This post is inspired by a lesson I had last week. I was explaining the phrase “peer pressure” to my students. One of my students said that she experiences peer pressure when she goes out to a cafe with her girlfriends.
“I don’t want to eat cake, but if my friends all get some, I have to get some too.”
I was a little taken aback, I didn’t quite understand.
“Do you mean it makes you want to eat cake too? That would be my problem, but that’s not quite peer pressure.”
“No, no, if I don’t get cake they will all think, ‘why doesn’t she get cake too?’ It’s like…sisterhood.”
“…ooooh so you mean you all have to get fat together, lol”
“Haha yes, something like that…”
At first, this conversation made me depressed. I immediately thought of that Japanese proverb people like to quote: the nail that sticks up will be hammered back down. I though of the salary man who just wants to go home, but has to sit through drinks with coworkers after work for fear of not being a team player. Jesus, I thought people don’t even have the social freedom to choose what they want to eat in this country?
But, that’s not entirely true. I don’t want to position Japan as a place where there is zero individuality, and people can’t think for themselves. I had to remind myself the “just be yourself” message we get in after school specials all the time in the West just isn’t pushed here. Instead, it seems more important for people to work as a unit. So instead I focused on the word she used: Sisterhood. Camaraderie. Fellowship. These are good things, are they not? The very core of the concept of world peace. Everyone doing everything together, supporting one another – it sounds pretty good to me. Majority rules and no trouble makers allowed. Perhaps it’s this attitude that is responsible for the aura of safety here in Japan. I’m not as worried about having things stolen here, or leaving my door unlocked, or walking around late at night. There is something to learn here. I sometimes think about what the world could accomplish if we set our collective will in action. Look at the amazing contributions that have sprung from the minds of just a few people: the airplane, the internet and the mapping of our solar system to name a few. If we could all get our act together the results would be nothing short of magical.
I caught the other half of her sentence, after the ellipses. Of course, this is simply a translation of the unformed vibrations hanging in the air above her head at the time, but they felt something like, “but sometimes I just don’t want to eat any #&^% cake!”
This sadly led me to believe that this is not true “sisterhood” after all. When consensus comes at the cost of free will, I call that peer pressure, and pressure is usually not a good thing. That kind of consensus seems to me to be on the other end of the spectrum: the consensus that is the mother of apathy. After all, why try when you’ll simply be bowled over in favour of the majority? I hear this attitude in the Japanese word shogannai (roughly translated, “it can’t be helped”). I know this attitude is by no means exclusive to Japan, but back where I come from, peer pressure is…almost something to be ashamed of — it doesn’t mesh with the “be yourself” indoctrination. Here in Japan though, peer pressure, it seems to me, is just a fact of life.
Nevertheless, I think Japan is on to something. It’s like I can see the ingredients for a delicious utopia cake, where everyone’s got each other’s back, but it’s like the recipe is wrong and the cake comes out too sweet.
Maybe that’s why sometimes my student just doesn’t want any.