The irony of social conformity
Going through my daily news dive, I found one article from the Japan Times titled 'Everyone else is doing it': Social conformity a top motive for Japanese to wear masks.
This article does seemingly take a neutral and matter of fact stance on the issue, but I feel some critical inclination in the writing, suggesting that Japanese people are not conscious of masks being able to help protect or prevent disease, only do so because everyone else is doing it, and that kind of social conformity is wrong.
Growing up in the US, I often heard the expression, “If all your friends were going to jump off a cliff, would you do it, too?”. In the 90s, that meant smoking cigarettes. In the 2000s, that meant other drugs, alcohol, sex, and bullying. I did a pretty good job of actually not “falling” for these temptations. Ironically, this kind of “bad” social conformity is almost standard for adolescence or youth culture in the US and the media often portrays it in a nolsstalgic light.
During these days, as we were being drilled not to be the same as everyone else, national pride and American exceptionalism were being shoved down our throats. “The USA is the land of the free and home of the brave. There is no other country like us in the world. We have true freedom to do what we want! American dream!”.
There were all sorts of theories as to why the US was so special. Particularly, the idea that, in contrast to freedom loving Americans, the people of the Far East are encouraged not to be unique, creative, or express themselves in any way, really stood out. I assume this is a reflection on the rather dated expression “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” (出る釘は打たれる), the working style of corporate bubble era Japan, or even the totalitarian regime in China and other Asian countries (i.e pre 1990 South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.) Given these facts, it is understandable why the US has had this kind of assumption, but I think it has been vastly misunderstood in terms of modern Japanese society.
Luckily, I never fell victim to this propaganda. Due to my existence outside of most social circles, I felt that, if anything, American culture is all about conformity. If you don’t like sports, you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t watch the same movies, follow Game of Thrones, or understand the same pop culture references (hello 7th grade Spanish class), you will be totally left out. Some people can find their own group of misfits, but even then, it’s all about conformity. People will change their habits and interests just to fit in. It truly is “do or die”. This is obviously not unique to the United States, but it seems to contradict this prevailing belief that American society is free.
In Japan, I have never experienced anything like that. People’s lives are private and separate from their public image. You are not expected to be the same as everyone else on your own time. We all have different passions and hobbies, and people embrace that, as long as you know how to act in public and work together with others. At school or at work, we can be just another face, but in our own worlds, we are as unique as ever.
So yes, if somebody wants to disrupt the flow of learning or tasks at work, they will be signaled out. Japanese students are taught that group cooperation is the most important in order to preserve harmony within society and achieve mutual benefits. This instills within them a sense of how to work together in a group. Sure, this can discourage discussion or innovative ideas in certain settings, but there are times and places where people can feel free to express themselves. Really, it is all about balance.
Even if you have never been to Japan, you are probably aware of all the various hobbies and subcultures there are here. For most people, as long as they are socially functional and can maintain composure in certain situations, what they do in their private time does not matter at all. They do not need to completely conform; just wear a mask from time to time.
In the US, I always felt that to not do what everyone else is doing was a challenge, because usually that thing that everyone else was doing was not so great. In Japan, to do what everyone else is doing is easy and beneficial to everyone. I am relieved now, even as a foreigner, that I can live comfortably and actually fit in (to a certain degree) without my hobbies or private lifestyle being judged.
Japanese people might wear masks due to social conformity, but the truth is no where near the idea that Japanese people cannot think on their own, or have no independent spirit. They wear masks to cooperate.
Can Americans follow suit?