Individuality is more than just writing kanji slightly differently from each other.
It’s commonly believed that Western cultures tend to value the individual, whereas Eastern cultures tend to value to the group. While there are of course exceptions to that generalization, especially when it comes to people’s personal beliefs, it’s still interesting to see the influences these cultural differences can have.
A message recently tweeted by Japanese Twitter user @harudajin does an excellent job of encapsulating the difference. In it, the Twitter user talks about a lesson their elementary school teacher taught them about “individuality” and how it has stuck with them all the way to today. Here’s the translation:
My elementary school teacher told us this and I’ve never forgotten it: “If I tell everyone in the class to write the kanji for ‘sunny’ （晴）, then each and every one of you is going to write it a little bit differently from each other. That’s what ‘individuality’ is. But, if I tell everyone to write the kanji for ‘sunny,’ and you write the kanji for ‘rainy’ （雨） instead, you might think you’re being cool by being different from everyone, but that’s not what ‘individuality’ is.”
原田 (@harudajin) November 28, 2015
That’s some pretty deep talk right there, but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. Is the teacher saying that “individuality” is everybody working together but in their own slightly different way? Or, more pessimistically, everybody doing the same thing but slightly differently?
And then what about the kid who writes “rainy” instead of “sunny?” Is the teacher saying that working together with others is a prerequisite for “individuality?” Or are they simply trying to teach the young kids that “individuality” doesn’t necessarily mean “being a single, lone individual?” I’m so confused!
There has to be a better explanation. Let’s see what Japanese netizens had to say:
“Sounds good to me. Feels like common sense.”
“Writing ‘rainy’ is a kind of individuality, just not one that’s praised in school.”
“The teacher is just doing their job of training kids to stay in line.”
“But what if you can’t write kanji at all?”
“Isn’t history written by those who ask why they have to write ‘sunny’ in the first place?”
Well, I didn’t get any enlightenment from those comments, but I think another netizen summed it up very well:
“You guys are missing the point. The teacher is saying that individuality isn’t about making a conscious decision to go and do something completely different, instead it’s how different people each go about doing the same things in their own slightly different way without even realizing it. Even if two people tried to write the exact same kanji, they couldn’t. And if two people tried to live the exact same life, they couldn’t. That’s what individuality is.”
I like that interpretation the best. It shows that the teacher wasn’t trying to force conformity on the kids, but rather explain that they should embrace their own individual differences and not feel like they need to go crazy and do something completely different just to be an “individual.”
Simple, elegant, and probably way over the heads of many of the elementary school students. But it stuck with at least one of them, so that has to be a success!