Disclaimer: I started writing this when I was at my most frustrated with life in Japan, in the final months of our now-closed English school. Now that we are free and have some actual friends who don’t particularly care about our jobs, I feel a lot less down on livin here. That said, we are still leaving. File this one under complaints about living in Japan that I would never make if I were planning to stay here. And if you feel this way a lot, try getting a dog.
I like deviance and deviants. When you teach English in Japan, people need something “off” about them to be effective and efficient learners in communicative lessons. Normal folks on the other hand wear culturally mandated communicative hazmat suits that thwart most attempts at interaction.
There is this image of social space I’ve had in my head for a while now wherein society is a microscope slide and people are plankton. In the slide marked “Japan”, the most common way the plankton navigate their world is staying as far from all other plankton as possible, preemptively shrinking themselves down to the smallest size possible and excreting constant apologies to reduce friction and allow easy escape when contact with another plankter is inevitable. Life in Japan is full of strained silences as people deliberately avoid speaking, and when contact is unavoidable, deferential prostrations and confessions of unworthiness for inflicting the burden of social interaction on somebody.
(On the American slide, of course, plankton inflate themselves to the maximum size possible and have a mix of conciliatory and aggressive strategies for dealing with the friction that occurs when they rub up against other artificially inflated plankton. The ideal seems to be to get as yuuuge as possible without accommodating others at all, and compromise is a sign of failure to be true to oneself.)
There are some plankton on the Japanese slide who insist on staying their current size and are quite happy to bump randomly into other denizens of the slide rather than avoid and retreat as a matter of policy. These are deviants. Other plankton see these non-conformers as selfish wild cards who theaten the orderly nature of their environment, which has reached a kind of equilibrium where nobody is threatened by others because almost no contact is ever initiated. Naturally, bullies have an easy time in this kind of social environment, nudging tiny, apology-lubricated competition out of their way to claim what they want. And most of the population has trouble distinguishing genuine bullies from people who simply communicate their own desires, since the only response to either one is to get out of the way.
We can call the people (reverting to human scale now) employing these strategies contact-seekers, contact-avoiders, and bullies. To my eyes, contact seekers and bullies are about equally rare, maybe 5% each of the population, bullies in particular being a necessary but necessarily small minority akin to non-cooperating freeloaders in a public goods system. Contact-seekers are not freeloaders or uncooperative, merely people whose idea of cooperation isn’t reciprocated by most other people. For an illustration of which of these 3 strategies has overwhelmingly the most practitioners, take a rush-hour train in Tokyo and count the number of conversations you hear. If you hear someone attempting to talk to a stranger, that’s a contact-seeker. Everyone else is a contact-avoider, which is why the stranger didn’t answer. The bullies are outside the train on motorcycles or in German cars.
What struck me in my many years teaching English in Japan is how the rare people employing a contact-seeking social strategy fared much better at language learning than the standard, contact-avoiding people. When a premise of the class is that “conversation is language at work“, people disposed to see verbal interaction as a last resort lose out. Readiness to retreat and adopt a passive, disengaged stance is a great disadvantage when proactive verbal participation is meant to scaffold most of the learning that is to take place.
(For example, if memory of a word like “where” is enhanced by frequency of retrieval and emotional weight, a student who initiates interactions in class where he/she uses that word and is genuinely invested in finding out which restaurant you had paella at will commit that word to memory with greater fidelity. Students who hesitate to ask and maintain a polite distance will have fewer retrievals, less emotion attached to the word and less likelihood that it will stick around in memory for long as a result.)
There was also an inescapable feeling that contact-avoiders considered contact-seekers untrustworthy and unserious vulgarians whose greater self-esteem and social comfort was a threat to Japanese civilization. By refusing to submit to authority on principle, they had shown themselves to reject the most basic compact in Japanese public life – unconditional submission to the rules. If you need a good reason to submit, after all, you’re not really submitting at all. Like deviants in any society, contact-seekers paid a kuffir tax in opportunities and life outcomes, which the majority considered well justified. Nobody was surprised when contact-seekers’ attempts to participate in the social activities and rituals premised on normal contact-avoiding behavior led to constant feelings of frustration and negation. Failure in the status-awarding institutions of mainstream society such as schooling, work, and suburban life was seen as a fair price to pay for being brazen enough to consider yourself important. Contact-avoiders often referred to contact-seekers as “brave”, but what this really meant was “You’re willing to be a permanent outcast just so you can have a hobby. I hope it’s worth it”.
The US has deviance too, and regardless of the image of America as a land of free-wheelers, deviance (not always the same as crime) is punished most of the time. What is noteworthy though is that there is a culture-based trope of the deviant accepted by society after personal success blazing his/her own trail or brought back into the fold via love or participation in sports, the army, etc. Disregard for the rules in one’s youth can be seen as a sign of a healthy intellect, as in the cases of Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and many others; and disobedience of outdated or unreasonable norms is seen as evidence of progressiveness. Deviance can easily be forgiven if folded into a narrative arc of a generally good person led temporarily astray or a trailblazing, iconoclastic innovator. Such narratives are generally not possible in Japan – no politician with designs on party leadership would ever put in the public record that he’d smoked marijuana, tried to find himself abroad, or dropped out of college. Even the closest Japanese equivalent to School of Rock has as its message “show respect toward others and display kindness through hard work.”
A corollary of the moral value accorded to social avoidance in Japan is that young people who show an instinctive knack for shrinking down their social presences are praised from an early age as “good boys” or “good girls”. A completely smooth surface of a personality, free from bumps and dents in the form of opinions or intentions is seen as elegant and considerate, mature even. A teenager who shows no signs of initiative other than a willingness to accept what adults say is a target of praise, even though, or rather because, he/she hasn’t done anything of interest. Kids usually pick up on this by junior high school at the latest, after which you see their need to present themselves in this way fighting a civil war inside their heads with their needs to socialize, have fun, and develop their own identities.
(Kids before they adapt to this seem to live a completely discipline-free life, full of hide-and-seek in supermarkets and wandering around the interior of the family car while it’s in motion. It’s as if the adult population conspires to let kids live as free as possible while they still can, because the next time you can display willfulness will be retirement or widowhood.)
Inversely, people who seem never to have learned this “self-smoothing” social strategy are called 不良 furyou “no-good” (although the term also encompasses delinquents with conformist subcultures of their own, a la gangs in the US), or a variety of synonyms for “strange” that are implicitly negative (I once asked an exchange student back when I was in college why おかしい okashii had such a negative connotation and if there were another word for “strange” that didn’t. She seemed unable to conceive of how “strange” could ever be anything but negative). Expectations for someone’s success in society are negatively correlated with the clarity with which their personality has developed. Several ex-students of mine fit this category, and most of them hated their schooling. If they were extremely self-motivated studiers or their university offered so-called “AO Admissions“, they could make it into college, but most of them associated the entire enterprise of education with masochistic self-denial, and withdrew mentally if not physically.
I call these people too normal to be normal. Too psychologically healthy to belong in mainstream Japanese society; doomed by their insistence on self-esteem to a marginalized existence.
I anticipate that some of you may be thinking that I’m imposing American norms of psychological health on a non-American society. First of all, I don’t think the US is psychologically healthy a lot of the time – people tend to mistake conformity to social norms for happiness (as everywhere), confuse braggadocio for healthy confidence, and see compromise as loser talk. Many Americans also confuse the concept of “rules that are justifiable” with “rules that I am under no obligation to follow until I personally understand them”. Further, Japanese society doesn’t even consider itself to be mentally healthy. Many people would say this is the price of social order, but most people are also aware that Japan is shockingly unhappy for a developed country. The current norms for public behavior in Japan should also not be taken as “traditional” or permanent parts of the Japanese character, whatever that means. Contemporary culture’s obsession with getting along and elevation of rules from maintainers of morality to morality itself produce a society where ironically, only deviants can have something like a normal life.