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Japan is seen as a country where there’s a great deal of pressure to conform to social norms. Although it’s become something of a tired trope, the idiom ‘the nail that sticks up gets hammered down’ does have a degree of truth to it here. In my eleven years in I’ve definitely been hammered down (more than once) after inadvertently ending up the wrong side of the expected norms – or wrongly thought I could get away with sticking up just a millimetre or two!
Like every society across the globe, social pressures and expectations in Japan can be positive, negative or both and I don’t mean to suggest any inherent positives or negatives. The harmonious and almost absurdly safe society that many of these norms create is one of the reasons I’ve chosen to make Japan my home. Still, it’s interesting to look at how some of these cultural expectations are either unique to Japan, or at the very least are quite different to those in our home countries.
Like any nation, the formative years of childhood are when the seeds of Japanese society’s ideals are planted. My first five years in Japan were spent working in Japanese schools teaching English, so I saw first-hand this socialising process.
One of the things that has always impressed me most about the school system in Japan is that the final fifteen minutes of each day is designated as ‘cleaning time’, when all students whip out rags, mops and brooms and have designated areas to clean at the school – even the toilets. Cleaning time at the school I worked at was always accompanied by the first four tracks of ‘The Best of the Carpenters’ blasted over the PA system. Although I never want to hear ‘Top of the World’ ever again, I really think this is a fantastic idea. Cleaning time teaches children in Japan that they are the ones responsible for their own environment and that if they create a mess, they will be the ones who have to clean it up. In fact, it was common to see students who were making a mess being reminded of this fact by their peers; the beginnings of the group mentality that Japan is so famous for.
This group mentality manifests itself not just in admonishments, but also in care and concern for members of the class ‘unit’. After a boy once asked to be excused from class because of some post-lunch gastrointestinal distress and didn’t reappear for some time. When he finally returned his classmates showed genuine concern for his wellbeing – I couldn’t have imagined a more different reaction from my own childhood at school in the UK where a 15-year-old boy announcing to the entire class that they were suffering from diarrhoea would have been a laughingstock.
There is also a great deal of pressure (at some schools it’s even compulsory) for junior high and high school students to join an extra-curricular club, most of which are sports based (although for non-athletes there are options such as the tea ceremony club). Many of the sports clubs practice almost every evening, weekends and holidays as well so there’s very little leisure time for young people in Japan, especially when you take into account the sheer volume of homework.
Although the amount of time spent participating in club activities is perhaps there are a great deal of benefits, too. Sports clubs keep children fit and healthy and encourage communication and teamwork, as well as keeping them busy enough to limit the amount of mischief they can make around town! Each club has a designated club captain and vice-captain who take control of the training sessions, often without adult supervision, for hours at a time. This system also inculcates the ‘senior/junior’ hierarchy which will become such a defining feature of their later working lives. Even students just one grade above you are considered your superiors, and if they tell you to jump, you jump!
This junior/senior divide is perhaps the most defining feature of the Japanese business world into which students will find themselves in after graduating university. Some businesses even send their new recruits on training courses to teach the correct angle at which to bow to somebody depending on their relative superiority. The benefits of the group mentality and the importance of harmony learned at school continue to be of great benefit of course, but there are drawbacks too; new recruits are generally expected to simply follow instructions rather than make creative suggestions, and it would be almost unheard of for a new recruit to actively contribute to discussions in a meeting. Instead, they are expected to silently observe and learn from their seniors, biting their tongues even if they have something constructive to add. Along with this is the pressure for junior workers to join their seniors for ‘nomikai’ drinking parties after work. Feigning a dental appointment might get you off the hook once or twice, but if you refuse too many times you risk not being seen as a team player. On the plus side, these drinking parties are often a chance for juniors to talk more candidly with their seniors once the social lubricant of alcohol is involved!
The workplace in Japan has traditionally been very male dominated, especially when it comes to senior positions. There’s still a long way to go, but this is changing slowly with a few large companies appointing female CEOs. Perhaps even more ingrained, and therefore slower to change, are the attitudes to what constitutes an expected ‘life path’. The expectation is you graduate from university, get a job, get married and have children. While this is typical life course in many countries around the world, in Japan there is a lot of pressure to conform to this trajectory where unmarried people in their late 30s might be viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. It’s especially difficult for those identifying as LGBTQ+ who will very rarely have come out to their co-workers, friends or even family, even if they are in a long-term relationship.
Some young men who have been bucking the trend have come to be called ‘herbivorous men’, which has less to do with their sexuality and more to do with the fact that they are openly happy living a single life while being free to expend their time and money on their hobbies and interests, without having to worry about the financial and time-consuming business of raising a family. This demographic isn’t exactly doing much to help solve Japan’s long standing declining population problem, but perhaps they also represent a shift in Japan’s persistent ingrained ideals, and give hope to many that there are options for their future if they find themselves unwilling, or unable, to conform to the traditional pressures and expectations of Japanese society.
The upshot of all this expectation is a beautiful harmony that I’ve yet to experience in any other country, a harmony palpable even on the briefest visit. Despite the language barrier you’ll be met with a kindness, helpfulness and be struck by the tidiness, whether it’s people cleaning up and righting seats on the bullet train or a stranger walking an hour out of their way to help you find a restaurant. The norms that drive Japan’s culture might leave you wondering if we in the West went wrong somewhere along the way.