Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

A few weeks ago, there was an article in Scientific American "debunking" the myth of self-esteem. I've never been to therapy in the US so I don't have first hand experience, but my good friend John Vasconcellos is one of the founders of the movement and my impressions about the movement from him were that it was important and useful. John told me that he thought the definition that they used in the article was different from the one he was using. He said he would get back to me on his thoughts on the article. I found a thread on MetaFilter about this article so I participated in a discussion there. I was still having trouble thinking through the issue, so I turned to one of my favorite moral guides, Reverend AKMA. I decided to record the call and post it here in case anyone is interested in our chat. (37 min 33 MB mp3)

I think the net-net is that overvaluing or undervaluing yourself is bad. Ways to help people swung too far in either direction are good. The US probably suffers differently, than say Japan, because I think more people in Japan get self-esteem from craft or professionalism compared to the US where I believe self-esteem is more highly linked to money. Creating enclaves of people or communities to help people feel happy about their success measured by different parameters is a good thing and something the Net might be good for.

UPDATE 2: Audio available in a variety of formats on


I think the Reverend is right when he is talking about Japanese men, but I think he is not correct if he is talking about Japanese women. Japanese woman are extremely focused on displays of wealth through brand clothing, jewellery and spending. I think this can be closely linked to self esteme. Japanese men are also very focused on group esteme, which has a big impact on self esteme.

Also, having a managamous partner is extremely important to American men and women in terms of self esteme. Whereas in Japan, it is not as important to many people (still is to many though).

I also think self esteme in the US is linked to independence from groups. The "take this job and shove it" attitude.

Interesting subject to ponder. Good post.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? I am only for myself what am I ? If not now, then when?

I like this wise comment by the ancient Jewish sage Hillel on Self Esteem.

The parable of the Happy Psychiatrist

A guy guy goes to the psychiatrist. "What's up?" says the doctor. "I'm depressed." says the man. "That's because you have low self-esteem." says the doc. "Aw, now I've got two problems," says the man.

In my High School, counselors stressed the importance of self-esteem and even invited motivational speakers to assemblies that the entire student body would attend. These speakers seemed to suggest that self-esteem is something that can be spontaneously generated.


My gut reaction is to wildly disagree with your quip on US vs JP sources of "self" esteem. Quotes due to the fact that the notion of "self" is so very different here vs there. I'm looking forward to digging through your references on this one.

Chris, I don't have references, but I have my own experience and anecdotes.

I've heard several Americans say to me, "if he's so smart, how come he's poor?" I don't think a Japanese would ever say this. I have repeatedly experienced Americans who tend to measure success on a single axis - money. Not everyone, but it seems to be quite common. On the other hand, I have a sense that Japan has more diversity in terms of measuring success. I realize I am generalizing quite a bit here. Also, the discussion we had before about "gokurosama" or a respect for the working class seems to support this notion that craft can provide people with respect. I do agree that the notion of "self" may be different in the US and Japan, but I mean "self-esteem" as one word. Something like confident and happy with one's own position and potential.

Again, generalizing, but I know many people in Japan who work in restaurants and are quite happy with their jobs. I would contrast this with the stereotype of the Hollywood start wannabe working in a restaurant, hating the job, and hoping to get the "big break." I realize that I'm on thin ice with stereotypes here, but another indicator is the service quality you receive in Japan without tips.

Chris, what is your theory?

Joi,it seems to me that in Japan people understand that you are what you produce/do. Be it a triple scoop of ice cream at Baskin Robins, personal notes in a school note book, or lining a garbage bin one most do it right.

Your actions, not your material possessions, reflect who you are.

I agree with Joi that people can achieve things in Japan with menial jobs that cannot be achieved in the US. If you walk into a lot of fast food places in the US, the employees almost look pissed off that they have to deal with you. In Japan there is nothing to be ashamed of, having a job is a good thing, and doing a good job is a good thing. Being a part of a group is highly valued and even a fast food place provides a group. People hang out a lot with their coworkers afterwork as well, which is really different from the States. People do not identify with their work place and I think identity and self esteem are very linked.

The question is then, what do American's identify with? Joi seems to think it with money, and I think this is true for some people, especially those in the IT world and people on the coasts. In the heartland, people often say that people in California are really materialistic, and I think it is true to a certain degree, much more status oriented. I think many Americans do not think that way about money and Joi's comments are perhaps more focused on a niche of Americans, especially people in the IT world. Many people get self esteem through being independent, or having an independent identity. Bikers, rock and rollers, feminists, angry white males, whatever. Also, people outside of the big cities and burbs are quite different in their view of things as well. People in the rural South do not sit around saying, "If he is so smart, why doesn't he have money." They identify heavily with religion and politics. You can have high self esteem even if you are poor and have a crap job by becoming radicalized. The right wing have been good at recruiting because they understand this.

Both places have their share of materialistic people who only think about money and brands. I have noticed though that there are very few rich people in Japan who are slobs. People tend to dress their status level in Japan which is not always true in the US. A super rich person in the US might buy a Harley to show they are still a rebel, in Japan they would by a Benz to show they are loaded!

Joi, Momus had an interesting entry about a train driver he noticed once:
Superlegitimacy: passion and ecstasy of a Tokyo train driver

Whereas in the west we tend to feel uneasy relating to a train driver as a train driver, preferring to see him as 'just a guy', 'just passing through on his way to a management position', 'whatever he wants to be', 'a fan of the Redskins' or 'a guitar player', in Japan being 'Mr Train Driver' to the very core of your soul is just fine.

The article is a bit long but very well worth a read. (Persons with aversions to "generalizing" be warned. ;)

Hi Derek (iM)!
"Your actions, not your material possessions, reflect who you are."
Bingo. Living with integrity and respect, everything flows from this.

pepluali, I have to say that your comments are some of the most insightful I've seen in recent memory. Thanks...

What a nice post, Joi. And I agree 100% with what you say about Japanese and US attitude to self esteem and the ties to good work/professional craft association and money respectively. I find myself, so often thinking that this is a really Gokuro-sama moment and yet there are few people to share it with. I think the whole idea of character development through craft and work is a great way to live and reminds me of a bookZen and the Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Design (Arkana S.) The alternative seems to suggest that you would stop working once you are wealthy and rich which seems to be to be somewhat lacking in joy and fullfillment. But hey - I was indoctrinated in the Gokuro-sama culture for quite a while - so what do I know?

This is a very interesting thread with great comments.

I've heard several Americans say to me, "if he's so smart, how come he's poor?" I don't think a Japanese would ever say this. I have repeatedly experienced Americans who tend to measure success on a single axis - money. Not everyone, but it seems to be quite common.

I couldn't agree more with this analysis. Americans desperately want to believe that there is something better flowing through their veins than their neighbor's. There's a kind of serene humility that comes from the notion that we may all be nothing more than worm food in the end, but that kind of humility is extraordinarily rare in this country.

I just wanted to add, Alain de Botton's book 'Status Anxiety' might be a good place to explore the western relationship between wealth and esteem.

I think there is a difference between self-esteem and self-value. The first depends on esteem of others and how you fulfill THEIR expectations - in work, in looks, in everything - to have self-esteem because OTHERS esteem what you are doing.

Whereaus self-value is an intrinsic value of the personality and has nothing to do with what someone is doing, looking, his age etc. Knowing more about consciousness would be very helpful to have self-value. Knowing is the key. Self-value generates automatically of course self-esteem because there is no higher value than a person. A person is souvereign by itself and not by some opinions of others.


In reference to the answer that you advanced for the question of with what things Americans identify self-esteem, I find the opposite to be true in much of the South. From my perspective, many Southerners, especially those of a Conservative, religious bent, associate self-worth with material wealth and the status by which it's accompanied. There's a particularly Protestant tendency to link wealth with piety that finds a strong expression among many of Southern Baptists who I encounter on a regular basis. I do agree, however, that it has a different timbre than the standard urban coastal attitude.

Europeans seem to have much the same respect for process and craft that the Japanese do, and I think that it has much the same effect on how most Western Europeans determine self-esteem. The example of food comes to mind, and the respect for trades such as butchers, bakers, and farmers that involve a large amount of process-oriented knowledge and skill that Europeans generally have.

Disqualifier: I'm not a trained sociologist or expert at all. I'm just an opinionated American who has lived in Japan for 7.5 years. I'm sure there are good books on this topic, but I have not read them.


1 class mobility:
The US has the "Horatio Alger" myth/concept (I've yet to hear of a similar parable here in Japan) as well as the concept of class mobility as a firm partof its cultural understanding. That plus the ideas derived from the puritain work ethic (god rewards individuals who demonstrate industry). The obvious manifestation of this is that someone who is smart or works hard will be rewarded visiblly/monitarily. Class mobility is not as much of a feature of Japanese society in terms of individuals raising their economic status in their lifetimes. Exception exist obviously.

2 classless society:
The Japanese myth of a classless society which assumes that "everyone is middle class" also implies that everyone is rewarded equally for equal effort. In fact, groups are rewarded equally regardless of the effort of the individual. If the individual assumes they are equal to other members of the group, and knows they will be rewarded at the same level as other members of the group there is no perception that additional effort would lead to additional reward. If this is the case then the idea "if he is so smart why isnt he rich" is outside the imagination of an individuals public persona. In another view of this, "gokurosama" may simply be a form of aisatsu for preserving order by recognizing effort (on the same level that one says o-tsukaresama deshita to employees who do nothing but sort paperclips)

3 "self"
Individuals in all societies identify themselves as members of various groups at various levels. All societies have the idea that some thoughts are to be shared publicly and some should not be shared publicly. I'd venture to say that the tatemae/honne conecpts of public expression make it very hard for a westerner to get a real handle on the Japanese concept of "self". I am not trying to put forth any sort of nihonjin-ron argument here. I would not say that the Japanese "self" is in any way special, but I do maintain that the public expression of self is different enough that short term residents/tourists (Momus included) very often mistake tatemae for "self".

4 When dealing with vastly different assumptions of "self" the related issues such as "self-esteem" operate differently as well. The SciAm article pointed out that issues such as this are notoriously difficult to measure in the first place. Measurements of ephemerals may well be much harder if the interview subjects are more likely to give an answer which they believe will be acceptable to the interviewer to begin with.

So to sort of respond to Joi, I'd say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the person who is happy in a job that might make me miserable. After all, dont we all identify our selves as "kaishaiin" (sp? sorry I cant enter kanji on this workstation) whether we are the bucho or the toilet scrubbing lady? And wouldn't it be rude to everyone else if we admited any dis-satisfaction, since by implication that would be criticizing not only everyone else at our level but those above us as well? By contrast, the actor/waiter in Hollywood is expected to be trying to improve their lot in life, if they arent, others might percieve them as being lazy or lacking ambition. In that respect, are we perhaps looking partly at the public self of the waiter? Would their self esteem or sense of self value really change were they to get the big break? Hard to say without knowing the individual.

Anyways, I have not listened to the Akma file yet, hope to find some time for that soon. Maybe I'll retract or change some of what I say here.

Excellent post Chris_B!

I have sometimes wondered if some of the work issues are related to the historical background of Japan and the US.

The US is an immigrant society, people left their old country to find success or to escape persecution. Many immigrants turned their back on what their old countries valued because they were not happy with the status quo. Immigration has been one of the few constants in US history. Measures of immigrant success are difficult. They do not achieve language fluency, in many cases are not accepted fully into society, so they count their money because it is easy measure. Is it really about materialism?

Japan was a fuedal/imperial society until the end of WW2. People accepted their lot in life, and did not make waves. Smile and do a good job and you get to keep your head! This was not very long ago so society may still be heavily influenced by the heavy handedness of fuedal/imperial heirarchy. Is it really about respecting craftsmen?

Does anyone think this explains some of the differences?

thanks lkj. I'd just like to add that I think Japan is still a fundamentally feudal society with a thin coat of democracy on the outside, but that is a whole other topic.

Sorry but this is probably exactly what you posted, but I read on Psychology Today about the same topic and came to a similar idea. However, I like to say that I just take a passive role and just preach about "temperence;" it's probably not beneficial to be so confident to cross the "arrogant bastard" line, not just for one's sake, but for people in his or her immediate milieu.

I don't know what the deal is concerning identity, and this is probably a very obtuse connection I'm about to make, but it has come to my attention, for example, that there are some women who accept subservience as a part of their lives, and it makes them happy. So. I guess in a long-story-put-short, identity and existence are consequent to a pursuit of happiness.

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