to them. Of course its more complicated than this, but there is truly many differences in culture that have evolved in Japan than from the rest of the world.

    Reading some of the dissenters opinions, I found them to be the usual incoherent attacks, but this time with so much wordy intelectualism that it totally discredited what they were trying to accomplish; discredit your article! . Many congrats on your doctorate, but I guess with that comes other doctors and their attacks.

  • to be fair, Japanese tend not to have empathy for their own countrymen in many cases. I have heard cases of Fukushima residents being ostracized when relocating to other areas. Also note the “welcome” home of 3 Japanese hostages taken in Iraq, 2004. Even the victimhood industry created out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Hibakusha victims twice over.

  • Of course they don’t have empathy even for other Japanese. I think that’s the root of the problem. It’s not as if they empathize with other Japanese and don’t empathize with foreigners. It’s that they don’t empathize at all, with anyone. If there were no foreigners in Japan, they would discriminate against each other. Just think of the rampant age discrimination and other types of discrimination in Japan that has nothing to do with foreigners. How many handicap-friendly train stations have you come across? And most of the school and workplace bullying that happens is Japanese against other Japanese. It’s just an unempathetic society in general. Being a foreigner in Japan, we tend to feel it most, but what they do to us is just an extension of what they do to each other anyway.

  • John (Yokohama) says:


    Interesting article and congrats on your doctorate. I look forward to the book.

    I think Al touches on some interesting points. The word “narcissism” sometimes comes to mind when I think of the lack of empathy for others.


  • Totally agree with Bob and Al, and this attitude is probably linked to the ideal of “don’t bother others, take care of your own mess”. I heard repeatedly that the concept of “volunteering” basically was imported after the Kobe earthquake, which is very recently and you see very little compassion with the homeless, f.ex.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I agree with the posts #3&4. I suspect Japanese sense of humility/empathy is, in many cases, elusive. It seems like a tiny ‘invisible’ caterpillar slipping out of its shell. I even think lack of empathy is an understatement. It’s more like a sense of apathy.

    Yes, “narcissism” may be the best fit for describing the attitude of the general public.

  • Congratulations and respect for getting your doctorate. I think this is a superb article you have written, certainly up with your best. It’s a very interesting read indeed.

    When will your new book be out? I look forward to buying and reading it!

  • Do you have this article in Japanese? I really think Japanese people should read this!!!

  • It seems to me that the group travels abroad are like an excursion to the zoo… I mean, they look very curious but not engaging at all with the population. I have seen it many times. And it goes too for the japanese expats working abroad. Talking about empathy!!

  • Darkrider says:


    Would you happen to have a link to this story regarding the three japanese taken hostage in Iraq?

  • J_jobseeker says:

    Great article. Definitely something I’ve noticed. Japanese have this odd way of not thinking that something that has happened to someone else will happen to them as well. A crime that occurs in a neighborhood may generate feelings of sympathy in the area, but everyone will go about their business as if nothing happened (to them), nor ask police or politicians to step up patrols or laws so that those crimes (or accidents) don’t happen again.

    However, I think the worse display of this can be clearly seen in the Japanese attitudes and coverage of the unfortunate ferry disaster in South Korea. So much media is focusing on everything wrong that South Korean government and industry has done or “is standard practice” to cause the tragedy while simultaneously trying to show how such an accident “would never happen” in Japan where things are done properly all the while forgetting the countless accidents in recent memory that occurred under similar civic and business attitudes—the elephant in the room being…say it with me…Fukushima. Japanese netizens have also taken to making the disaster a chance to bash culture with some 2ch threads going on about South Korea’s “low cultural standards” and “being glad to be born Japanese.” This lack of empathy is why I think the same incidents, scandals, and crimes keep happening in Japan and no one will really care about it until “it happens to them.” I think this is the root reason why issues of race will most likely not change very much here since discrimination will never happen to Japanese so they will never empathize with such victims in Japan. Unbelievably, they will cry foul against unfair treatment of Japanese abroad, but never seem make that logical connection to the same treatment of foreigners living in Japan. Empathy deficit? Maybe in the case of Japan it’s “Empathy Bankrupt.”

  • Just out of curiousity, do you not allow comments that disagree with you? I can’t seem to find any comments here that disagree, yet I see a lot of disagreement on the Japan Times page. Why is that?

    — Because if you look carefully, many of the disagreeing comments at the JT are attacking me as a person, not the points the column is raising. See’s Posting Guidelines. Follow those, and comments, even those that disagree, will be approved. People should learn the difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable.

  • @Tim,
    Many of the post on the JT page agree with Debito. There are about 3 or so who attack. If you allow those troll types to take over, then it becomes a tiring battle and you have accomplished your tatic of hijacking the subject.
    I have noticed that there about 3 or 4 persons who make it their sole purpose in life to derail Debito, and Ive only met one person in all my years in japan who really loved it here. I find those types are too strange to even waste your time with.

    Debito has deleted many of my comments here. I understand its his blog so I dont need to question it. I also dont need to agree with anything Debito says or post. If I have an issue with it, I can start my own blog about my issues in Japan. If you have issues with Debito, why not start your own pro Japan blog?

  • @Roger,
    I do have my own blog. I was simply asking why it seems that there is such a dearth of disagreement on this blog. I have a ton of problems with Japan. Most of my issues with Debito however, are based on the issues of the problems in Japan, not necessarily whether or not we think Japan is a wonderful country or not. Yeah, I have a problem with Japan’s insular xenophobia, racism and lack of self awareness about this issue, But I also have a problem with saying the whole country lacks empathy. That kind of blanket generalization helps no one. Japan has plenty of empathy, it is made of humans, who are empathetic creatures. Empathy isn’t based in culture, it’s based in human psychology, and is a universal phenomenon. I simply don’t see how dehumanizing the Japanese as a whole helps to humanize and help those who have been hurt by Japan’s problems with racism. Also, I would say that a claim as serious as a “empathy deficit” is one that needs to be backed up, not by anecdotal evidence, but by hard scientific, empirical data. I don’t think those kinds of claims should be made lightly or without proof.

    — Have a read of the Pinker book I referred to in the article. He makes a very convincing case (with ample proof) that empathy is something that has developed over time, both as a concept and a phenomenon, as I mentioned in the article. It’s not innate, meaning humans are NOT necessarily empathetic creatures (a claim you yourself make without proof). And the development of empathy is responsible for the human rights revolutions in many (but not all) societies that have only come in the past century.

    I’ll have my article text up on this blog shortly with links to sources. It’s hard to include those in journalistic articles.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @Tim, #18
    >> “empathy deficit” is one that needs to be backed up, not by anecdotal evidence, but by hard scientific, empirical data.

    OK. Then, tell me how you can define psychological factors for data coding so that you can make an appropriate measurement of empathy level for research. I’m not so sure how and if many social scientists(i.e., psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists) will agree that they can measure human ’empathy’ solely relying on a single factor, as you say. There are several possible factors (i.e., socio-economic, cultural, geographical, or environmental) that could have significant impact on human’s psychological factors.

    Speaking of hard scientific data, you are not referring to some kind of magical formula like VAM (Value Added Measurement) that may help your quantitative evaluation/assessment despite its alleged serious flaws are you? Quantitative formula is not immune to its inherent bias toward human factor.

    — There’s also the issue of emic vs. etic. Trying to measure emic data by using universal standards (which are etic) will necessarily bugger up the measurements.

  • Darkrider says:

    I recall reading a story about a Japanese survivor of the Titanic who upon returning home was criticized by the media for not sacrificing himself to save others like a good Japanese citizen. Talk about lack of empathy.

    — We need a link to substantiate this story. If not, I’ll have to delete it as rumor.

  • The Other Bill says:

    @Tim, et al,

    There’s a difference between the capacity to empathize–which seems to be a genetic predisposition in most normal humans and certain other animals–and the expression of empathy which, according to Pinker and others, can be and has been nurtured by various cultural/historical/educational forces. To suggest that there is an empathy deficit in Japan isn’t saying anything about individual capacity. Rather, it’s a commentary on the cultural/political/educational priorities that tend to keep the “circle of empathy” from expanding in Japan.

    Humans tend to express empathy more freely toward those perceived to be members of the same in-group. It’s not hard to notice how relentlessly and often subtly Japanese culture seeks to narrowly define–or selectively interpret–who does and doesn’t belong to the in-group.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Just a thought, and I apologize if this looks like thread drift:
    As an ALT of nearly 10 years I’ve seen a lot of textbooks, supplementary texts, Eiken preparatory texts, etc., and have wondered at the sometimes superfluous references to Japan or Japanese.
    Some random examples:
    * A story about the first ever basketball game includes a mention that there was a Japanese student at the school.
    * A very brief story about Mother Teresa that needs to mention that the Sisters of Charity have a house for homeless children in Tokyo.
    * Texts which rant on about how healthy/popular/delicious Japanese food is.
    * The mandatory Hiroshima story. [Shock-horror! Our current version textbook doesn’t have a Hiroshima story! But it still contains a wartime story]
    Maybe these are symptoms of empathy deficit – the assumption (real or imagined) that kids will not show any interest in English unless there is a mention of Japan/Japanese in the text. Any thoughts?

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ The Other Bill #23

    Re: Limiting the expansion of the circle of empathy in Japan.

    Your comment reminded me of Max Hasting’s book Nemesis, in which he quotes a letter written by an Imperial Japanese Army soldier to his wife during the Battle of Manila. The soldier describes himself smashing Filipino babies heads against walls as part of his duty, and concludes his letter by tenderly asking if his baby son is doing well. Empathy deficit is essential when the ‘other’ is dehumanized.

  • @Andrew in Saitama

    I have actually been wondering about that recently. In most of the text books I have used, the protagonist has been a Japanese person who is tasked with explaining Japanese culture and traditions to the ignorant, bumbling Gaijin who is visiting Japan.

    “Mike wore his bathing suit in the onsen and tried to go swimming!”

    It’s never about a Japanese person who visits a foreign country, meets an English speaker and discovers exciting things about their culture and lifestyle. It’s so strange. Why are the majority of text books focused on talking about Japanese culture almost exclusively?

  • Andrew in Saitama says:


    I sometimes wonder if this phenomena we’ve noticed is symptomatic of empathy deficit, causal of empathy deficit, or both!

    And the twisted logic presented as language!
    In my set of texts, Momoko goes on a home stay in Australia and is told to “help herself” to the fridge. (The implication – not stated in the text – is that no good Japanese person would ever just raid the fridge). Meanwhile, Mike’s Japanese host mother gave him bread every meal, but this is justified as trying to be polite rather than just reinforcing stereotypes.

    Constant othering makes it easier to avoid empathy.

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