What We Can Learn from Japan About Team Flow

Japanese Temple
In this essay, Dyske thoughtfully explores how Japanese collectivist culture values teamwork and group flow over individualism and leadership. He further examines how the pursuit of team flow amplifies a sense of belonging and purpose in their business culture.

Western cultures tend toward individualism, while Eastern cultures embrace collectivism. When Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai was introduced to the West, Hollywood filmmakers saw the possibility of teamwork instead of leadership as the central theme of an exciting story. There was, in fact, a leader in Seven Samurai, but his role was more like that of a facilitator than a leader. The pyramid was inverted. What shined in the film were the skills and personalities of the individual samurai.

When it comes to teamwork, there is much to be learned from collectivist cultures, but before we dive into it, I want to step back and view the discussion from a broader perspective. This isn’t about how great Japan is. The fetishization of Japan already happened in the 1980s, when American automakers struggled to catch up with their Japanese counterparts. Since then, Japan’s economy has stagnated, mainly because of the lack of leadership. “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” a popular Japanese proverb, inhibits creativity and critical thinking; too many are too comfortable with being followers.

In America, there is an unspoken, uncritical acceptance of leadership as the most desirable quality in a person. All elite colleges select candidates for their leadership qualities. Most Hollywood films have lone heroes who save the entire community or the planet. Kids grow up aspiring to be superheroes.

Team Flow Insights from Japanese Media

Instead of having to imagine it for yourself, here are some examples of Japanese collectivist ideology you could watch on Netflix. (Spoiler alert)

Let’s Get Divorced is a rom-com in which the husband, Taishi, is a politician, and the wife, Yui, is a successful actress. Taishi’s father was also a politician, and the whole family is dedicated to campaigning for Taishi’s reelection, but he keeps getting caught having affairs. He is good at public speaking, but otherwise, he has no leadership qualities. In the end, they lose. Taishi and Yui get divorced. Everyone pursues a separate path but fondly recalls the campaign and how fun it was.

There is no leader in this show. It’s not even a story of success or victory, as they lose the election and get divorced. So, what is the redeeming quality for the Japanese audience? In short, it is an experience of team flow. It satisfies the desire to belong to a team dedicated to a shared goal and be part of that fun and excitement. You can see the same theme in Tiger And Dragon and Story of My Family!!! The key ingredient that makes these shows work is being present, together, experiencing a sense of team flow, an almost religious feeling of being part of something greater than the sum of its parts. When it happens, dare I say, it’s greater than sex?

Wha Is Team Flow?

By now, I assume everyone is familiar with the concept of “flow” within an individual, but it also happens at a collective level. After all, within each of us are different aspects of our personality working together as a team. For instance, there is a creative person who comes up with an idea, an analytical person who evaluates it, a methodical person who executes it, and an empathetic person who gets help from others. If you are missing the perspectives and skills of these different personas within yourself, you are not likely to achieve your goal on your own. Team flow is simply an external, independent version of what goes on within each of us. 

When we are in a state of flow, we forget about time. It’s the closest thing to eternity we can feel. At the individual level, you are in this heaven alone. At the collective level, you are with your friends or colleagues. This is the elusive feeling Japanese people are after. When you identify yourself with a group, you feel fearless. For instance, when you interview a powerful person personally (i.e. as “John Doe”), you might feel insecure, but if you represent the “New York Times,” suddenly your insecurity vanishes even if nothing materially changes. 

Being an indispensable part of a team solidifies your sense of purpose, and you become existentially more secure. Best of all, you will have fun. We humans are social creatures. Even if we have fun alone, we can’t help but share the story. (Think of the countless people living “off the grid” in remote places alone but feel compelled to share the experience on social media.) Fun is ultimately a social experience.

However, taken to the extreme, this can mean a collective psychosis, like a religious cult. It is perhaps what occurred in Japan during WWII—team flow without critical thinking. (For a vivid illustration of the struggles a Japanese person would have faced for thinking independently during WWII, watch Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film, Wife of a Spy.) But as it is experienced under more normal circumstances, absent the horrors of war and in pursuit of more humane objectives, the same unifying power is clearly positive. While Americans may seem preoccupied with their leaders and the art of leadership, they can benefit from learning more about the fulfillment and joy of experiencing team flow.

Different Views on Leadership, Leaders, and Self

The problem with drilling the virtue of leadership into students, from a Japanese perspective, is that most will fail. It’s a mathematical certainty since, by definition, only a small percentage can become leaders. We need far more followers than leaders to succeed. If a team consists of a bunch of wannabe leaders, there will be too many chefs in the kitchen, leading to distractions, disagreements, negativity, and distrust.

The overemphasis on leadership is also compounded by the Western notion of unchanging self. Someone who changes his behavior based on context is perceived negatively as cunning, spineless, or phony. In a paper entitled Culture and Self-Perception in Japan and the United States, Steven D. Cousins shares a result of his study where he asked Japanese and American students to answer the question, “Who am I?” The Japanese students had difficulty answering when no social context was specified, providing awkward-sounding answers like, “I am 167 cm tall” or “I am hoping to get a driver’s license.” In contrast, Americans typically provide an abstract quality they believe to be unchanging, like “I’m confident.” However, when the question is framed in a specific context, like “Who am I at work?” Japanese students would answer as Americans would.

Other researchers have also suggested that Japanese have “a tendency not to describe the self by abstracting features of one’s behavior across situations.” The concept of self in Japan is not an abstract, immutable quality independent of social contexts but is a social entity inexplicably tied to others. Cousins says: “This is well reflected in the Japanese word for self, jibun (自分), originally meaning ‘one’s share,’ or by implication, the share of a given context that is oneself.”

Japanese people are thus free to change themselves as social contexts shift. They do not have to feel like there is something wrong with them. This difference affects how effectively they can work in a team. For instance, many Americans believe they are natural leaders, so if they have to work as followers, they may feel they are not being true to themselves. They have to rationalize it as a compromise or a temporary role. They cannot enjoy working as a team member wholeheartedly. If they could stop assuming there is a unitary immutable self, they could enjoy being team members today but be leaders tomorrow.

In Conclusion

America thrives as a leader in many fields but relies on superior teamwork in the East for production, which may be fine for the top one-percenters who managed to become leaders but is demoralizing or outright depressing for the rest. Team flow by itself can be an ikigai, raison d’etre, or reason to live, not a stepping stone to achieve a goal or become a leader. It makes life, the path or process, enjoyable. In America, there should be more emphasis on team flow; when members work passionately towards a shared goal in a state of team flow, leaders become less important.

About the Author: Dyske was born and raised in Japan and moved to New York to study art in college. In his 20s, he worked for a few Japanese investment banks and a British one before starting his own interactive agency. He lives in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and enjoys writing philosophical essays and crawling Queens for ethnic restaurants.

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