Last month, in the pages of an academic journal, British and Japanese psychologists posed an intriguing question: Is life easier for autistic people in Japan?
Their argument is simply stated: Many autistic behaviors are slightly exaggerated versions of behaviors commonly observed in Japanese society. As a result, autistic persons may fare better in Japan than in Western societies because they are perceived as “only a bit different” from the cultural norm (Atherton, Morimoto, Nakashima, & Cross, 2023).
Good Cultural Fit?
Lead author Gray Atherton and her colleagues bolster their argument with three compelling observations. First, compared to non-autists, autistic individuals are less likely to speak and less likely to share personal information. This style of (non)speaking stands out as unusual in Western contexts. In Japan, however, verbal communications are often filled with silences and pauses. Silence is associated with strength—and slow, calculated responses are associated with authority.
Second, many autistic individuals feel uncomfortable with direct eye contact. This puts autistic people at a disadvantage in most Western societies, where making eye contact is associated with being open and honest. In Japan, however, people often avoid making eye contact because a direct gaze is often associated with being angry or unapproachable. Japanese children, not surprisingly, are taught to look at another person’s neck, not their face.
Third, many autistic individuals do not like to be physically touched, especially by strangers. The same can be said of many Japanese people, although to a lesser extent. In Japan, people rarely hug each other and tend to feel uncomfortable when touched by someone they do not know. Traditional greetings in Japan—bowing, for example—are performed without touching.
At this point, it looks like the answer to the question is probably yes. Life is easier for autistic people in Japan because many of the signature behavioral characteristics of autism are “in line with the Japanese way of life” (Atherton et al., 2023).
Prevalence of Autism
If the “good cultural fit” hypothesis is correct, we should expect to see a lower prevalence of autism in Japan than in other countries. But that’s not the case. The rate of autism in Japan—about one in 55 children—is nearly twice as high as the rate in many other countries including China and the United Kingdom. (The prevalence of autism in the U.S. is said to be one in 44 children, one of the highest rates in the world.)
“While there may be aspects of autistic traits that are accepted more in Japan and aspects of autistic life that are more reflected in Japanese traditions,” Atherton and her colleagues write, “there are also aspects of Japanese culture that make neurodivergence less desirable.”
Poor Cultural Fit?
Japan is often described as a high-context culture. In high-context cultures, words themselves convey only part of the message. Listeners must infer meaning from the setting and other contextual cues. Because autistic persons often struggle with mindreading—understanding others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions—they sometimes decipher the meanings of messages incorrectly when they interact with Japanese people.
Japanese society is a tight (as opposed to loose) culture that emphasizes conformity to social norms and social politeness. Autistic people may act in ways that are seen as disturbing and impolite by strict Japanese standards. As a result, according to one study, autism is stigmatized to a greater degree in Japan than in the United States (Atherton et al., 2023).
All East Asian societies have a version of the saying, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Autistic people may not stick out as much in Japan as they do in Western societies. Nevertheless, they stick out—and sticking out in Japan usually comes at a cost.
Beliefs About Mutability
Although not mentioned by Atherton and her colleagues, several studies have found that most Japanese believe individuals are more flexible and more mutable than the social order, which is relatively fixed and unchangeable. As a result, Japanese people are more willing and better able (than Americans, for example) to “adjust themselves to fit in with the demands of their social world” (Heine, 2016, p. 324).
While it is true that Japanese people and autistic people sometimes behave in phenotypically similar ways, the origins of their actions are quite different. In social settings, Japanese people act the way they do because they have been taught to act that way. Autism-related behaviors, however, are not the products of socialization. They are innate, not learned. They are, in fact, features of a congenital condition that is poorly understood.
This is an important distinction. Because Japanese people generally believe they should change themselves to fit within the social order, they do not expect social institutions (such as schools and workplaces) to accommodate their idiosyncratic needs and desires.
Autistic people struggle to adapt to new circumstances and contingencies. Change is not their strong suit. For the most part, they are who they are. Consequently, life is probably easier for autistic people who live in a society that accommodates their needs.
Atherton, G., Morimoto, Y., Nakashima, S., & Cross, L. (2023). Does the study of culture enrich our understanding of autism? A cross-cultural exploration of life on the spectrum in Japan and the West. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 54(5), 610–634. https://doi.org/10.1177/00220221231169945
Heine, S. J. (2016). Cultural Psychology, Third Edition. New York: W. W. Norton.