I watched the COVID-19 pandemic unfurl from Tokyo, where my family lives.

In Japan, a strong cultural imperative compels individuals to be sensitive to the needs of others. This requires complying with rules that can be inconvenient, and even nonsensical, but are understood to be for the common good.

This understanding manifested itself through COVID. Though not legally required, nearly everyone on the streets donned masks. In the first months, people uncomplainingly followed government requests to limit travel and stay home. Playgrounds were taped off and public institutions were closed. Though the experience has been just as disappointing and challenging as elsewhere, a sense of mutual cooperation continues to prevail. This demonstrates a fundamental difference in American and Japanese ideas of freedom.

Japanese culture is rooted in a collectivist orientation, as are cultures in most countries with rice-farming pasts. Rice farming requires the sharing of water resources. In this context, the greatest value is placed on maintaining harmonious relationships. If you act selfishly and upset your neighbors, your water supply and your livelihood can be quickly cut off.

From children’s earliest years, Japanese preschools and kindergartens teach the importance of cooperation and to not cause bother to others. Children learn to clean up after themselves and each other, cleaning schools and helping serve and clean up lunch. The value of being useful to others is nurtured. Every meal (even when eaten alone) starts with the phrase itadakimasu, or “I am receiving.”

This is not to present Japan as a utopian fantasy. Japanese society has problems, tensions, and inequalities. Yet, daily life in Japan offers freedoms that can only be found in a society that places a high importance on the group as well as the individual. It is the “freedom from”: from the fear of being taken advantage of, of random hostility in the checkout line, of danger when walking alone at night or in an unfamiliar neighborhood. In the context of COVID, that foundational “freedom from” results in the “freedom to” relax and feel secure, knowing that others are wearing their masks properly and showing consideration to your safety as well as their own. In the United States, on the other hand, we start with a “freedom to” do as we like.

European settlers came to America for freedom from rigid economic, societal, political, class, and religious structures. American immigrants came for the freedom to do or be what we want as individuals. Certainly, these freedoms existed only in principle for vast swathes of the population and continue to be a work-inprogress. Yet the promise of freedom continues to inspire and motivate those who choose to immigrate and those who strive to improve the U.S. to become a nation whose reality is aligned with its founding principles.

Ongoing since the earliest days of the republic has been a continuous balancing of individual rights versus collective rights. In times of collective crisis, like the Great Depression or World War II, collective rights have sometimes taken precedence, if only temporarily. In a nation where rugged individualism is venerated, however, individual rights eventually take precedence. This passion for individual rights shows up in debates over gun control, education, conservation, and health care.

The pandemic has made this issue ever more relevant and urgent. In nearly every other country, citizens understood that masking and staying home were public-health necessities. Yet across much of the U.S., individuals refused to comply with mask mandates or get vaccinated, claiming to be standing up against government “tyranny” in the name of individual freedom.

But freedom is not an absolute. It is an abstract concept whose meaning depends on circumstance and cultural context. As Graham Mooney writes in The Atlantic, “Freedom, after all, is a flexible concept, and Americans’ freedoms surely include the opportunity to minimize the collective risk of random viral death.”

To function effectively within Japanese society, one must be sensitive to what others want, need, and feel, so one is required to pick up on nonverbal cues, creating an orientation toward the other that underpins Japanese social relationships. Those who get along well with others are adept at “reading the air.” Individuals are encouraged to practice self-restraint and avoid imposing on others. In the extraordinary level of service at restaurants, hotels, and even the convenience store, we can see this hypersensitivity to the needs and feelings of others.

The past year has stretched my understanding of freedom. If each of us places the rights of others on par with our own freedom as individuals, we all benefit. We are all freer.

Elstrom ’90 is the founder of Somi Insights, a Tokyo-based brand insights strategy agency.

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