The Diversity of Cultural Norms in America and Japan

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When examining the intricate fabric of society, the concept of culture plays a pivotal role. Culture encompasses a wide spectrum of elements, including language, beliefs, values, and norms. Sociologists have long been intrigued by the study of culture, with a particular focus on societal norms. Norms are the agreed-upon expectations and rules that guide individuals within a culture in various situations. This essay delves into the exploration of cultural norms, categorizing them into four types: folkways, mores, taboos, and laws. It is essential to recognize that these norms can vary significantly across different regions and societies.

To illustrate this variation, we will compare the norms in the United States and Japan, highlighting the diversity that exists in how societies prescribe behavior.

Folkways: Unwritten Rules of Social Conduct

Folkways constitute one category of cultural norms, representing standards of behavior that are socially approved but not necessarily morally significant. In essence, folkways are the unwritten conventions or customs that shape everyday interactions within a society.

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To illustrate the divergence of folkways between the United States and Japan, let us examine the practice of exchanging business cards.

In Japan, the exchange of business cards, known as meishi, holds immense cultural significance. When two individuals meet, it is customary to exchange meishi while standing up. This ritual is far more than a simple exchange of contact information; it is a symbol of trust and respect that underpins the forthcoming interaction. Upon receiving a meishi, it is expected that one carefully examines the details on the card and even asks questions about the information, demonstrating genuine interest.

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Placing the card in a wallet is considered disrespectful, as the meishi reflects the individual's occupation and identity. Instead, it should be stored in a shirt pocket or kept in plain view during the meeting, signifying respect for the person and their role in the interaction.

In contrast, the practice of exchanging business cards in the United States follows a different set of norms. Business cards are typically distributed when a certain level of trust has been established or after a business transaction has occurred. The significance of this exchange lies more in its practical utility than in its symbolism of trust and respect.

Another example of a folkway that demonstrates cultural divergence is the act of closing one's eyes during a meeting. In Japan, closing one's eyes while a presenter is speaking signifies concentration and attentiveness to the information being presented. In this context, it is a culturally accepted behavior, free from any negative connotations. Conversely, in the United States, closing one's eyes during a meeting is often seen as rude, indicating boredom or disinterest. These differing interpretations of a simple action highlight how folkways can vary dramatically between cultures.

Mores: Morally Significant Norms

Mores represent another category of cultural norms, encompassing behaviors that carry moral significance. These norms are deeply ingrained in a society's values and principles and are regarded with a higher level of seriousness than folkways. While folkways are often situational and context-dependent, mores are enduring and shape the moral fabric of a culture. An example that distinguishes the mores of the United States and Japan is the concept of punctuality.

In Japan, punctuality is not merely a virtue; it is an absolute expectation. Arriving even a few minutes late for an appointment or meeting is considered a breach of trust and a sign of disrespect. This cultural norm reflects the Japanese commitment to precision, respect for others' time, and the importance of maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships.

Conversely, in the United States, while punctuality is generally valued, there is more flexibility in the interpretation of time. A slight delay in arriving for a meeting is often tolerated, with individuals offering explanations or apologies. This illustrates that while both cultures appreciate punctuality, the level of rigidity and consequences for deviations from this norm differ significantly.

Taboos: The Forbidden Norms

Taboos are perhaps the most stringent category of cultural norms, representing behaviors that are strictly prohibited within a society. These norms are deeply ingrained and evoke strong reactions when violated. One notable example of a taboo that varies between the United States and Japan is the consumption of certain foods.

In Japan, the consumption of certain animals, such as whales and dolphins, is considered a cultural taboo due to their significance in the country's history and mythology. Deviating from this norm is met with condemnation and outrage, as it challenges the deeply held beliefs and values associated with these creatures. Such taboos serve to reinforce the cultural identity and environmental ethics of Japan.

In contrast, the United States does not have such explicit taboos regarding food consumption. While there are cultural preferences and dietary restrictions, they are generally less rigid and more diverse than those found in Japan. This difference reflects the distinct cultural histories and beliefs that shape the culinary norms of each country.

Laws: Formal Regulations of Society

Laws represent the formal body of rules enacted by the state, backed by the power of the state itself. These norms are universally binding and carry legal consequences for violations. While laws are intended to provide a framework for social order and justice, their interpretation and enforcement can vary significantly between countries. One area where this divergence is evident is in pedestrian behavior and road safety.

In Japan, adherence to traffic laws is a matter of societal duty and order. Crossing the street, for example, requires individuals to wait patiently until the signal indicates it is safe to do so. These laws are not only formal but are also closely observed and respected by the majority of the population. This high level of adherence contributes to the efficiency and safety of Japanese roadways.

Conversely, the United States also has traffic laws in place, but the level of compliance varies. It is not uncommon to witness individuals jaywalking or crossing streets against traffic signals. This variance in behavior demonstrates that while laws are formal and exist in both countries, the cultural norms surrounding their enforcement and observance can differ significantly.

The Complexity of Cultural Norms

It is essential to acknowledge that social norms are perceived and interpreted differently across the world. What may be considered strange or unconventional in one society is entirely normal in another. This diversity of norms highlights the richness of human cultures and the complexity of human interactions.

When conducting sociological research, it is imperative to recognize that each society adheres to its unique set of norms, which may differ significantly from one's own. Understanding and respecting these norms is essential for effective cross-cultural communication and cooperation. By appreciating the diversity of cultural norms, we can foster greater tolerance and empathy in our increasingly interconnected global society.


In conclusion, the study of cultural norms provides valuable insights into the intricacies of human societies. Norms, whether folkways, mores, taboos, or laws, play a fundamental role in shaping behavior and interactions within a culture. This essay has explored the diverse norms that exist in the United States and Japan, emphasizing how societal expectations can vary dramatically between cultures.

Through examining these cultural differences, we gain a deeper understanding of the significance of certain behaviors and the cultural values that underpin them. Moreover, it reminds us of the importance of respecting and appreciating diverse cultural norms when engaging with individuals from different backgrounds.

Ultimately, the diversity of cultural norms enriches our global tapestry, offering us a window into the multifaceted nature of human societies and the fascinating ways in which they navigate the complexities of social interaction.

Updated: Oct 31, 2023
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The Diversity of Cultural Norms in America and Japan. (2016, Aug 05). Retrieved from

The Diversity of Cultural Norms in America and Japan essay
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