The Japanese are a polite people. If your host on a trip is Japanese they often make you feel like you are the most important person in the world. Low self esteem? Awe of your culture?

No, they have very high self-esteem and probably feel superior, a study says. Being nice to you may be just another way to prove it.

Surveying 500 students from three countries, the study used a test (Implicit Association Test (IAT)) created by University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald and found that self-esteem was very positive among students from each of the nations. The consistency of the results across cultures was so clearly apparent that the researchers conclude that high self-esteem may be universal.

Or it may be that young people are arrogant no matter where you go.

East Asians are perceived by both others and themselves to be modest and self-effacing but the test results painted a different picture. Students from all three countries had positive self-esteem but the Japanese students had especially high self-esteem.

"Ordinary East Asians are aware that they hold strongly positive self-views. But the prevalent modesty norm prevents them from expressing it publicly,” said Susumu Yamaguchi of Tokyo University and lead author of the study. “The IAT successfully unraveled East Asians’ unexpressed self-esteem in our study.” The authors speculate that cross-cultural similarities in positive implicit self-esteem may arise from cross-cultural similarities in child-rearing.

“It may be that parents in all societies, especially mothers, adore their children and put them on a pedestal so that children worldwide absorb a highly positive self-concept,” Greenwald said. “In Japan the culture explicitly tells you that you are not better than others. But this culturally approved explicit self-concept doesn’t remove the base of adoration created by parents and other relatives since childhood. In China, where there is pressure for having smaller families, children are perhaps more precious than they were years ago.”

Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, co-developer of the test and co-author of the study said: “When we see cultural variation in human behavior, we understand that societies and cultures mold their members in different ways. When we see cultural invariance, as we do here in East-West self esteem, we understand that we are also all the same.”

Other authors of the papers are Fumio Murakami of the University of Tokyo, Kimihiro Shiomura of Shinshu University and Chihiro Kobayashi of Osaka University in Japan; Huajian Cai, a former UW post-doctoral researcher now at Sun Yat-sen University in China; Daniel Chen, a UW doctoral student; and Anne Krendl of Dartmouth University.

The Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science and the National Institute of Mental Health funded the research.

Source: University of Washington