Articles on Japan / Global Issues / Social Issues

The Negative Effects of Conformity in Japan

I wrote a post awhile back mentioning that as an outsider who stayed in Japan for a long time and dating someone that is Japanese, I’ve seen a lot of the good sides of Japan, as well as the issues. Earlier I talked about sexual assault and the misconception that there is no crime in Japan. My intro and disclaimer are also located there, but as a reminder, I still love Japan and readily admit that America has many problems as well. But I think it’s important to talk about them separately because the details are different.

The second issue I’d like to talk about is conformity, or the unwillingness to speak up. This is sometimes shown as the ‘biggest’ difference between Japan and Western thought.  They put value on the group and we do on the individual.  Described in that way, I think they are both valuable ways of thinking.  You shouldn’t only care about yourself – you should take into consideration the thoughts and feelings around you.  I believe that too, but I feel that Japan takes this a step further.  While some of the other problems I have talked about or will talk about may be larger in scale, I believe this is important because it may be the reason why the other issues have such a hard time getting resolved.

Sometimes it’s similar to what we would often label as ‘peer pressure’ in America.  If everyone around you has one opinion, regardless of how you feel, you are supposed to agree.  This can become a large problem – I’ve even seen articles that suggest that Fukushima got that bad because even though people lower down the social ladder saw something was wrong, they wouldn’t speak up.  I’ve heard that the English on merchandise over there is so bad because the boss gives the final okay – and you can’t tell him he’s wrong.  These are extreme examples, and I don’t know about how valid they are (there’s no way I could know how much individuals working at Fukushima did or didn’t protest about keeping the security up to date/having proper and regular inspections).

However, I’ve seen it for myself in other ways.  I’ll get to this more in a later post, but my boyfriend has been told many, many, many times that I must be cheating (because I’m American) by both his friends and people he barely knows.  I’d get upset because (besides the obvious reason – and I was reaaaally disappointed to hear that one of our mutual friends had also said that to him) Yuuki wouldn’t ever respond to it.  Well sometimes he’d give them a half-hearted “no, I don’t think that’s true.”  A lot of the time he’d try to change the subject.  I asked him why, and he said that it wouldn’t change anything.  They’d still believe that I am cheating on him, and get annoyed at him for disagreeing, and it would spoil the mood of everyone sitting there.  Even though it made him angry and sad to hear his friends say that, he wouldn’t usually counter-argue.  I feel like that’s a reason why a lot of the problems in Japan don’t really get better, or if they do, it’s at a snail’s pace. To say that no Japanese person doesn’t notice or isn’t bothered by anything would be a great falsehood.  However, a lot of them don’t believe they have any say in the matter. The biggest threat is that ‘nothing will ever change, no one will listen to me’ attitude.  It also has to do with these two words:

Tatemae versus Honne (建前・本音)

Tatemae is the face, the emotions, that you build as a front when you’re around other people.  Honne is how you actually feel.  In English, once again, we have a less flattering term for it: two-faced.  When I asked Yuuki if he had any examples, he said it relates back to the social order quite a bit.  If a teacher or boss says something, it is definitely correct and you must agree no matter what your real feelings are.

It’s really hard for things to get better when everyone believes they have no impact, and that the status-quo must be kept at all costs. I don’t think complacent is the right word, because I don’t think people are happy or satisfied with this, but I think it’s accepted by a lot of people as just the way things are.

I know the senpai-kouhai (先輩・後輩 – senior/junior) relationship is often glorified and idealized, but honestly, to me it seems to cause more harm than good. I won’t argue that it makes social interactions easier and makes for cute nicknames. You know what you’re supposed to say and who to look to for decision-making. But is easier always better?

Yuuki can’t represent the feelings of all Japanese people everywhere, but I don’t think he’s alone in, ironically, feeling isolated because of this. It is very hard to become really good friends with people that are even a year older or a year younger than him. There are always exceptions, but in a lot of cases there is this superior-inferior balance that is constantly felt by both parties. In the Japanese language the verb and sentence endings are different depending on the social status of who you’re talking to. So oddly enough, conforming to the social conventions often makes you feel distanced. And there are of course plenty of people who take advantage of the system, and are unnecessarily hard on their under-classmates, who then wait for their turn to finally be in control and the cycle continues.

And this isn’t merely an issue in school, it extends into the workplace as well. That is why whether what I mentioned above about Fukushima is correct or not, it’s entirely plausible to me. It’s definitely hard in our society as well to rebel against someone in a superior position – but it’s also admired and encouraged if something is truly wrong. In Japan I think in some ways it is also admired – it shows up in media a lot – but I don’t think that it’s encouraged.

I’m not saying “respect your elders” is a bad way to think. They should be respected, and their ideas thoughtfully considered. A lot of the time they probably do know better. But I don’t think they should be blindly followed as fact, nor should positions and promotions be given according to age over qualifications.

There are definitely advantages to considering the group’s welfare over the individual. But I think in Japan the social norm goes to the extreme: making it so that most people believe their opinion isn’t valid enough to voice, unquestioning authority to the extent that nothing can change, and hierarchy that gets in the way of human connections. Hopefully it can change in the future, but I haven’t seen many signs that it will.

What do you think? Have you noticed similar issues caused by conformity? Or am I way off base?

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6 thoughts on “The Negative Effects of Conformity in Japan

    • Language definitely affects how people think, as well as reflects it. Keigo definitely shows how important the hierarchy is in Japanese society, so much so that it’s ingrained into the language.

  1. I feel like this type of thinking might be common in many countries. People simply don’t question. It never even crosses their minds that they have that option. When I was in the UK, I was told many times that the professors loved American students. We asked questions and got discussions rolling. The local students would just sit there. I noticed in my classes that I was often having a discussion with other American students and the professor. It was rare for anyone else to speak up.

    It sounds like this mentality may be even worse in Japan. From what I hear, honor and family are still very much valued. Obviously those aren’t bad things, but they can be taken to an extreme. There comes a point where you have to be able to disagree with something you know is wrong.

    • Wow, I hadn’t heard that about the UK!

      I’m fairly quiet though, so I might have disappointed the professor in that aspect too. It must have been weird though, being in a lecture in the UK and realizing you’re discussing with mostly Americans!

      Yeah, I think therein lies the problem – it’s to such an extreme extent that everyone just goes along with it, even if it hurts themselves or others. It can be very frustrating.

  2. Pingback: No Crime in Japan? | An Inkling

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