Tolerance – a Culturally Dependent Concept?


  • Trond Jørgensen



This article presents research on Japanese interpretations of the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a point of departure for discussing how the Japanese cultural contexts present an alternative understanding of tolerance to the Western liberal.

According to Rainer Forst, tolerance is a normatively dependent concept (Forst 2010). This implies that the specific cultural values or the ‘normative context’ and environment become relevant. Since the praxis of tolerance always takes place in a specific cultural and moral environment, the cultural context influences how tolerance is carried out in practice as well as the norms defining its limits.

Japanese informants held that cultural norms and values in Japan differ somewhat from those in the West. They perceived the human rights discourse as culturally dependent and culturally marked and clearly considered the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be a product of Western thought. It states that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood’ (United Nations 1948). While the role of tolerance in Western political philosophy seems to be attached to liberal values of autonomy and freedom, the Confucian-influenced environment in Japan places more emphasis on inter-dependency, cultivation, and learning social rules and proper-place-occupation as bases for moral conduct and deserving of respect. According to the Japanese informants, people are not ‘born with rights’ or ‘born free and equal’. Maintaining harmony, consensus, and proper behaviour according to relationships and hierarchy creates a different kind of setting for tolerance. The inter-dependent perspectives of Japanese culture may restrain freedom and can thus be expected to limit toleration of divergent views or behaviour. The culture-specific perception of human nature with an ‘inter-dependent construal of self’, counts as a context for tolerance. Also, it could be argued that Japanese religion is less doctrinal and absolute, and particularistic morality prevails. In the Japanese setting, the coexistence of competing truth systems seems to be more easily tolerated. This may broaden the room for tolerance. The cultural values defining ‘the good’ vary, implying that culture counts when the limits for tolerance are drawn. What is valued is culturally dependent, thus directing what is tolerated.






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How to Cite

Jørgensen, T. (2014). Tolerance – a Culturally Dependent Concept?. FLEKS - Scandinavian Journal of Intercultural Theory and Practice, 1(2).



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