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East Asia Child Science Exchange Program 5: Cultural Comparison between Japan and China Regarding Behavior Related to Possession - When do children become "Chinese"?

<Case 1>
Person C visited the room of Person D. In this room, there was a book of Person E, who was a roommate of Person D. Person E had gone out and was not in the room. Person C wanted to read this book and asked Person D "Would you lend me this book?" Person D said "OK" and Person C took the book home.

<Case 2>
At a buffet party, Person F got up from his seat, leaving his bag on a chair. When Person F returned, the bag was opened and someone had put a sweater in it. The sweater belonged to Person G. Looking for a place to put the sweater, Person G had put it in Person F' s bag.

I wonder if you feel something wrong with the interaction in these cases. Or do you feel these cases are nothing unusual because they happen often?

When I tell these stories in various settings in Japan, the reaction of the audiences is usually surprise or a strong sense of discomfort. I conducted a simple survey to prove this reaction as data (Yamamoto, Pian, Kominato & Watanabe, 2008). The subjects were students of Waseda University and the China University of Political Science and Law. The cases mentioned above were shown by PowerPoint during a class, and the questionnaire was distributed. The second question on the questionnaire asked the subjects to evaluate their impression of the person who was responsible for the behavior in question. The 25 responses included: "The person is: nice, reliable, innocent, selfish, easy to get along with, or has no regard for others." The result showed something more distinctive than we expected.

There are statistical differences between Japan and China in the mean value of the evaluation of their impression of the person. When interpreting responses in which evaluation of Japanese and Chinese students turned out to be opposite, Japanese students generally interpreted the person's behavior as "insensitive, odd, in violation of the privacy of others, and not nice." In addition, Person D was also perceived as "selfish and slightly innocent"; and Person G was also seen as "unreliable."

On the other hand, among Chinese students, the person in both cases was likely to be evaluated as "normal, gentle, and kind." In addition, Person D was also perceived as "assertive and slightly selfish," and Person G was also seen as "easy to get along with." Such evaluation was completely opposite to that of the Japanese students

When I introduce this data in class in Japan, the audience is usually very surprised. Most Japanese agree that the person in the cases mentioned above is perceived as unilateral and selfish. From a Japanese perspective, Chinese do not appear to differentiate between things they own and things that belong to others and, as a result, privacy seems to be invaded unjustly and unilaterally.

However, a lot of people in China will be surprised, thinking that the Japanese evaluation is based on such an outrageous perspective. As for them, they feel a sense of togetherness with others and they act as freely as they like. Such behavior indicates a relationship of trust and emotional ties. In other words, Japanese relationships without such behavior are perceived as cold.

From the viewpoint of developmental psychology, when is such difference between Japanese and Chinese college students in the way of building personal relationships generated?

In 1991, I first started conducting a survey and the interviews in Japan on children's pocket money from the perspective of developmental psychology (Yamamoto, 1992). Then, I started conducting a comparative study between Japan and China with my friend who is Chinese-Korean (Yamamoto & Pian, 1996). The study grew into the study on pocket money in Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam (Yamamoto,T. & Takahashi,N., 2007 , ; Yamamoto, Takahashi, Sato, Takeo, Oh and Pian., in press). Since the beginning of the comparative study between Japan and China, one very interesting issue and constant focus has been "children's buying things for others (treating)".

The study indicated that the people who raise and educate children showed strong wariness of children's buying things for others. How about the perception of children, then? When children start receiving pocket money sometime between early elementary school and junior high school, they are apt to go to a candy store with their friends and share what they have bought or buy things for them. This behavior is often viewed as negative by parents and school teachers, and children themselves become circumspect. The following interview shows such Japanese children's perspectives on buying things for others (Yamamoto & Pian, 2001).

<Case 3>
Japanese girl, Second-year junior high school student

Interviewer: So, do you think it is OK to treat your friends to a snack when you feel like it?
Girl: Yes.
I: You don't do it often though.
G: Well, no, because I guess my friends feel uncomfortable if I do it out of the blue.
I: Are you saying that buying things for your friends makes them feel uncomfortable?
G: Yes, because I feel bad if my friends buy me things.

According to the interview with elementary school children, many of them are prohibited from spending money at a candy store or from buying snacks with their pocket money (Yamamoto, 1992). However, junior high school students are not so restricted in using their pocket money and start feeling that they can basically buy whatever they want. Nevertheless, they do not have much experience buying things for others because they think buying things for others creates a burdensome obligation for others. The following interview with a second-year high school girl also confirms this "burdensome obligation."

<Case 4>
Japanese girl, Second-year high school student

Interviewer: Why are you reluctant to buy food for your friends at McDonalds or Mos Burger?
Girl: Why? Well, if my friend buys me something, I feel like I have to give something back to her. It does not have to happen if we do not buy things for each other in the first place.
I: That means, you don't think your friend feels obligated if you buy her just a little something, such as a glass of juice?
G: Yes, Yes.
I: And you are saying that you think your friend feels a burden of obligation if you buy her a meal at McDonalds or Mos Burger?
G: Yes, I think so.

In this way, in the pursuit of a relationship that does not carry a burdensome mutual obligation, splitting the bill becomes one answer. In addition, both parents and children often mention that buying things for others leads to the hierarchical relationship among friends. In fact, the Japanese concept of buying things for others is usually based on a hierarchical relationship such as that between a boss and subordinate. Therefore, once you allow someone to buy you things, it may mean you become the person's subordinate. As a conclusion, not buying things for others but splitting the bill is a very important concept in keeping the relationship equal. Actually, the Japanese noun "ogori," which means "treating," comes from the Japanese verb "ogoru" which means "to be arrogant," suggesting that the attitude involved in "treating" is rude or superior and absent of humility.

How about the case of Chinese children then? Here is an example of Chinese-Korean children. Case 5 shows how the children typically think about buying things for others.

<Case 5>
Chinese-Korean girl, third-year elementary school student

Interviewer: Is it good or bad to buy a toy for your friend?
Girl: It is not good.
I: How about buying food for your friend?
G: It is good.
I: How about buying a present for your friend?
G: It is good.
I: How about buying snacks for your friend?
G: It is good.
I: Why do you think it is all OK except buying a toy for your friend?
G: Because now is the time for us to study. Giving a toy to my friend will interfere with studying.
I: Then, why do you think it is OK to buy the other things for your friend?
G: Because I care for others.

Children have a strong sense that they buy things because they care for others. We can see that such behavior is considered similar to other altruistic behaviors. Next is the example of how Chinese children react to the idea of splitting the bill, which most Japanese parents and children prefer.

<Case 6>
Chinese-Korean boy, Second-year high school student

Interviewer: What do you think about the idea that your pocket money is meant to be spent on yourself and you should not buy things for others?
Boy: I think it is wrong.
I: Why?
B: Buying things for a friend bridges the distance between you and the friend.
I: What about the idea that you should not buy things for your friend because the friend might take it as a burdensome obligation?
B: I don't agree because I'm the one who spends the money, not my friend. I don't expect my friend to buy me things in return either, if that is what he worries about.

In Japan, pocket money is given to children so that they can buy whatever they need themselves. This idea is premised on the ethical notion that you should be responsible for yourself and not bother others.

However, the boy in Case 6 completely rejects this view of pocket money. Buying things for a friend is one factor that helps him to make, maintain, and develop a closer relationship with the friend. For the boy, this is obviously one purpose of pocket money. Therefore, it is illogical for him to go against this purpose. As for the idea that "buying things for others may cause them feel a burdensome obligation," he seemed to have difficulty in understanding why it would happen in the first place and what the meaning of the question was. In contrast with the Japanese word "ogori," the Chinese term for "treating, "qing-ke," originally means "playing host" and connotes a hospitable attitude.

In this way, we can see that Chinese children, even at the stage of elementary school, do not differentiate between the way they use their money and money of others. Rather, they seem to find great value in actively spend their pocket money on their friends. Now, when does such a Chinese-like relationship, which does not differentiate between themselves and others, start to be established in the process of development?

According to my observations at a Japanese day-care center in Kyoto and Chinese day-care centers in Beijing, children after the age of 1.5 years start seeking others' permission to get things by saying "Please lend it to me" or "Please give it to me". In addition to that, the final distribution of their possessions seems to be based on egalitarian rule rather than "jungle law" like dominance hierarchy (Yamamoto, 1991,1997; Figure 1).

Dominance Matrix-based allocation of resources by preschool school (Yamamoto, 1991)

Figure 1: Non-"jungle law" ? based allocation of resources by preschool children
(18 months ? 30 months old class in Japan)

There is no difference between Japanese and Chinese children in this regard. However, when we focus on the ratio, there is a statistical difference at the age of two (Yamamoto, 1997). Japanese children at the age of two tend to confirm others' intentions when trying to get things from others 30% of the time. However, the rate is less than 20% for Chinese children. At the age of four, two-thirds of Japanese children indicate this behavior, while only one-third of Chinese children do so. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Start of negotiating behavior
Differences in age and culture

Chinese children freely use things belonging to others without asking.

It is clear that these differences correspond very well to other various differences between Japan and China that we have seen in the past. From the age of two, Chinese children consistently tend to use each other's things freely, while Japanese children are likely to use things belonging to others after asking permission or even start hesitating to use others' resources. (Regarding the reasons for the development of cultural differences at the age of two, please also refer to Yamamoto's discussion (Yamamoto: 1997, 2000), which analyzes the development of inter-subjective social cognition by age. The developmental change leads to the formation of a basic unit of human social interaction, Expanded Mediational Structure (E.M.S) around 3 years of age; see Yamamoto & Takahashi, 2007

Is it possible for us to pave the way for mutual understanding by overcoming the difficulty in understanding each other's feelings? We, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese researchers, are now attempting to conduct some practical studies on "the formation of communication with the people who follow different unstated rules of proper behavior", an issue in which we are interested. These studies will be discussed in detail at another time. Nevertheless, it is necessary to become aware of the culture underlying these unstated rules; to relativize one's own position by understanding others' perspectives through dialogue; and to find ways to reestablish relationships among different people. At the same time, we need to build specific relationship with others in a positive way. The absence of any one of these elements will make it difficult to deepen mutual understanding among different cultures. Ongoing interactive dialogical studies from such perspectives are essential to understanding people raised in different cultural backgrounds as well as to exploring better relationships with people with different cultures.


Yamamoto, T.1991. Establishment of the principle of "respect for occupancy" and its function in early children's group: On the problems of the ontogeny of possession. Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology 39:122-132 (Japanese)

Yamamoto,T. 1992 Primary school students and their pocket money. Hattatu 51:68-76. Kyoto: Minerva Shobo (Japanese)

Yamamoto, T. 1997. Development of possessive behavior and its cognitive structure in early childhood; a cross cultural study between Japanese and Chinese children. Doctor Thesis, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China. (Chinese)

Yamamoto, T. 2000. Developmental process of forming play groups in early childhood: Autonomous group and tripolar structure in two- and three- year old toddlers. In Okamoto, N., and Asao, T., (eds.) Psychology of Age. 103-142. Kyoto: Minerva Shobo (Japanese)

Yamamoto, T. & Pian, C. 1996. The development of primary school students' concept of possession. Psychological Development and Education 12:8-13. (Chinese)

Yamamoto, T. and Pian, C. 2001. Comparative study of children's life-world and the structure of human relationships revealed by their pocket money: Data from Korean and Han in Chilin, Han in Shanghai, and Japanese in Nara. In Sogon, S. (ed.), Culture specific parenting style and development of children's emotion regulation: Comparison between Japan and China. Report for Grant in Aid of Ministry of Science and Education , 1998-2001. (Japanese)

Yamamoto, T., Pian, C., Kominato, M. & Watanabe, T. 2008 Psychology of Law on Cultural Consciousness of Possession: a comparative study between Japanese and Chinese college students. Paper for the 9th. Annual Conference of Japanese Society of Law and Psychology. (Japanese)

Yamamoto, T & Takahashi, N. 2007, Money as a cultural tool mediating personal relationships: Child development of exchange and possession. In J. Valsiner & A. Rosa (eds.) Cambridge Handbook of Socio-Cultural Psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yamamoto, T., Takahashi, N., Sato, T., Takeo, K., Oh, S. and Pian. C., in press, How can we study interactions mediated by money as a cultural tool: From the perspectives of "Cultural Psychology of Differences" as a dialogical method, Valsiner, J. (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Cultural Psychology, N.Y. Oxford University Press.

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