Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Conformity in Japan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly



Conformity in Japan: The Good
Every day, my elementary school students walk to school wearing their bright red and yellow caps and colorful tote bags. Their school uniforms are cute, and serve a dual purpose. One, they are designed to alert cars that a gaggle of school children, like little yellow ducklings, is headed their way. (You can read more on Japanese school children's uniforms after the jump.)

This is more important than it initially sounds. Japan is a highly dense population packed into small areas of land. It's half the population of the entire U.S. of A crammed into the area of the State of California. On top of this is the fact that something like 90% of Japan is mountainous, thus the population density increases as it fills each and every valley to capacity. Yeah. Packed!

Secondly, like many things in Japan, the uniforms serve a function of group orientation and conformity to school dress codes. This means all the kids look practically the same. They all have on the exact same outfit. They all have black hair. They all have black eyes. This serves to cut back on bullying, since it creates a uniformity of style and looks among the children, no matter their financial class within the society. It also is less distracting and causes less of a stir because children do not feel compelled to wear distracting styles or colors just to get attention or to stand out.

When I first came to Japan, during my first year as an ESL instructor I was horrible with names and faces. The saying that all Asians look alike (although not entirely true) rings fairly accurate when dealing with Asian children who haven't developed unique facial features or body types. Basically, they're all the same little round faces with bright eyes. Cute, but eerily similar.

Additionally, Japan is comprised of a country which is inhabited by primarily Japanese. Unlike cultural melting pots, such as Europe or the U.S., Japan is a small island with tens of millions of the same people, who all share the same culture, history, language, and all are the same ethnicity. What this means is that there is little to no variation among the Japanese with regard to the cultural traditions of Japan. What is the same for one Japanese citizen is basically the same for all Japanese citizens across the board. This makes it hard to pin-down national identities. As a consequence of this, there is hardly any variance between political and religious ideologies of one group vs. the whole entire group. It's what makes Japanese politics, in my opinion, a shell game (i.e., a farce). On top of this, foreigners residing in Japan make up less than 2% of the nations population. This is why Japan is often described as a * homogeneous society. It's all Japanese doing Japanese things all day long in Japan.

For most Japanese, this is the way they like it. It reinforces what they call "Wa" or the peacefulness of society (Japanese Wa is commonly translated as "group harmony." Although this only captures the basic qualities of Wa and doesn't do the full meaning justice).

This is why things which challenge the status quo are viewed as bad, immoral, and harmful to Japanese society--even when we can objectively state that they're not.

The unspoken rule that tattoos are "evil" is one such example. There is nothing inherently immoral about sporting a tattoo, except for the fact that the Japanese have collectively decided that tattoos are too similar to irezumi, the classic style of ink-etching popular among the Yakuza.

The funny thing is, very few Yakuza even have tattoos. I've seen more high school girls with tattoos than I have actual Yakuza with any ink. Yet you will still get booted from your local gym and be omitted from the local bath house if you ever get caught with one.

I would bet that most Japanese people who have lived abroad and have received ink work have, on average, more tattoos than the the entire crime syndicate in Japan. This popular myth of the tattoo denoting a gangster is reinforced by Japanese cinema, which always paints its gangsters in full color sleeves, with ukiyoe styled dragons tangled around geisha fighting of samurai on their backs, and have given the Japanese the impression that all gangsters sport tattoos. This media based, yet highly unrealistic, portrayal of Japan, however, feeds the stereotype that anyone with a tattoo must be seedy and suspect.

Yet in almost a decade of living here the only Yakuza I met was a Buddhist monk, and he was a rather nice guy, at least I thought so. He didn't have any tattoos.

But this is how Japan treats things that are alien to Japan--with suspicion. At first I thought this was bad--since it is completely uncritical. But reflecting on it, I can see how it helps the Japanese coalesce around an idea--namely that tattoos are bad. It's an imperfect idea, but at least they can feel comradeship by all thinking the same. There must be a certain level of comfort that comes from that feeling of like-mindedness, almost like trust, otherwise I doubt they would do it so much.

Tattoos aren't typically a part of Japanese culture, so tattooed people get treated suspiciously, even though their is no basis for any such reservations. I highly doubt any of my Japanese friends have ever had a confrontation with a tattooed fiend. But because this is Japan, everyone takes such beliefs for granted, and low and behold, everyone remains reluctant to accept tattoo art as, well just that, art.

This shows how close-knit Japanese society really is. General attitudes don't merely permeate a subgroup within the national group, but takes over the national mind-set.

Another good example of how this collective mind-set seems to work is the example of the many popular diets which pop up. Almost overnight a diet fad will become a *national craze. A few years back (c. 2008) there was a popular talk show which talked to one of the models confessed to losing all her fat due to a simple diet anyone could do. A banana diet! (It was such a craze that it even made the international news section of Time. Meanwhile, googling "Japanese banana diet" nets you over a million related links. For the history on the origins of the Japanese banana diet click here.)


Overnight, literally, people flooded the supermarkets and bought all the bananas. I recall this event so distinctly because I always buy bananas, my favorite fruit, for m breakfast. Needless to say, I went to the store, and every single banana had been sold. Every happy yellow bushel of banana goodness gone! For about two weeks I couldn't find a single banana anywhere. Believe me, I looked.

Following trends like this plays a large role in Japanese homogeneity, because it is a way for others to jump on the band wagon and show conformity. It's a way to proudly advertise that you are part of the group! In Japan, group-think is viewed as a positive factor which people should aspire to.

In my country, the U.S., this notion is actually looked down on and frowned upon. People don't want to be the same. We Americans pride ourselves in our uniqueness, independence, and this is reflected in the fact that, in the U.S., society is highly autonomous.

This breeds a competitive behavior not prevalent in Japan. In fact, Japanese are not very competitive at all. This doesn't mean they lack the drive to work hard or do well, but they are not confrontational about it. In fact, from my seven years of experience in Japan, I have found that Japanese people go out of their way to avoid confrontation wherever possible. This is evident in the fact that I cannot tell you my Japanese friends religions or political ideologies. These things just aren't spoken about--as they create too much of a division in the like-mindedness of the society.

Anything which creates a division, like religion or politics, is viewed as something to keep on the low down. They don't want to raise Cain here in Japan, after all--that would seek to interfere with their precious "Wa," so religious and political ideologies in Japan are safeguarded and kept rather secret. They are treated as a private matter. Even sex is less private than religion or politics in Japan! I can talk about sex with my Japanese guy and gal friends, and have all kinds of ribald laughs. My wife's best girlfriend and I often tease each other in a way which borders on the risque, but for the life of me, I could not tell you what her religious or political position is--and she's practically family!

Conformity, then, helps to promote unity--or at least the sense of unity. This, I find to be an excellent trait, and something I have come to admire about Japan.

All this might sound a little strange to people from more diverse cultures, where conformity is hard to come by, and diversity is prided over similarity. But this is just one of the interesting quirks which makes Japan, well, Japan.

Next time, in part two: Conformity in Japan: The Bad, I'll talk about how conformity can be a negative influence as well, and how it can sometimes hurt Japan.

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