Social Responsibility in Japan

Sometimes what I like best about Japan is simply that it’s not the U.S. Not that I’m bagging on the land that invented deep-fried Snickers or anything. We all know it’s the greatest country on earth. Just ask any American.  

Question those fine, flag-waving patriots about what they value most, and it won’t be long before someone belts out “freedom.” Because that’s the American way. Shouting. Loudness and freedom are baked into U.S. culture like apples to a pie. The Japanese response is necessarily softer, possessed as we are with the Spock-like ability to read each other’s minds. Here, that same question would be answered with “social responsibility,” or perhaps “the righteous thrill of blaming others.” Nyeh, same thing.

Social Responsibility in Japan

Social responsibility is essential and inescapable in Japan. Homes are tiny and workplaces cramped, due to the fact that Japanese folks love living on top of each other. Everything you do, from talking on the phone to throwing out your trash, affects those around you. A coworker of mine once described her childhood as sleeping on the floor in a single room with ten other family members. If that sounds like poverty and a rough trip to the toilet at midnight, well there’s that. It’s common for Japanese parents and children to sleep in the same room. Often there isn’t another room.

When I worked in Tokyo, my “desk” was a placemat-sized portion of a long table crowded with a dozen people, in a blank, humorless space among identical rows of tables staffed by faceless workers all sitting elbow to elbow. At exactly 8:30 a.m., we’d start work. At noon, we’d take out our bento boxes and eat silently. Then at exactly 5:30 we’d all punch out and return to our desks to continue unpaid overtime. Google for images of “Japanese office” and you’ll get the picture.

Getting Sick in Japan

In such situations, if one person gets sick, everybody gets sick. That’s where the blame comes in. If you’re the numbnuts who brings down the entire office, family, or neighborhood, you’ll be publicly criticized and possibly ostracized. It may even damage your career or your family’s ability to live within the community. In the case of an office, it’ll almost certainly harm the firm’s reputation and impact their ability to do business. Forgiveness may be a Christian virtue, but we ain’t trying to hear your foreign voodoo. In other words, fuck up in Japan and shit’s not gonna end well.

The Nail that Sticks Out

So we don’t have this idea that “It’s my choice, because, uh, freedom.” Do something that violates the community standard, such as playing your stereo too loudly, and you’ll find a nasty kanji note taped to your door the next morning, another on your car windshield, plus open your inbox to a threatening email from your landlord, then have your boss berate you in front of the entire office because the real estate company called your employer. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Now, I’m not arguing this is an entirely good or bad thing, but suffice to say, we don’t take social responsibility lightly. American society is governed by freedom; Japanese society by fear. America’s more fun, but Japan’s safer. Hey, nobody enjoys using a condom, I get that.

Fear and, well, Fear, in Japan

So while your precious Asian Studies class may paint Japan as a land of disciplined mathletes motivated by commitment to community, respect for elders, and samurai spirit, when it comes to explaining human behavior, I’ve always found fear to suffice.

Look, religion keeps people in line by threatening folks with the eternal flames of Hell, the military with forced marches and push-ups, Catholic school with nuns and rulers, and Japan with shame and blame. And rulers. You may catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but for herding cats, to hell with your carrots because nothing beats walking softly with a big stick. Or a sneaky cucumber behind them. Either way, I defy you to mix more metaphors than that.

Why Japan Works so Well

Fear is Tokyo City Mouse to Blame’s Chiba country cousin, and it’s the reason everything in Japan proceeds like clockwork. It explains why the trains run on time, why the restaurant staff shouts a welcome when you open the door, why the grocery store clerk runs for another can of tuna when yours is dented, and why the entire office is sitting at their desks 15 minutes before work starts.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t moments of lightness and frivolity in Japan. People screw off and joke around, go to karaoke, take off all their clothes, fall into bushes. But like dogs to a whistle, there’s a constant inner ear listening for the sound of that last train so we can take off sprinting for it. There’s a last train for a reason. So go ahead, pass out drunk in your suit in front of the station. Your coworkers will hurdle over you and leave you for dead on the sidewalk. But you’d better buy a fresh white shirt and a razor at 7-Eleven and be slumped in your swivel chair by 8:15 the next morning.

Social Distancing in Japan

So after dinner, I went for a walk in the dark, cool night, just to see what the town looked like. Most of the stores and restaurants were closed, with a few lost souls wandering the empty streets as masked ghosts. The drugstore was still open, so I stopped by for a couple tall cans of lemon chu-hi and some of those spicy hot potato snacks. The girl at the register gazed in terror from behind her mask and plastic screen. Her eyes widened. A foreigner! Maybe he’s got the American Virus. I tried to smile reassuringly beneath my surgical mask, but I’m pretty sure I just looked maniacal. I really need a haircut.

Then I took my haul to the park and held a private midnight picnic on a stone bench under a yellow light. And I realized I don’t understand freedom very well. I wasn’t marching on the capitol with my bullhorn, assault rifle, or a thousand placard-carrying protesters. I was just staring at the sky, surrounded by stray cats and mosquitoes, enjoying a drink and some decent potato snacks without killing anybody. And yet, strangely enough, I felt pretty free.

46 Replies to “Social Responsibility in Japan”

  1. Thanks for another great post. Seems like you got your balance back.

    It’s likely fear is a starting point. But even when no ones looking and no chance of getting caught, they still don’t drop their trash on the ground.

    Maybe it’s internalized so much, but it’s definitely not fear driven entirely.

    Glad you’re back. Meantime I’m going to probably buy a shotgun. To protect myself from deplorables.

    1. Yeah, it’s interesting to see children ushered into a belief system from a young age. In Japan, kids are forced to conform and obey rules. If they don’t, there are consequences, both from peers and adults. And as they get older, those rules and consequences continue and magnify, so that by the time they reach adulthood, there’s a consensus as to what “correct” behavior is, along with an understanding that to disregard it would carry penalties. So fear may not be the only motivator, but blame and consequences are a foundation of the belief system.

      Of course, your comment also begs the question, Why in the world would anyone drop their trash on the ground?

      From a Japanese perspective, it doesn’t even make any sense. Why would you want to screw things up for other people? I don’t take a shit in your yard just because the bathroom’s too far away. But from the U.S. point of view—and I used to have this—there’s a feeling of Fuck it, live for today, who cares, do what you want. I can see benefits and limitations to each way of thinking, although I probably won’t be spray-painting your house with graffiti any time soon.

      1. Oh Ken. There is a lot of people in Japan dropping garbage on the streets. But there is also a lot of people picking it up. Also, if you go to some secluded places (for example beaches in Numazu, few years ago at least) there are just tons of garbage. If there is no social pressure, a lot of Japanese don’t care. Some Japanese that came to work to my country didn’t give a damn about throwing things out and as a translator I had to deal with complaints from neighbors and landlords.

        1. [Sighs and checks behind the lettuce and soy milk for forgotten beer] yeah, I know. It’s hard to wish more social pressure on this nation, but sometimes I do.

          1. In reality both statements can (and are) true:
            1. Japan is a very clean country and Japanese value cleanliness very much – often bordering on obsession.
            2. Japanese throw stuff away like no tomorrow in nature where no one is looking.

            I see this as an interesting sociological phenomenon.

      2. I remember in NY after 9/11, they got rid of all the trash cans in the subways as a precaution…those quickly went back out when they realized that New Yorkers give no F’s about just dropping their sh!t on the ground…

      3. “In Japan, kids are forced to conform and obey rules. If they don’t, there are consequences, both from peers and adults. And as they get older, those rules and consequences continue and magnify, so that by the time they reach adulthood, there’s a consensus as to what “correct” behavior is, along with an understanding that to disregard it would carry penalties. So fear may not be the only motivator, but blame and consequences are a foundation of the belief system.”

        This is true everywhere. In Japan, more so, yes.

        1. And until a few years ago, I would’ve agreed with you.

          Modern America has run off the rails. It’s been a long slide since the days that men wore hats, women wore dresses, and there were actually men and women. Years ago, teachers, coaches, and adults were expected to provide guidance, at least some indication of what was right and wrong. And being a Judeo-Christian society, there were some basic guidelines that made sense (don’t kill people, don’t take stuff that’s not yours).

          Now, I need to tread carefully here, because I’m no fan of moralizing or excessive rules. And when did I become the adult in the room? But for fuck’s sake, we still live in a society, and can’t just fart on the bus because it’s our “right.” Yet in recent years, the U.S. has reached a point where even common sense has gone out the window. Nothing’s wrong or right, and nobody’s allowed to point out the obvious.

          That being said, as I hope I made clear in my article, the “American way” comes with drawbacks, sure, but it also provides some strengths. It’s good when people are willing to entertain ideas outside of their set boundaries. Not all rules should be adopted. But neither should all rules be tossed in the can. Continuing to have a calm dialog is what’s important. Sadly though, the trend in the U.S. appears to be in the opposite direction.

          1. “Calm dialog”…nope, I don’t see that in Merriam Webster…time to go flame someone in a random thread…something, something, masks, something, something Bill Gates…

          2. “ and there were actually men and women. ”

            Had a chuckle at this as well as the common sense and rules. I mean, it’s WTF, over there. I went to uni at a one time liberal school in Santa Cruz. But even then we knew you waited until 4:20 to blaze up somewhere you won’t offend people.

            1. Man, Santa Cruz, what a great city. I hope America can still be as considerate as it was when you were there. Lately, I hardly recognize the place.

              1. Hope you were able to visit it. Yeah, it was a cool place, very open and tolerant but there were still boundaries. For example, you want to show up naked to class, no problem, just be on time and when class is over put your clothes on an carry on.

                Santa Cruz has moved on however. Wish I new where it moved on to…..

                Keep up the great entries Ken! Your humor is much appreciated in trying times.

                1. Oh yeah, I’ve visited Santa Cruz many times. If you can find out where it’s gone, lemme know and I’m there.

    2. “….they still don’t drop their trash on the ground.”
      No, but some of them throw it in the rivers. I’m always surprised by the amount of plastic I see floating in Japanese rivers and streams. So depressing!

      1. You know, I was trying not to digress into that, but yeah, there’s a segment of people who don’t follow the rules. If we’re not careful, this country will devolve into America.

  2. Good to see you get some pleasure in your existence there Ken. I’m in no position to suggest your path in life but I would help you get back in engineering if you like. It could be of little use since my job and experience are only on utility 3 phase power systems.
    FWIW I would prefer your mix of fear and whimsy to the US home brew of lunacy and violence.
    (My connection timed out on the last attempt, sorry if this is a copy)
    Peace

    1. Thanks, it’s good to keep doors open. A lot of changes are taking place in the world now, and I guess we’ll see how things shake out. I honestly have no idea where I’ll be a year from now. Actually, it’s always a surprise to see where I wake up every morning, so perhaps that’s nothing new.

  3. Hearing you refer to yourself as part of the royal Japanese we again makes me think you’ve got your feet more firmly planted there than than you did during your last post. Cheers – glad to hear things are calming down in what looks to me like the Eastern land of the free.

    Wishing you a comfy summer from Las Vegas!

    1. Yeah, I’m not real comfortable with the whole “we” versus “they” thing, but pronouns are like, Hey pick a side. So I guess if I had to call it, guess I’d stand with the country I’ve lived in for over a decade. At this point, it just feels weird talking about “the Japanese” like “they” are some foreign people. Probably I’m just losing my mind though, so don’t pay too much attention.

  4. This was such a relief to read and reminded me of Japan’s double edged principle of social accountability. I live in the South (Georgia, USA) and man…I honestly feel like I’m in some sort of Twilight Zone where “freedom” for many somehow equates to the “right” to spread a deadly disease.

    No one will wear a mask because “freedom.” Makes me want to walk into a church with my dick out because “freedom”…

    1. I feel you brother. I’m in Portland OR but still see some people with the exact same mindset. They mock me for the caution I take and brush off the need for it as not their responsibility. From my point of view not killing innocent people is exactly my responsibility. My wife is Japanese and she can’t even process this shit. Neither can I really and I’m the last person to claim any kind of general moral high ground.
      Stay safe and sane out there friend.

      1. Yeah, we have people in Germany like that too.
        Demonstrating on the streets for their right to infect and kill others. Yay insanity.

        I always feel people ignore the fact that Corona is no fun way to die (you suffocate slowly and painfully) and even if you live it’s no fun experience either. If they would remember better and not willfully blank out this fact I feel people in general would be much more cautious.

        “My wife is Japanese and she can’t even process this shit.”
        Also, I love this sentence. My wife is a little more accepting by the way.

  5. I don’t know where you worked, but in my Tokyo office…you got passively aggressively derided for calling in sick. You were supposed to go to work even if they had to wheel you in on a gurney…when I asked them about making other people sick, it was implied it was their fault for being weak…

    1. Ah, that’s a good point. You’re right, there’s definitely a mixed message, a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t. Perhaps the best one can hope for is to be passive-aggressively derided.

  6. Now imagine doing all that with a AR-15 strapped to your back. I mean you are white, I would have been shot no questions asked. USA is great

  7. Another great post, Ken, thanks a bunch!

    With regards to fear, not being an American and thus looking from the outside and with an opinion to be taken with a healthy junk of salt, I would argue that the US is very fear driven as well, but that fear seems to manifest in offensive aggression (I marvel at all that shouting, gun toting and utter hysteria in the media), whereas the Japanese seem to lean towards the passive side. Not sure which one is better, fear is still fear, after all.. and no-one living in any kind fear can be truly free, right? At least that’s what I fear.

    1. Well said. Fear’s definitely a universal. And I agree that Japanese folks tend to direct it inward, whereas Americans project it outward. I haven’t really thought it through, but at first glance, that seems right.

  8. Great post, Ken!

    But when it comes to taking a shower before hopping on the 満員電車 social responsibility is suddenly forgotten.
    How often did I have to stand next to a salaryman who smells worse then I do after an hour at the gym…

    1. True that. Along the lines of what was discussed in the last post, I think this is where I need to start using “some.”

      While I still believe my sweeping generalities were correct, clearly “some” Japanese people don’t play by the rules, while “some” (actually many) Americans are trying to.

      As a cultural feature, however, I continue to think Japan tends to set and follow rules as a matter of course, while America’s more likely to break them, just to see what happens.

  9. Hi ken,

    I was excited to see your new post when i visited the site. However, I can’t help but notice a little ‘cynicism’ on this post compared to your previous posts (I’ve actually read your posts from the very first one haha). I lived in japan for a few years myself before deciding to build my career back in my home country. I visit Japan every now and then to catch up with my friends and coworkers in Japan, and hopefully go back there in the future, so I feel like your posts struck a cord with me. Reading all of your posts, I’ve felt like I know you as a person while at the same time not having ever talked to you in person even once. I wonder if you’d be interested in having a chat on line or something like that?

    1. First of all, thanks for reading all my crazy stuff. I’m glad it strikes a chord.

      You’re right, of course, there’s a bit of cynicism in this post. (Not that that’s unusual on JR7.) I’m going to ascribe it to the fact there’s a global pandemic rather than champagne pouring from faucets around the world. Hopefully that’ll change soon, because I’m sure thirsty.

      Also, I really appreciate the offer to chat. Really though, I’m already behind in keeping up with family and old friends back home. I owe it to them to spend more time contacting them (not to mention writing). Perhaps in the future when my schedule settles down. Cheers.

  10. The word 自粛 has been in the news a lot lately. Everyone is supposed to exercise self-restraint for the good of all. Interesting to see the secondary meaning, which chimes with what you’re saying, of “Japanese custom of apology followed by reclusion when caught doing something.” If the thought of breaking the rules doesn’t put the Fear into you, then fear of being on the next-level naughty step surely will.

  11. Thanks Ken for another great post.

    I think that Covid-19 has triggered much reflection about our national values. NZ is by no means perfect. But the vast majority of people have trusted our public health officials and followed our Prime Minister’s instructions to “Unite against Covid-19” and “be kind”. We were willing to give up our freedom for the greater good, knowing that everyone else was playing their part.

    I was just reading about an American political scientist who lived here in the 1950s. He wrote that if NZ were to have a sculpture in our harbour it would be a Statue of Equality. So if America is governed by freedom, and Japan by fear, perhaps it is NZ’s strong sense of fairness that has been our main driver through this.

    1. You know, honestly, everyone I’ve ever met from New Zealand has been a wonderful person. I really don’t think it’s just a coincidence.

  12. I always enjoy reading your posts, and even though I, an American, reel in shock at times at the sounds of my fellow citizens, it occurs to me, reading this piece, that you have much less reason to march, or be concerned with freedom than we do. The nutjobs aside, we’re generally discussing/protesting/etc for a reason. Also, you know that, in japan, you’d be alone if you ever tried to stand up for yourself, for the very reasons you discuss here. Cheers.

    1. Glad to hear you enjoy reading my crazy stuff. Yeah, America…what a country. Doesn’t seem like anybody’s happy with the way things are going there.

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