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[SDGs] Independent self vs. the interdependent self for Sustainability




I wrote a blog about the book "Education in Japan is not bad", which was great, and I connected with someone from the university who had read my blog. Just a month ago, I had a chance to talk to the author. It was an eye-opening hour, and he gave me a lot of additional information beyond what was in the book.


One of the things that is relevant to sustainability is the independent self and the interdependent self. The independent self occurs where there is an individualistic culture, where the boundaries between oneself and others and the surrounding environment are clear, and where one pursues one's own goals when doing a task. Interdependent self occurs in collectivist cultures, where the boundaries between oneself and others and their surroundings are unclear, and one's self changes according to the context. This self pursues a common goal. The independent self is found in western countries such as Europe and the United States, while the interdependent self is found in other parts of the world, or so I have experienced.


I was born and raised in Japan, where cooperation is expected, and after cycling around Australia, I went abroad for universities and have worked in Western organisations ever since. For the last ten years, I have been living in Indonesia, where cooperation is required again. Living in western culture from Japan and in an assertive environment without a hidden string was stimulating. I was young so that I was still comfortable competing with others. I was in the European Commission delegation and the Swedish delegation, and I spoke to ASEAN and Japan representatives. Many Asian people, especially Japanese people, don't speak up very much in meetings, and there were a few people who would come up to me after the session and tell me off. I thought, "Why don't they just talk in the meeting?" But, I understood that people in Japan, who are expected to be cooperative and are not used to international meetings, would be like that.


Apple Inc., the company that makes the iPhone, never releases information about new products before the launch. It is the company culture to think differently. When the founder of Dyson, the British company that made cyclone hoovers and bladeless fans, was interviewed and pointed out that Dyson doesn't cooperate with other companies, he said that if someone solves any problem, he would want it to be Dyson. A few days ago, a Japanese consultant expressed her concern that a Japanese company is only thinking about their own growth and not the industry as a whole. It's the difference between competing with an independent self and growing together with an interdependent self.


At the moment, business seems to be doing better when our independent selves are competing with. But what happens when the world starts to think that sustainability has to be addressed? If we think of business in terms of value chains rather than supply chains, we find many problems that one company cannot solve alone. This is why sustainability and the SDGs require cooperation between organisations. People with an interdependent self are good at working with others and are considerate of their surroundings and others.







Hikaru Komatsu, Jeremy RappleyeRearticulating PISA, Globalisation, Societies and Education34(Feb 2021): 1–14.


According to Komatsu, author of the book "Education in Japan is not bad", countries with high levels of interdependent selves have lower economic inequality, less drug use, less teenage pregnancy and generally less crime. They also have a smaller environmental impact in terms of their ecological footprint. I think there is a Western trend to rethink the interdependent self as a reaction to over-selfishness. At the same time, in Asian countries, there is a trend towards more assertive education. When these two trends come together, the level of cooperation will be the same worldwide, and there will not be people who are so independent and self-reliant that they will be able to outperform others. This may lead to more solutions to social and environmental problems as well as economic ones.



Finally, what first caught your eye when you saw this picture?

Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81 5, 922-34 .



If your eyes fell on the fish and you thought it was a picture of a fish, then you are a person with a strong independent self. People with an interdependent self are more observant of their surroundings.

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