Is Japan a Small Step Away from Becoming a Utopia?

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.

And yet…

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!”

NOT sisterhood: For one, where are the travelling pants?

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.


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12 Responses to Is Japan a Small Step Away from Becoming a Utopia?

  1. Sibylle says:

    I could be wrong, but looking at the local media, I believe for younger Japanese the pressure to belong, not to stand out, but go with the flow has increased in recent years. It seems insecurity issues are quite common for High School students. I believe the fear of standing out has become even worse now.
    Along the same lines, yes, this changes in the Japanese society leads to more of the already observed apathy.

    • Amanda says:

      That’s a shame. I was hoping it had gotten better. Although I think for teenagers everywhere there is a fear of standing out. I know it was certainly that way when I was in high school, that was in Canada. But I feel like in Canada, peer pressure was considered a childhood problem, like when you grow up you’re supposed to “know better” for lack of a better phrase. Peer pressure is not socially accepted for adults in Canada.

  2. Shana says:

    Great post!

    Even (or especially) as a foreigner we feel the pressure to conform and fit into this polite society. It’s tough enough being a teenager without the added stress of having to be like everyone else. That’s why I’m always pleased when I meet students that ARE different. It’s beautiful to see those lights shine through the conformity.

    • Amanda says:

      I fight it. As a foreigner I can get away with not conforming somewhat because “I don’t know any better” lol. When I was a teenager and I idolized Japan, because it was so colourful and kawaii, I used to wish I had been born Japanese. But Japanese pre-teens and teens got it rough, what with their entrance exams and all that. And I would not like to be part of usual Japanese office culture. It seems very stressful.

  3. Shana says:

    It seems incredibly stressful!

  4. Kuma-San says:

    I love your cake analogy. I totally agree with your post, but I’ll take it even further, I think Japan is almost ‘all’ about peer pressure. During my years in Japan (I finally left in December), I really immersed myself in the study of the language and in the culture. Loved it, but I got to a point where I realized that in order to truly take my cultural immersion full scale, I would have to be ok with the numerous forms of peer pressure that are embedded in modern Japanese culture. I wasn’t ok with that, I hate, hate, hate peer pressure (smells like high school). With that began my gradual retreat from trying too hard to immerse myself and fit in. My gaijin friends who have submitted to it seem happy with their choice, but I’d have to turn my brain off to do it, and I’m not turning my brain off.

    Finally, and I hope this doesn’t start trouble, but I think the prime example of the problem of gaijins “going native” is what happened during the Fukushima crisis. You suddenly had gaijins trying to ridicule, shame and insult other foreigners leaving tokyo due to radiation concerns and using the derogatory term flyjin. Meanwhile, tons of Japanese people left the city and the country as well, but these very public and vocal gaijin critics who stayed ignored the Japanese who left and focused on the foreigners. It seemed like they felt they had paid the price of fitting into Japan, and part of that was being willing to “go down with the ship” no matter what disaster came. Some might consider this somehow noble, or loyal, but to me it was just another example of the comformity that is encouraged in Japan. But in this case, it was a foreigner-on-foreigner peer pressure to stay in Tokyo, and I know of many people who lost friends and even spouses due to the argument.

    The entire ridiculous flyjin episode last year proved to me once and for all that blind conformity born of peer pressure is incredibly dangerous. The whole thing sickened me.

    All that to say, I think Japan may be one step away from utopia for foreigners who make their own world and don’t conform. But for Japanese, and those gaijin working hard to blend in with Japanese, I think Japan rests on a fragile footing as exampled by the ongoing poor handling of Fukushima and possible future earthquakes and nuke disasters. Peer pressure is how Olympus can steal billions and still not reward Andy hire back the guy (Woodford) who exposed it all. It’s the reason Japanese prime ministers have an average shelf life of 1 year. And it’s why you’ll almost never hear a Japanese person complain about the yakuza. Peer pressure.

    • Amanda says:

      Yeah I got my share of flack for leaving Japan at that time, but who knows perhaps if I had been in Japan longer than two months I would have given in to peer pressure and stayed. It’s true it was like people couldn’t see the forest for the trees. I had to wait about an hour in line to buy a shinkansen ticket to Osaka, and it wasn’t just foreigners in line. I agree it’s not particularly noble or loyal to put your life at risk because everyone else is doing it. I’ve been reading articles recently where officials, like ex PM Kan, are finally admitting the Fukushima was out of control, and we are just lucky we didn’t reach the worst-case scenario.

  5. Kuma-San says:

    Andy = and

  6. Indi says:

    It frustrates me sometimes that students won’t answer in class and participate because of the peer pressure to not “stick out” and know the answer. A number of the classes I teach have students who look to each other too much for the answers when they know it themselves, or even the answers to personal questions about things they like/like to do (as if your peers are supposed to know the right thing for YOU to like…..).

    However, the peer pressure about cake (specifically) is, in my opinion, an internationally recognized peer pressure tactic for most girls. I have a number of friends who would do stupid stuff like that: “well, i can’t get cake if EVERYONE isn’t getting cake!” and then they would make everyone else get it or something lame like that…. most girls everywhere in the world are too self conscious to put on unnecessary calories by themselves. lol :P

    • Amanda says:

      Hmm, it struck me as odd, because she *didn’t* want cake, but had to get a piece because everyone else did — without being prompted I mean, or at least that’s how I interpreted it.

      I know what you mean about students all giving the same answer. I play games where the first student to answer gets a point, so students are forced to speak first without looking to their peers.

  7. Dan Moeller says:

    Whoops, I meant to comment here. Thank you for the great read. I remember thinking over these same issues while I lived in Japan. I’m glad you took the time to flesh out both sides of this argument which is not something most people can or want to do. It makes me miss the interesting coversations I’ve had with my students!

    • Amanda says:

      Yeah I like when I have high level students and we can talk about more than “what do you do in your free time” lol.

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