At one time, I used to teach an English class to some public servants. And it being a government sanctioned event, everything had to start incredibly early, 8am to be exact. This was not a normal time for me to be up and around, needless to say the life of an English teacher usually doesn’t start that early.
But, the one thing that struck me as odd was there were hardly any women on public transit, at all. Instead, just rows and rows of businessmen in black suits perfectly lined up, awaiting the arrival of the massive Midosuji subway train to whisk them away to wherever they worked. Like clockwork, the train came to a stop, the lines split apart to allow passengers off and then everyone filed in. Eventually the last few poor souls had to smash themselves into the human blob contained inside the subway car.
This is probably the stereotype you might think of when it comes to Tokyo rush hour – millions of like-dressed drones marching to their stations. And although things are moving away from that, at a snail’s pace, it still persists – the uniformity of Japan and Japanese life.
You might have heard the famous saying “The nail that sticks out, gets nailed down.” And you can see plenty of examples of that at work in Japan. Most people wear black or if they are really edgy, grayscale, most cars you see are also some variation of this, white or a darkish gray. Doing what everyone else does and staying in line is important in Japan. You have to be a part of the group.
And being born and raised in America, where individualism is celebrated, at first it seemed a little annoying to have all this conformity, but over time I just got used to it. Also, for the most part, foreigners are exempt from conforming because we are just different, and that is okay I guess.
Big City, Big Crowds
I think some of this group think comes from the fact that you have to deal with massive crowds of people in the city. So many people actually that your brain kind of switches off to the fact that they are actually people. You almost have to or you would easily get overloaded by everybody you see just walking around the mall. I’ve had to learn to do this myself. When I go to a crowded place, I no longer look at faces or think on my own, I just follow the person in front of me. Often times this leads me the wrong way or I end up taking longer than it needed to be because I took a path everyone else is taking.
At the office, some people work 60, 70, even 80 or more hours at their jobs and so are surrounded by their workmates. And then, after work, they might go out for drinks with their co-workers. And this would seem fun, but I often hear complaints from my students telling me they have to go drinking again. They can’t just go home and relax.
This is probably the key reason why people are not getting together, getting married and having kids. They simply don’t have enough free time to do it, in the city anyway. A lot of people end up marrying someone from work (myself included) because you don’t have the free time to just meet people naturally.
And all this is being driven by the perpetually so-so economy. People tend to tow the line and keep working for the same company because they are scared to lose their jobs, and changing jobs is difficult in traditional careers. If you are some kind of skilled professional (like a nurse, IT tech, etc…) it is a lot easier, but then again they tend to work some long hours as well.
Standing on the right side of the escalator
But, Japan isn’t just one big glob of people doing the same stuff. There are actually regional groups that have their own thing going on as well. Osaka and Tokyo often come up as good examples of regional differences since they tend to do things a little different. In some ways, they are exact opposites.
In Osaka, people stand on the right side of the escalator and walk up (or down) the left side. In Kanto (the nebulous cloud of people that hovers around Tokyo), it is the opposite – stand on the left, walking on the right. No one came to this decision mind you, but the division still exists. And actually, in Kyoto, which is pretty close to Osaka, they follow the Kanto way. So, just Osaka seems to stick to this unwritten rule.
There are language differences as well. For example, baka in Kanto and aho in Osaka mean “silly” in a playful way. But if you switch them around, saying aho in Kanto and baka in Osaka, you are saying “You f**king idiot!” Obviously a difference you need to keep in mind. There are a lot of other differences to other everyday words too like chou for “super” or “uber” in Kanto, but meccha in Osaka has the same meaning. Not to mention kansai-ben, which almost sounds like another language.
Even the power grid is different between the different halves of Japan. The east half uses 50hz, while the west uses 60hz. This is a bit of a problem for disaster relief. In the aftermath of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, there was a power shortage due to nuclear power plants being brought offline in that region. The ability of Western Japan to assist with this shortage was greatly reduced by the fact that in order for the East to use the power, it had to first be converted to 50hz.
TV shows play up this difference. A particular show that I like to watch, モニタリング (kind of like Japanese candid camera), likes to invent situations for unwitting participants and see their reactions. A running theme is to see the difference in reactions between Osaka people and Tokyo people.
The American Perspective
I think a lot of people when they first come to Japan find this grouping restrictive and annoying. And there are definitely some aspects that still bug me.
For example, I have a Japanese friend that worked for his family’s company his whole life, but now the company went bust (not his fault) and he is out looking for a job. He is over 40, which is the invisible age barrier here in Japan. After 40, you apparently can’t learn anything new. So, he is falling through the cracks at the moment. He is having a really hard time finding a job that he can do that will help him feed his wife and two kids.
The system works perfectly if you adhere to the system of the husband working all the time (sometimes literally) and making a lot of money and the wife staying home and raising kids, but if you don’t stay in that track you don’t really have a lot of help.
But, conformity is not necessarily all bad. It does keep people fairly disciplined and upright and proper so to speak. The fact that their is practically zero crime in Japan is a great selling point for conformity. I mean the biggest national news story the other day was the fact that someone used $600 or so worth of counterfeit money at some convenience stores. I wouldn’t really call that a dangerous place.
Of course the low crime rate might also be contributed to the fact that Japan has one of the lowest rates of income disparity in the developed world, in sharp contrast to America that has one of the highest, and one of the highest violent crime rates to go with it. But, maybe that is just some weird coincidence.
I do have to work pretty hard to keep up with the Tanakas, but it is a small price to pay to know that my wife and daughter are pretty safe. It might seem a little boring to be apart of the same group all the time, but there is plenty of room to wiggle around in. Life is what you make of it after all.
Do you like group life?
If you are living in Japan does the conformity to the group bother you? Do you need your freedom?