The self: Atomistic or relational?

April 27, 2007 at 4:23 pm Leave a comment

burgerking.gifIt’s no secret that Western society in general and American society in particular are strongly individualistic. The idea creeps up everywhere: Burger King tells us to “have it your way”; pro-choice advocates maintain that “it’s my body and my choice”; the rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence on which America was founded is all about personal freedom and personal rights.

But not all societies think about human beings in such an individualistic way. Whereas Westerners have a very atomistic concept of the self, the Japanese, for example, have a much more relational understanding of human beings.

Yesterday in my Japanese Philosophy class, we read an essay by the Japanese philosopher Watsuji Tetsuro, who explained the difference between the two society’s ways of thinking just through an analysis of language. Check it out, and determine which mindset is better:

The Western atomistic concept of self

First, consider the etymology of the English word “individual.” The word comes from two Latin words: in (not) + individuus (divisible). The emphasis here is on the human being as a complete, indivisible unit.

In the Western conception, then, the essence of the human being is the individual, apart from other people. If you were going to draw a picture representing the Western atomistic way of thinking, it might look like this, with every person an independent “atom”:


Ningen: It’s all about betweenness

In contrast, the Japanese word for “human being” is ningen, and it’s actually made up of two characters:


Use your imagination a little bit, and you can see that the first character is a sort of stylized representation of a human form. This first character means “man.”

The second character is a representation of the swinging doors of a gate, along with an object (it’s actually supposed to be the sun) in between. Because the sun is between the doors of the gate, this second character represents “betweenness.”

When these two characters are put together to form the Japanese word for “human being,” the literal meaning is “the relation between persons.” In other words, the very term for “human being” in Japanese involves an understanding of the human being as something in relations of “betweeness” with other people.

If you were to draw a picture of the Japanese way of thinking, it might look more like this:


To sum things up, in the West, “me” and “you” are distinct people; for the Japanese, “you” are part of what makes up “me.”

Think of John Donne’s meditation:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

What do you think of the Western/Japanese distinction on concepts of the self and human identity? What is the biblical view of the self—-individualistic or relational?


Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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