|It is often claimed that in Far East societies, in a social context, the individual stresses the importance of harmony and adaptation to the group, while in the West more stress is put on preserving an individual approach, not drifting along easily with group desires and creating a meaningful effect over the group.
Although some Western ‘liberal' scholars would say this difference in attitudes is mainly intensified by political regimes, there's no doubt that deep and long-lasting cultural roots lay beneath the surface. Perhaps the desire for harmony noted in the Far East and the "western" desire for self expression both exist in most human being, though for some cultural reasons the former is suppressed (only to some extent) in the West, while the latter is sometimes almost unreachable in the East.
Amae is a concept discussed by many anthropologists and psychologists in Japan (both local and foreigners). It refers a childish and sometime feminine emotion of wanting to be protected, cared by and nurtured by the other, in a very asymmetric manner. The ideal amae sentiment is experienced by a baby towards his or her mother. In adult life, one might feel amae in certain circumstances while fulfill the need of amae for the other in a different situation.
When one invites home a guest, then the latter would typically feel amae towards the host, for example. In a romantic relationship the woman will mostly feel amae for the man who supports her (though the roles can change often) and in a more global perspective, the leader or president of the nation serves the amae need of the people and protects the latter's interests in all cause.
How is the Chinese term guanxi (关系) similar? Perhaps it is a softer version of amae which emphasizes the benefit of the relationship and not so much its emotional roots. Guanxi is often an asymmetric tie as well, in which the ‘inferior' uses his guanxi to ask for a ‘superior's' assistance. Guanxi is often associated with favoritism (an article discussing guanxi in more detail is found here) as in such tie one would enjoy a special service (for example be hired to a job over other less connected people, allowed to bend the rules, etc). But the basis of guanxi is actually a rather collectivist approach that still exists in many levels of the Chinese society.
Family relatives, people who share the same ancestors and have the same surname, people who studied in the same school, people who come from the same village - These are all conditions which often promote guanxi and could result in favoritism. The affinity to past roots and the importance of finding people one can rely on for special assistance or both embedded in guanxi, which like amae stresses the very basic need to be supported and guided by others.
What do western observers or scholars have to say about amae and guanxi? A non-relativist approach could lead to claiming that amae is very anti-individualist sentiment, even chauvinist, and perhaps represses free expression. Unlike China where scholars can argue that the government manipulates people's behavior, in Japan this is not the case. Amae is not about self repression but about admitting or focusing on ‘coddling' emotions which every human feels to some extent in some moments of his or her life (and which in the west are often self-repressed by a more independent-individualist firm attitude).
What about guanxi? Well, the favoritism which is indeed derived from guanxi can hardly be seen as legit by western ‘democratic' eyes. Still, if we understand the root of this concept and its importance in the Chinese society (as well as the fact that not all Chinese overdo it) we might find some humanistic values (derived from Confucianism or other doctrines) that exist in its foundation.