Contrast enables understanding. That’s why cross-cultural studies and comparative research can be so instructive, helping to trigger critical self-reflection. A 1992 article on the applicability of Western family therapy models to Japanese families might, at first glance, seem an unlikely candidate for sparking that critical self-reflection. But the authors get underneath concepts in a very vivid, tangible way. They argue that Western culture emphasizes separateness over connectedness. That means that problems tend to be defined in terms of individuals’ dependency and inability to function independently. What does this have to do with adolescence? Well, in Western cultures, the main ‘task’ of adolescence is conceptualized as independence--as establishing your own identity and transitioning away from the family unit and towards economic self-sustainability. As the authors note, “Problem solving in Britain is often directed toward increasing separation. Thus, independence and differentiation are the goals to be facilitated...In Japan, the ‘right’ balance of separateness/connectedness is defined much more toward the connected side of the continuum...To achieve connectedness in the family system, notions like mutual support, sensitivity to others, and maintenance of group harmony become important (p.7).”
The authors illustrate their points with a series of case-studies. One details a 14-year old girl who refused to attend school for more than a year, in part, because she saw herself as protecting her mother from her father’s nagging and that of her fathers’ family (whom they lived next door to). While British therapists might deem ‘individuation’ as the primary goal and the marital relationship as the focal point, Japanese therapists would take the cross-generational and spousal relationships of equal importance and work towards re-calibrating the entire set of relationships (p.10). While the methods and techniques of family therapy have undoubtedly moved on since the article was written, the case-studies and analysis are useful in helping us to question some of our most basic assumptions and get underneath concepts like independence and autonomy which are rife in the adolescent literature.
Source: Tamura, Takeshi and Annie Lau. 1992. “Connectedness versus separateness: Applicability of family therapy to Japanese families.” Fam Proc 31: 319-340.